A Republican lawmaker chuckled. A Democratic senator nodded in emphatic agreement. And a possible 2020 GOP presidential candidate offered nuanced criticism.
How some lawmakers feel about President Donald Trump’s threat to punish political foes who have criticized him — and whether it reminds them of Richard Nixon — depends on how they feel about the president and his unconventional tactics. It makes the issue a microcosm of the Trump presidency.
Trump deployed his top spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, on Monday to announce he is “exploring” what appears to be an unprecedented move to strip certain former George W. Bush and Obama administration officials of their security clearances. The list includes John O. Brennan, James B. Comey, James R. Clapper Jr., Michael Hayden, Susan Rice and Andrew McCabe, with Sanders accusing them all of “politicizing” sensitive information and making false accusations about Trump and Russia.
(Comey and McCabe were fired under Trump, and say their clearances were quickly terminated. But Sanders appeared unaware of that Monday.)
Her announcement during what has become an increasingly rare White House press briefing instantly conjured comparisons to Nixon’s “Enemies List.” It also amounts to a threat because former national security employees at all levels — from junior analysts to agency directors — routinely use active clearances to secure new positions, some of which are lucrative.
Asked Tuesday if Trump’s trial balloon is “too Nixonian,” Oklahoma GOP Sen. James Lankford, who deals with classified information as an Intelligence Committee member, laughed lightly and smiled.
“No, no,” he said. “Because they’re not in the administration anymore.”
But Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, who handles sensitive data as a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, said whether or not political opponents targeted for punishment are still in government office matters little.
“It’s like the beginnings of the creation of an enemies list. It’s part of his efforts to undermine any critic — if it’s the court, if it’s the press, if it’s national security professionals who have given their lives and service to the country but have criticized him, he’s going to make life hard on them,” Kaine said.
Asked the same Nixon-themed question, Kaine responded: “Yeah. Look, I lived in a military dictatorship, in Honduras, and this kind of behavior to do everything you can to attack your critics is authoritarian behavior.”
But Lankford contended that senior officials’ clearances should be deactivated once they leave office because “they’re not actually accessing information they need to know, there’s no reason for them to have a clearance anyway.”
Some security experts and Democratic lawmakers have said former senior officials need to keep their clearances active after leaving office so they can brief lawmakers and talk to their successors to provide context and ideas about global hot spots and emerging policies. But Lankford dismissed that, saying an active clearance is not required “for us to bring in folks about what they did before or what they knew before.”
Then there was Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a potential 2020 Trump primary challenger.
“If there’s evidence someone has misused classified material, fine,” the GOP senator said Tuesday. “But that’s not the case here. It just seems to be petty, frankly. … I hope that he will think again. It just smacks of partisan pettiness.”
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said Monday he believes “some former intelligence officials have obviously donned the uniform of the opposition team to President [Trump] and I can understand his aggravation, but I’ll wait to see what he actually does.”
No matter how they view the president and the idea his White House floated, none doubted his legal powers to turn off the former officials’ clearances. And no one sensed there is momentum on Capitol Hill to pass legislation overhauling the complex security clearance process.
Silence at the top
Notably, the president himself has yet to utter the threat or issue it in a tweet.
His Tuesday posts on his favorite social media site focused on other topics, including his first clear acknowledgement of something his top intelligence official, former GOP Sen. Dan Coats, said earlier this month: Russia is angling to meddle in another American election, this time November’s midterms.
He also said Russian officials would aim to help Democrats, despite the admission by Vladimir Putin, standing next to Trump in Helsinki last week, that he wanted the former reality television star to defeat Hillary Clinton two years ago.
And Trump’s lone public speaking event Tuesday was an appearance before a Veterans of Foreign Wars conference in Kansas City, Missouri, that he used to blast Democrats over their immigration policies and lash out at America’s European allies over their trade practices.
But just last week, CBS News anchor Jeff Glor asked Trump if he feels America’s spy agencies are “out to get you?” His reply was telling.
“You look at Brennan, you look at Clapper, you look at Hayden, you look at Comey, you look at [former FBI deputy director Andrew] McCabe, you look at [embattled FBI agent Peter] Strzok and his lover, [former bureau lawyer] Lisa Page. You look at other people in the FBI that have been fired, are no longer there,” Trump said. “Certainly, I can’t have any confidence in the past. But I can have a lot of confidence in the present and the future.”
Sanders was asked on Monday if her boss was merely trying to silence his critics.
“No,” she replied, adding: “The president is not making baseless accusations of improper contact with a foreign government and accusing the president of the United States of treasonous activity when you have the highest level of security clearance.”
She was referring to the many comments by those officials about Trump and his possible ties to Moscow during the 2016 campaign, as well as a Brennan tweet about Trump’s Finland summit performance alongside Putin being “treasonous.”
Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???
— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) July 16, 2018
As the president mulls what to do, former Obama aides are firing back.
“This is a dangerous, dangerous set of threats … because really what it is is a politicization of the security clearance process and an effort to silence critics,” said Lisa Monaco, Obama’s former top homeland security adviser. “Virtually every one of the people mentioned is a career national security [or] intelligence official who has served Republican and Democratic administrations alike.”
“It seems the only offense here is that they have exercised their First Amendment right to criticize their government,” she told CNN. “When you have the types of threats we’re seeing … I think it’s very, very dangerous.”