President Trump’s decision to revoke the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan is, according to conventional wisdom, an effort to silence his critics.
This is what Brennan himself says, though there’s no need to take his word for it; James Clapper, former director of national intelligence and potential target for security-clearance retaliation, agrees. Even the ACLU, which had harsh words for Brennan during his tenure at the CIA, says Trump’s action violates Brennan’s First Amendment rights.
As is so often the case, however, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Far from trying to silence Brennan, Trump is elevating him. He wants to make Brennan the face of the so-called resistance. And for Trump, Brennan is a perfect adversary.
There are at least three reasons for this. To start, a fight with Brennan is at this moment a great way to change the subject from the trial of his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, and the slow-motion revelations of his former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman, who says there is a recording of him using a racial slur.
This also plays into Trump’s broader strategy. It’s no secret that the president is now campaigning against what his supporters deride as a “deep state,” a permanent national-security bureaucracy that he believes undermines his presidency.
It’s wrong to ascribe a single motivation to the vast network of national security and intelligence agencies in the US government, or to presume that these institutions are more powerful than the president. Indeed, Trump’s very decision to revoke Brennan’s clearance undermines this thesis.
That said, running against the deep state provides Trump a rhetorical crutch. Sitting presidents usually have to run as incumbents. Trump can try to run for re-election as an outsider. And is there a better poster boy for the alleged deep state than Brennan?
The best and final reason Trump wants to prolong this battle is that, for all of Brennan’s earnest passion, he is an easy political target.
Start with Brennan’s recent obsession, Russia. It’s true that, as CIA director, Brennan took a keen interest in the prospect of Russian agents suborning members of the Trump campaign. That said, Brennan was a senior national-security official throughout the Obama presidency. It wasn’t until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 that Obama began seriously countering Russian aggression — and even then the policy was tempered by the administration’s primary goal of getting a nuclear agreement with Iran. That deal was negotiated in part with Russia.
Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA station chief in Moscow, told me that the Obama administration was less interested in holding Russia accountable for its actions in Syria and Ukraine than in getting Russia’s cooperation in signing a nuclear agreement with Iran. “My impression was that John Brennan felt we could come to terms with Russia,” he said.
Brennan would argue that he rang the alarm inside the government about Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 election in favor of Trump but was stymied in part by the White House.
But that doesn’t explain why Brennan didn’t act sooner against Russia. As I reported at the time, the US intelligence community was surprised by Russia’s stealth invasion of Ukraine. Brennan was a senior White House adviser when the Obama administration went out of its way to reset relations with Russia.
Brennan is also a divisive figure for progressives — and drone strikes and torture are only part of his problem. He nearly lost his job in 2014 when the then-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, accused him of spying on her staff as they completed research on a scathing report about the CIA’s black-site program.
Of course, Trump’s decision to target the security clearances of his critics is vindictive and petty. But it’s a mistake to think it was impetuous. Trump understands that singling out Brennan will only amplify Brennan’s voice. If mere punishment were Trump’s goal, he would’ve simply urged the CIA to revoke Brennan’s clearance. Instead, he did it himself — thereby letting the world know that Brennan is his foil. So far, Brennan has obliged.
© 2018, Bloomberg Opinion
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