Trump mulls move against intel critics

Trump mulls move against intel critics
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpPaul Ryan defends Navy admiral after Trump's criticism Trump discussing visit overseas to troops following criticism: report Retired Army General: Trump is ‘acting like an 8th grader’ in attacking ex-Navy SEAL who led bin Laden operation MORE is considering removing security clearances belonging to former officials who served in high-level positions during the Obama administration. 

Intelligence experts say such a move would be unprecedented.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that the president is exploring the prospect of removing security clearances belonging to former CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanPaul Ryan defends Navy admiral after Trump's criticism Ex-CIA chief rips into Trump: You’d need ‘an extremely tall ladder’ to reach intellect and integrity of McRaven Retired lieutenant general tears into Trump over attacks against Navy SEAL: 'Disgusting' MORE and other former officials — all of whom have been highly critical of the president’s decisions on Russia.

The possibility of security revocations represents an effort by Trump to reprimand former officials whom the White House accuses of “politicizing” their public service by speaking out against the president.

“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,” Sanders told reporters Monday.

The genesis of the idea appears to be Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulClapper: Killing of Saudi journalist displays that Trump will ‘accept the words of autocrats’ Trump’s relationship with Saudi crown prince under pressure Rand Paul: 'Evidence is overwhelming' that Saudi crown prince was involved in Khashoggi murder MORE (R-Ky.), who disclosed on Twitter earlier Monday that he planned to ask Trump to revoke Brennan’s security clearance, accusing the former CIA director and others of leveraging their clearances to net speaking engagements and media appearances.

Trump has weathered intense scrutiny over the past week as a result of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, after which he cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — a remark he later walked back.

Last week, Brennan characterized Trump’s performance in Helsinki as “nothing short of treasonous” and suggested that it exceeded the threshold of impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

The prospect of revoking the clearances has sent shockwaves through Washington, with many characterizing it as unprecedented.

“It’s never happened before and sets a bad precedent,” said Jim Lewis, a former U.S. official and expert in foreign policy and intelligence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Some have criticized it as an effort by Trump to crack down on his political enemies, though Sanders pushed back on that suggestion on Monday, saying the president was considering revoking the clearances of these officials particularly “because they’ve politicized and in some cases monetized their public service and security clearances.”

Sanders added the president is also reviewing the “mechanisms” to remove security clearances belonging to former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyQuestions grow about FBI vetting of Christopher Steele’s Russia expertise Ivanka Trump sent hundreds of emails about government business on personal account: report Mueller could turn easy Trump answers into difficult situation MORE, former CIA Director Michael Hayden, former Director of National Intelligence James ClapperJames Robert ClapperClapper: Killing of Saudi journalist displays that Trump will ‘accept the words of autocrats’ Overnight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Trump's Armistice Day trip marked by controversy | US ends aerial refueling to Saudi coalition in Yemen | Analysts identify undeclared North Korean missile bases Pipe bomb suspect to be held without bail MORE, former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeNewly empowered House Dems eyeing Trump need to learn from Gingrich debacle Beleaguered FBI scores much-needed win Did McCabe set up Rosenstein? MORE

McCabe was fired in March in advance of the release of an inspector general report that criticized his conduct.

Comey, whom Trump fired last year, was a frequent target of the president as he embarked on a media tour for his book, which included a number of highly negative characterizations of Trump.

On Monday, Clapper called the proposal a “petty thing to do.”

Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer, said the president has the lawful authority to determine who has access to classified information. The power lies in the executive branch to decide to revoke individuals’ security clearances or deem that they no longer need to know classified information.

Typically, former high-level officials and Cabinet members maintain their eligibility indefinitely because they are typically brought in for guidance and discussion after stepping down. In rare situations, Zaid said, individuals have had their clearances taken away.

A set of guidelines issued by the White House governs when a person can have their security clearances revoked or downgraded, though Zaid noted that the guidance says nothing about “political views.”

Meanwhile, Sanders vehemently countered charges that the president was angling to target individuals who say things that are critical of him in the press.

“Their free speech he doesn’t like, and he wants to punish them for it?” a reporter asked.

“No, I think you are creating your own story there,” Sanders responded. “The president doesn’t like the fact that people are politicizing agencies and departments that are specifically meant to not be political.”

Sanders declined to provide a timeline for when the security clearances might be revoked, but signaled the White House would provide more information as needed.

“When you have the highest level of security clearance, when you’re the person that holds the nation’s deepest, most sacred secrets at your hands, and you go out and you make false accusations against the president of the United States, he thinks that is something to be very concerned with and we’re exploring what those options are and what that looks like,” Sanders said.