It was three weeks ago when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Donald Trump was considering a bold move. As the president’s chief spokesperson acknowledged at the time, Trump was considering revoking the security clearances of former intelligence officials who’ve criticized him, raising the specter, as NBC News put it, of a president “using his office to lash out at his political enemies.”
Soon after, the next day, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) shrugged off the White House rhetoric. Referring to the president, Ryan told reporters, “I think he’s trolling people, honestly.”
Actually, no, he wasn’t.
President Donald Trump has decided to revoke former CIA Director John Brennan’s clearance for access to classified information, he said in a statement read by press secretary Sarah Sanders Tuesday.
The courtesy of allowing a former administration official to retain security clearance has been “outweighed by the risk posed by his erratic conduct and behavior,” Trump said in the statement. “Mr. Brennan has a history that calls into question his objectivity and credibility…”
“Mr. Brennan has recently leveraged his status … to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations, wild outbursts on the internet and on television, about this administration,” he added.
We may never know for sure exactly what prompted this move, though it’s worth noting for context that Brennan was a guest of MSNBC’s “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” just last night. The former CIA chief said, among other things, that Trump’s presidency is “dangerous to our nation.”
Sanders went on to note that the White House is also “evaluating” the clearances of several other former officials: James Clapper, James Comey, Michael Hayden, Sally Yates, Susan Rice, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Bruce Ohr.
The press secretary didn’t say what, exactly, the evaluation would include. Under the circumstances, this seems to be a case in which these officials can avoid White House punishment if they refrain from hurting Trump’s feelings.
It’s worth revisiting what some relevant officials had to say when the president first floated the idea a few weeks ago.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told MSNBC’s Garrett Haake on Tuesday that he couldn’t believe that the White House “thought seriously” about pulling the security clearances of former Obama-era staff because they criticized the president recently. Corker, who recently traveled to Venezuela, said that this behavior is what can be seen there and in other non-democratic countries. “It’s a banana republic kind of thing,” Corker said.
Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a frequent Trump critic, sounded a similar note. “I’d like to see the reason. Did someone breach protocol in terms of classified material, or break a law, then it would certainly be appropriate. If it’s not, it would just look to be just kind of political retribution.” […]
Classification expert Steven Aftergood of the Project on Government Security told NBC News’ Ken Dilanian that he was not aware of any previous case in which a president moved to revoke the clearances of officials from a previous administration, “especially those who had expressed criticism of his actions.”
As for the practical implications, there’s value in having former directors of intelligence agencies maintain their security clearances. Current officials, for example, may want to consult with Brennan on matters that he worked on, which would mean he’d need to access classified materials.
Traditionally, the more former officials are able to serve as a resource for current officials, the better.
Trump, however, who’s been deeply critical of U.S. intelligence professionals throughout his brief political career, apparently has a different model in mind.
Update: NBC News confirmed this afternoon that the White House didn’t inform Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats or other leading intelligence officials prior to Trump’s decision or today’s announcement.