President Donald Trump has told advisers he is eager to strip more security clearances as part of an escalating attack against people who have criticized him or played a role in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, two White House officials said.
Over the past 19 months, Trump has fired or threatened to take action against nearly a dozen current and former officials associated with the inquiry, which he has labeled a “rigged witch hunt,” including former FBI director James Comey and other top FBI officials Sally Yates and Andrew McCabe. All three were dismissed.
Trump intensified his attacks this week by stripping former CIA director John Brennan of his security clearance and announcing that others are under review. Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper Jr., who is on Trump’s review list, were among the Obama administration officials who briefed Trump before his inauguration on evidence of Russia’s interference in the campaign.
The president has repeatedly urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other officials to end the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is examining potential collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign and whether the president has sought to obstruct justice.
To critics, Trump’s moves echo President Richard Nixon’s decision to force the abrupt firing of Watergate special counsel Archibald Cox.
“If you did all this in one day, it would have a ‘Saturday night massacre’ odor to it,” said Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution fellow who oversees the Lawfare Blog on national security issues, referring to the 1973 move by Nixon that prompted resignations by the Justice Department’s top two officials. “But you spread it out and get people used to the first one, then you do the second one — over a long period of time, it becomes the new normal.”
Many of Brennan’s former colleagues have rallied to his defense.
“I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency,” retired Navy Adm. William McRaven, who oversaw the 2011 Special Forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken.”
Late Thursday night, a group of 11 former CIA directors and a former Director of National Intelligence issued a joint statement calling Trump’s move against Brennan “an attempt to stifle free speech.”
Inside the West Wing, Trump is eager to move against others on the security clearance review list and could act soon. Trump believes he has emerged looking strong and decisive in his escalating feud with Brennan, aides said.