President Donald Trump drew a connection in a new interview between his decision to revoke former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance with his involvement in the investigation into Russian election interference.
The comments, published in an interview in The Wall Street Journal Wednesday night, are in contrast to the White House’s claim earlier in the day that the decision was not politically motivated but based on a view that Brennan, a harsh Trump critic, posed a security risk. Trump’s remarks also raise the question of whether he is retaliating against those who investigated whether his campaign colluded with Moscow during the 2016 election, something he has repeatedly denied.
“I call it the rigged witch hunt, (it) is a sham. And these people led it!” Trump said in the interview, a full transcript of which was not immediately published by the newspaper. “So I think it’s something that had to be done.”
Trump cited Brennan as one of several national security officials he holds responsible for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference. Brennan, who served under President Barack Obama, was one of the intelligence chiefs who signed off on the intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment that Russia interfered with the intent to help Trump and to hurt Hillary Clinton.
Trump has cast doubt on the US intelligence community’s assessment and whether Russia was behind the election meddling.
Trump’s decision to revoke a former top intelligence chief’s clearance marked an unprecedented use of a president’s authority over the classification system to strike back at one of his prominent critics.
Brennan is the first former national security official to see his security clearance revoked since the White House announced last month that Trump was considering taking that action against Brennan and other vocal critics.
Others on the list include former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA director and National Security Agency chief Michael Hayden, and former FBI Director James Comey.
“I don’t trust many of those people on that list,” Trump said Wednesday. “I think that they’re very duplicitous. I think they’re not good people.”
A White House official confirmed to CNN that the administration is looking at stripping additional security clearances. The official said the names White House press secretary Sarah Sanders gave from the podium on Tuesday – former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former FBI Director James Comey, former CIA director and National Security Agency chief Michael Hayden, former deputy attorney general Sally Yates, former national security adviser Susan Rice, former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, former FBI officials Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, and Bruce Ohr, a current Justice Department official – are an indication of the former officials who are at risk of losing their clearances in the coming days.
The Washington Post reported Thursday night that Trump made his decision on Brennan weeks ago and the reason for the Wednesday announcement was to distract from the release of former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman’s new book. The book and Manigault Newman’s subsequent promotional tour have caused headaches for the White House.
Trump thinks the decision to strip Brennan of his security clearance makes him look strong, according to the Post. Trump loathes the former CIA director and is frequently bothered by seeing him on TV, the Post reported.
Trump thinks the action he took against Brennan could be a possible model as he considers moving against other former intelligence officials who have criticized him, the Post reported.
The White House did not provide evidence that Brennan revealed national secrets or disclosed classified information, and did not immediately explain why Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, was not among those whose access was being reviewed.
In an interview on CNN’s “New Day” Thursday, Clapper called Trump’s drawn connection from the Russia investigation to revoking Brennan’s clearance a “candid admission” and “very disturbing.”
“I find it very disturbing that here we were in compliance with a request of the then-President of the United States to put into one document our insight and knowledge of the profound threat that Russia posed to this country,” Clapper said. “And now, apparently, we’re being punished for this. John (Brennan) already has been.”
CNN national security analyst Lisa Monaco, a former Obama Homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, echoed Clapper’s remarks, saying on “New Day” that Trump’s interview revealed “a stunningly candid and disturbing admission on the President’s part.”
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Jeremy Diamond and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.