Tapper calls out Trump's hypocrisy on clearances

CNN's Jake Tapper wonders why President Trump, who touted the debunked narrative about former President Obama's birth certificate, is now so concerned with what the president calls "baseless accusations" made against him by former leaders in the intelligence community.

Posted: Jul 24, 2018 4:28 PM
Updated: Jul 24, 2018 4:47 PM

President Donald Trump's latest gambit to choke off the flow of information for past spy chiefs who have criticized him is a disturbing move that again exposes an imperious streak out of place in American democracy.

The President's threat to rip security clearances from some of the nation's most decorated former intelligence officials may turn out to be a classic Trumpian distraction play that whips up a media storm and drowns out stories that are damaging to the White House.

But the idea that it is being seriously contemplated will send a chilling effect throughout Washington.

The wielding of presidential power to punish prominent critics would take this White House perilously closer to potential abuses of executive authority -- perhaps moving it onto territory not tested by any commander in chief since Richard Nixon.

Singling out dissenting former public servants in this way is a norm-busting power play that might seem tame in political systems ruled with an iron grip by Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping, who Trump admires. But it would be fueled by a strongman's instinct that both those leaders might recognize.

A political test for clearance

The idea that a president could establish a political test for the hundreds of thousands of current and former government employees who hold security clearances -- including in the upper reaches of the covert world -- could inflict significant damage on vital institutions. The possibility that he could use such a test to stifle criticism of his actions is almost unthinkable.

"It sounds to me like Donald Trump is talking about building an enemies list," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said Monday on CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront."

Such a claim has validity because Susan Rice, the Obama administration's second-term national security adviser, was on television as recently as Sunday criticizing Trump and questioning his ties to Russia -- and a day later found herself singled out on the White House list.

Perhaps the most astounding aspect of the controversy was that the White House made no secret of the fact that Trump was contemplating the revocation of the clearances for individuals, including former CIA Directors Michael Hayden and John Brennan and ex-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, because they had criticized him.

"Making baseless accusations of improper contact with Russia or being influenced by Russia against the President is extremely inappropriate, and the fact that people with security clearances are making these baseless charges provides inappropriate legitimacy to accusations with zero evidence," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

Sanders' comment yet again revealed the President's extreme sensitivity to allegations that he or his campaign in 2016 colluded with a Russian intelligence effort to put him into office, which appears to have become even more acute since his deferential behavior toward Putin in Helsinki last week, amid an astonishing public debate over whether he has been compromised by Moscow.

Sanders had an ostensible justification for the President's plan -- that barely passes the laugh test.

"The President is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearance because they politicize, and in some cases monetize, their public service and security clearances," Sanders said.

The irony that Trump, of all people, is criticizing others for politicizing the intelligence community or profiting from public service is rich indeed. After all, he once accused intelligence agencies of behaving as though they were in Nazi Germany and has relentlessly attacked the FBI and subsequent special counsel investigation into alleged election collusion with Russia as a "witch hunt."

Ethics experts have frequently accused the Trump family of profiting from the presidency, and his tenure has included multiple scandalous episodes of Cabinet officers being profligate with government money.

Unprecedented times

While Trump's threat to revoke security clearances is unprecedented, so are the times. In no previous period have former senior intelligence officials been on television so often openly criticizing a sitting President.

There is an argument to be made that some of the commentary by former senior intelligence officers has certainly crossed the boundaries set by their predecessors, many of whom were content to remain in the shadows.

Many of Trump's supporters, receptive to the President's months-long campaign against the Russia probe and the attacks on the "deep state" in Washington on conservative media, are unlikely to share the shock rattling through Washington since Trump's threat.

Some of Brennan's criticism of Trump, which included a charge that the President was "treasonous" in his dealings with Putin last week, have surprised some former colleagues with its vehemence, though none of them doubt he is sincere in his criticism.

Former Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who chaired the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump's threat was worrying but also questioned the outspokenness of Brennan.

"It's petty. It's certainly below the stature of the office of the President of the United States," Rogers told CNN's Jake Tapper on "The Lead." "It is also not customary for the former CIA director to be off the reservation where he is either."

Hayden and Clapper, both of whom now work for CNN as commentators, have also been searing in their critiques of Trump, though they are typically more temperate in their language. Each man worked for Republican and Democratic presidents and never sought to enter politics -- but both have said they feel compelled to speak out because they see the country's institutions in peril.

Clapper has wondered publicly whether the Russians have something on Trump. Hayden has written that the President is the epitome of a post-truth era in politics.

"It's pretty obvious what the reason is: Why we were singled out for this contemplated action is because of criticism that we have expressed, and reservations that we have expressed about the President," Clapper told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Monday.

The former DNI also said it would never have occurred to him to recommend revoking the security clearance of former Trump campaign aide and short-lived national security adviser Michael Flynn for "vitriolic" criticism of Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration.

Some voters might ask why former national security officials need security clearances anyway -- since many of them take lucrative jobs in the security and media sectors.

