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

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Reported Deaths: 6502
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Hennepin995591576
Ramsey42700795
Dakota35723383
Anoka32968383
Washington21824253
Stearns18677200
St. Louis14644262
Scott13104104
Wright12400114
Olmsted1167988
Sherburne864873
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Clay682284
Rice664190
Blue Earth585535
Kandiyohi576374
Crow Wing514280
Chisago493344
Otter Tail478770
Benton441090
Winona413548
Mower399231
Douglas390168
Nobles385147
Goodhue382468
Polk340762
McLeod336149
Beltrami334449
Morrison321446
Lyon311343
Itasca308245
Becker306841
Isanti303052
Carlton298344
Steele297211
Pine280316
Freeborn275923
Nicollet251241
Todd243830
Brown240037
Le Sueur230120
Mille Lacs225447
Cass217224
Waseca206317
Meeker205534
Martin186628
Wabasha18503
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Hubbard159740
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Wadena128120
Pennington125716
Faribault121216
Aitkin117633
Sibley116110
Rock115313
Watonwan11478
Kanabec106619
Pipestone100724
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Murray9408
Jackson92310
Swift87118
Pope7875
Marshall76615
Stevens7378
Lake72517
Clearwater71414
Lac qui Parle67916
Wilkin66410
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Mahnomen4367
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Red Lake3534
Traverse3015
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Cook1190

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Cases: 358981

Reported Deaths: 5342
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk57492544
Linn20508311
Scott18171204
Black Hawk16156286
Woodbury14835211
Johnson1371072
Dubuque13438192
Dallas1120090
Pottawattamie10678140
Story1011545
Warren549170
Clinton538983
Cerro Gordo530580
Webster514686
Marshall493372
Sioux490468
Buena Vista469436
Des Moines454059
Muscatine445989
Wapello4247107
Jasper404865
Plymouth392277
Lee372051
Marion355967
Jones293254
Henry292635
Carroll284448
Bremer276154
Crawford271235
Boone257530
Washington253344
Benton249254
Mahaska222745
Jackson219638
Dickinson215938
Tama211464
Kossuth206754
Clay192725
Hamilton191041
Delaware188739
Winneshiek186626
Fayette183832
Buchanan183128
Page181319
Hardin179538
Wright179031
Harrison178369
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Clayton167853
Butler165431
Floyd161939
Mills161820
Poweshiek153229
Cherokee153135
Madison152817
Hancock146429
Lyon145341
Iowa143723
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Grundy138030
Jefferson137232
Winnebago136830
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Cass132248
Mitchell129840
Louisa127741
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Sac123618
Emmet120840
Shelby119433
Franklin118119
Humboldt116724
Guthrie116128
Palo Alto104021
Montgomery103636
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Clarke99020
Keokuk97329
Unassigned9270
Monroe92128
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Davis82123
Monona81325
Greene76610
Lucas72721
Osceola69714
Worth6876
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