WASHINGTON — President Trump revoked the security clearance of John O. Brennan, the former CIA director under President Obama, on Wednesday in a striking act of retaliation against an outspoken critic. The president threatened to do the same to other former national security officials who have antagonized him.
Citing what he called Brennan’s “erratic” behavior and “increasingly frenzied commentary,” Trump dispatched Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his press secretary, to read a statement saying that Brennan had abused his access to the United States’ secrets “to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations,” as well as “wild outbursts on the Internet and television about this administration.”
The statement came a few weeks after Sanders warned that Trump was considering revoking the clearances of Brennan and others who he believed had politicized and inappropriately profited from their access to delicate information. It was the latest assault by a president who has routinely questioned the loyalties of national security officials and dismissed some of their findings — particularly the conclusion that Moscow intervened in the 2016 election — as attacks against him.
Step by step, from the moment 10 days into his administration that he fired the acting attorney general, Sally Q. Yates, Trump has overseen the removal of top national security officials who have defied him or worked at senior levels of the Russia investigation. They include James B. Comey, the former FBI director; Andrew G. McCabe, the former FBI deputy director; and Peter Strzok, the former FBI counterintelligence agent who helped oversee the Hillary Clinton e-mail inquiry and the Russia investigation and disparaged Trump in a series of inflammatory texts.
In an interview Wednesday with The Wall Street Journal, Trump argued that his list of potential targets for having security clearances revoked was not confined to his political foes, saying that he “would put a Republican on, too, if I thought they were incompetent or crazy.”
The revocation of Brennan’s security clearance also appeared to be a way to change the subject from damaging accusations in a tell-all book by Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former reality TV show star who worked in the White House and now claims that Trump used a slur to disparage African-Americans and is in a state of mental decline.
The revocation drew a swift response from Brennan. “This action is part of a broader effort by Mr. Trump to suppress freedom of speech & punish critics,” Brennan wrote on Twitter, adding that he would not relent. “It should gravely worry all Americans, including intelligence professionals, about the cost of speaking out.”
The White House statement on Brennan was dated July 26, three days after Sanders announced that Trump was considering revoking his critics’ clearances. The date suggested that the decision had been made weeks ago, although the White House would not explain the delay in revealing it.
Trump’s decision to follow through in punishing Brennan came only a day after his campaign brought an arbitration case against Manigault Newman to enforce a nondisclosure agreement she signed in 2016.
Brennan has become increasingly vocal in his criticism of the president and often tweets or appears on television as contributor on NBC to question Trump’s fitness for office. Last month, Brennan said the president should be impeached for “treasonous” behavior after Trump stood next to President Vladimir Putin of Russia at a news conference in Finland and cast doubt on the conclusion of the intelligence agencies that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
On Tuesday, the story of Trump’s reality star aide turned accuser intersected with that of his frequent public antagonist when Brennan chastised the president in a tweet for calling Manigault Newman “that dog.”
Brennan wrote: “It’s astounding how often you fail to live up to minimum standards of decency, civility, & probity. Seems like you will never understand what it means to be president, nor what it takes to be a good, decent, & honest person. So disheartening, so dangerous for our Nation.”
Sanders said the president was also considering yanking the security clearances of other former officials and one current Justice Department official, all of whom have angered the president. The group includes Michael V. Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency who was made CIA director under George W. Bush; Susan Rice, a national security adviser under Obama; James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence under Obama; and Yates.
Others who no longer have a clearance might lose the ability to have it reinstated, the president warned. Comey and McCabe, neither of whom currently have a security clearance, are part of the list.
The only current official on Trump’s list is Bruce Ohr, an attorney in the Justice Department’s criminal division. The president has criticized Ohr on Twitter because of Ohr’s friendship with Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who compiled a salacious dossier containing potentially damaging information about the president.
Ohr’s wife, Nellie — Trump singled her out as “beautiful” in a tweet over the weekend — worked until September 2016 as a contractor for Fusion GPS, the research firm that commissioned the dossier.
Intelligence agencies were taken by surprise by the White House announcement.
Trump’s action appeared to be the first time that a president has ever issued or revoked a clearance outside the established process, according to Bradley P. Moss, a lawyer who has written on the issue.
Clearances are typically revoked for cause, because of a security concern such as health concerns or the mishandling of classified material.
“This is supposed to be an impartial and objective assessment of security concerns,” Moss said. “This is the president taking a step that he most likely had the legal authority to take, but that no other president has ever thought it proper or justified to do on his own.”