One justification is that having such status allows former senior officials to be consulted by their successors on issues of a vital national security interest where their experience and institutional knowledge can offer priceless context.

If Trump thinks he can stop senior espionage kingpins from remaining in the know, he will be mistaken, since such officials build up extensive networks at home and abroad.

Trump's on-brand outrage

Even so, as Monday's furor raged, it was clear it shared characteristics similar to many other Trump administration controversies.

It reflected a desire to attack anyone associated with the Obama administration, for which the President harbors seething contempt -- even though some of those on the list were apolitical appointees who served presidents of both parties.

The announcement was also haphazard and may not have been fully thought through. Two of the people on the list -- fired former FBI Director James Comey and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe -- no longer even have such clearances.

But it is a useful drama for Trump because it pits him against the Washington establishment -- always a sweet spot that the base-pleasing President seeks to occupy.

In a more sinister sense, the desire to censure former intelligence officials also fits with the President's long obvious penchant for testing the boundaries of his power -- for instance in breaking down traditional walls between the FBI and the White House designed to insulate the bureau for political interference.

On Monday, Sanders hinted ominously that Trump may have to get more "involved" in the Russia investigation because he regards it as a "witch hunt."

The idea of stripping security clearances seems to have evolved from a suggestion by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, a sometime Trump ally, that Brennan should be singled out. But it has been a frequent topic in conservative media. The President has a habit of picking up ideas from the Fox News vortex and turning them into political fodder.

Ultimately, Monday's developments pose another test for America's institutions, which have so far largely kept Trump's autocratic instincts in check. But they also raise the question of what's next. If a President can use his power to enact political retribution, could freedoms that Americans have taken for granted for decades soon be imperiled?

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 593622

Reported Deaths: 7379
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1228171731
Ramsey51446875
Dakota45976452
Anoka41782439
Washington26948283
Stearns22266222
St. Louis17787304
Scott17296124
Wright16082140
Olmsted1325598
Sherburne1173087
Carver1050745
Clay816392
Rice8063107
Blue Earth751541
Crow Wing666290
Kandiyohi656283
Chisago601351
Otter Tail575478
Benton571697
Goodhue478572
Douglas468575
Mower466232
Winona455050
Itasca439156
McLeod424559
Isanti422464
Morrison419660
Nobles408048
Beltrami397059
Steele388715
Polk384868
Becker380953
Lyon361051
Carlton345654
Freeborn342029
Pine329022
Nicollet326243
Brown305440
Mille Lacs305053
Le Sueur292423
Todd282432
Cass273428
Meeker256640
Waseca236322
Martin230732
Roseau209419
Wabasha20613
Hubbard190041
Dodge18513
Renville180343
Redwood174337
Houston171916
Cottonwood165823
Fillmore156510
Wadena155922
Pennington153719
Faribault152419
Chippewa152338
Kanabec144726
Sibley143810
Aitkin135036
Watonwan13289
Rock128319
Jackson121812
Pipestone115926
Yellow Medicine114120
Pope11056
Murray10639
Swift105618
Stevens91411
Marshall88117
Clearwater86916
Koochiching83615
Wilkin81612
Lake81120
Lac qui Parle75322
Big Stone6004
Lincoln5813
Grant5788
Mahnomen5539
Norman5399
Unassigned49293
Kittson48622
Red Lake3977
Traverse3705
Lake of the Woods3253
Cook1640

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 367236

Reported Deaths: 5940
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk57666626
Linn20892335
Scott20060241
Black Hawk15824308
Woodbury15138228
Johnson1449183
Dubuque13380208
Dallas1118398
Pottawattamie11132168
Story1062348
Warren577988
Clinton555893
Cerro Gordo540689
Sioux514474
Webster512293
Marshall483075
Muscatine481399
Des Moines458066
Wapello4303122
Buena Vista424840
Jasper419372
Plymouth401280
Lee376055
Marion362875
Jones299057
Henry291937
Carroll285752
Bremer284860
Crawford266240
Boone265034
Benton256655
Washington254050
Dickinson248543
Mahaska230451
Jackson222142
Clay215725
Kossuth215564
Tama209871
Delaware209741
Winneshiek196835
Page192722
Buchanan191432
Cedar190023
Hardin185643
Fayette185141
Wright184737
Hamilton180049
Harrison179673
Clayton169556
Butler165034
Madison162519
Mills162422
Floyd161142
Cherokee158938
Lyon158241
Poweshiek154934
Allamakee151451
Iowa148824
Hancock148434
Winnebago142531
Cass138654
Calhoun138513
Grundy136333
Emmet134240
Jefferson132435
Shelby131137
Sac130419
Union128333
Louisa128149
Appanoose128049
Mitchell126442
Chickasaw124116
Guthrie121530
Franklin120721
Humboldt119126
Palo Alto112823
Howard104622
Montgomery103338
Clarke100224
Unassigned9710
Keokuk96031
Monroe95329
Ida90435
Adair86532
Pocahontas85522
Davis83024
Monona82730
Osceola78716
Greene77710
Lucas77223
Worth7478
Taylor66012
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