The Russia Investigations: Trump On Collision Course With National Security World President Trump tries to put ex-CIA Director John Brennan in his place by revoking his security clearance. But the further Trump tries to push the revocation gambit, the riskier it gets.
NPR logo The Russia Investigations: Trump On Collision Course With National Security World

The Russia Investigations: Trump On Collision Course With National Security World

President Trump has become the first president to use his near-plenary power over security clearances to revoke one based, by his own admission, on the speech of the holder. Pool/Getty Images hide caption

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Pool/Getty Images

President Trump has become the first president to use his near-plenary power over security clearances to revoke one based, by his own admission, on the speech of the holder.

Pool/Getty Images

This week in the Russia investigations: President Trump strikes back at one of his most politically dangerous critics. Will a short-term victory have longer-term costs?

The revocation, Part 1

President Trump made good on his threat to revoke the security clearance held by former CIA Director John Brennan this week, escalating the politics of the Russia imbroglio in an important way.

Trump, whether or not this was his intention, has demoted Brennan from what lawyers might call a "fact witness" to a simple critic.

The president also has singled out his next target in the new campaign of clearance-pulling: Justice Department lawyer Bruce Ohr, a lesser-known player in the Russia saga whom Republicans accuse of trying to conceal his ties to the author of the infamous Russia dossier.

First, Brennan.

He has become an unsparing critic of the president, one especially dangerous because of the perception — one that Brennan cultivates — that he knows something secret about the president based on his tenure as head of the CIA.

Here was Brennan on Twitter, for example, back in March, faulting Trump for the way his administration handled the case of former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe:

"When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America ... America will triumph over you."

Brennan's clear implication: There are things to be known about Trump, and when they are known, game over. Further implication: I, John Brennan, a long-serving national security leader with deep awareness of America's official secrets, know these things.

This, quite clearly, got to Trump. He has become the first president to use his near-plenary power over security clearances to revoke one based, by his own admission, on the speech of the holder.

There are serious implications for the national security world. But in terms of the political duel with Brennan, however, Trump may have scored an important short-term victory.

How so? Brennan took Trump's bait at once and wrote a New York Times op-ed on Thursday that inveighed against the president's attempt to "silence" him and other Trump critics. Trump's denials that his campaign colluded with the Russian attack on the 2016 election are "hogwash," Brennan wrote.

Based upon what, though? Not secret spy reporting. Instead Brennan cited what he has learned from "the reporting of an open and free press."

Meaning what? If the basis for Brennan's darkly prophetic attacks is only what he reads in the newspapers, Trump doesn't have much to worry about. Brennan, it appears, isn't holding any high cards.

The politics are important because the Russia imbroglio has been made fully partisan thanks to months of work by the president and his allies; Americans' perceptions of the Russia investigation are shaped, as with so much else in our national life, by the prism of their political party.

That's where Ohr comes in

He, unlike the other members of Trump's enemies list, is a current government official. He so far hasn't spoken out about Trump. But because Ohr and his wife Nellie — who worked for the political research shop that commissioned the dossier — have ties with its author, ex-MI6 officer Christopher Steele, the Ohrs can expect to have the next spin over the waterfall in the barrel.

The Russia investigation can trace its origins back years — to 2015, when Britain's GCHQ intelligence agency detected traffic from the Democratic National Committee's computer networks headed for Russian intelligence systems, or to spring 2016, when Russian operatives made their first overtures to Trump campaign aides.

But the subplot on which Trump and his Republican allies want to focus is the dossier. It is the most sensational and the least reliable piece of evidence in the imbroglio, one with unequivocally partisan origins as the product of Democratic opposition research.

In the telling of Trump and his House Republican supporters, the sensational, partly unverified dossier is the basis for the Russia investigation. Trump has repeatedly claimed that because Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed based on the dossier, "therefore," in the president's words, his "witch hunt" is a "scam."

But, that isn't accurate. The dossier wasn't the origin of the Russia investigation. As has previously been detailed in this space, even the president's allies on the House intelligence committee concluded that the original FBI counterintelligence investigation was triggered by onetime Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos.

However, because the dossier is the most outrageous, best-known and least-reliable brick in the investigation's foundation, it and everything associated with it are the best political targets. And, the Ohrs' connection to it means they are in the crosshairs.

The revocation, Part 2

Former national security officials warn that Trump's revocation and threats of others amount to a warning shot for all officialdom: Keep your mouth shut or you'll pay a price.

That won't be difficult for most current national security professionals, especially in the spy world. They work for bureaucracies that earn nicknames such as "The Company" and "No Such Agency" and don't need any persuading to not speak out to reporters, on TV or online.

But the members of one group of former top national security leaders says that if Brennan can't keep his clearance now that he's out of government, they don't want theirs, either. The list of those protesting includes former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and retired Adm. William McRaven, former boss of Special Operations Command, as NPR's Sarah McCammon reports.

Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies before the House intelligence committee on Capitol Hill in May 2017. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies before the House intelligence committee on Capitol Hill in May 2017.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

That's an extraordinary rebuke — although it may not move the needle with a president and his supporters who say inhabitants of the "deep state," which is out to get him, always sticks together.

Then there is the matter of the more than 4 million Americans who hold or are eligible for security clearances. Most of them are not government employees.

They work for defense or intelligence or other contractors in places with names like Crystal City or the Dulles Toll Road or the Baltimore-Washington Parkway — or at Navy shipyards in Mississippi or at aerospace facilities in Missouri or Southern California or hundreds of others.

So Trump's charge that Brennan is trying to "monetize" his security clearance is the equivalent of charging NASCAR drivers with trying to go too fast around the track. Maybe you're not a fan, but it's the way this game is played.

Meaning what? The attack on Brennan's clearance is an attack on the meal ticket of millions of Americans, one that earns many of them a premium well above what noncleared normies are able to command in the marketplace.

If Trump tries to revoke more security clearances from more of the people on the enemies list he has released, that could spark a much stronger, much bigger backlash from the national security world.

It could be a fight that Trump wants. Advocates have pushed for years to reform the infamous "revolving door" between government and industry as well as the often ludicrous overclassification of benign information that has necessitated the issuance of so many security clearances.

There's no indication yet that Trump or the White House have given this that much thought or whether there might be another act in this play.

That may mean this story dies or it may set up a showdown: The more aggressive Trump decides to become, the more he could complicate his relationship with a constituency upon which he has built his brand as president, especially via his support for increased levels of national security spending.