Yesterday twelve former senior intelligence officials issued a joint statement saying that President Trump’s removal of former Director of the CIA John Brennan’s security clearances has “everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech.”
The officials added, “We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool, as was done in this case.” They described the president’s actions as “inappropriate and deeply regrettable.”
What did the President say in his defense?
In a statement released last Wednesday President Trump justified his actions by saying
any benefits that senior officials might glean from consultations with Mr. Brennan are now outweighed by the risks posed by his erratic conduct and behavior [which] has tested and far exceeded the limits of any professional courtesy that may have been due to him.
The president added that “Mr. Brennan has a history that calls into question his objectivity and credibility.” (Coming from a president who, according to the Washington Post, “has made 3,001 false or misleading claims” as of last May, it is quite ironic that he should question any one else’s “objectivity and credibility.”)
One example the president gives of Brennan’s questionable actions is the occasion when Brennan
denied to congress that CIA officials under his supervision had improperly accessed the computer files of congressional staffers [when in fact] The CIA’s Inspector General [IG], however, contradicted Mr. Brennan directly, concluding unequivocally that agency officials had indeed improperly accessed staffer’s files.
Trump’s claim however is misleading. A subsequent report by a CIA Accountability Review Board concluded that the CIA actions were not illegal and did not breech any agreement made between the Senate and the CIA. Is President Trump familiar with that report? Or is he true to form and simply lying?
It is also worth noting that Brennan apologized for his contribution to adding confusion over the matter. As McClatchy reported: “[Senator] Feinstein called Brennan’s apology and his decision to submit [to the IG] findings to the accountability board “positive first steps.”
In any event, if President Trump thought Brennan’s supposed shortcomings with respect to the C.I.A.’s access of Senate computer files merited removing Brennan’s security clearance one has to wonder why it is only in the midst of recent criticism from Brennan that Trump has suddenly expressed this judgement.
President Trump also said in his statement statement
Mr. Brennan told congress that the intelligence community did not make use of the so-called Steele Dossier in an assessment regarding the 2016 election, an assertion contradicted by at least two other senior officials in the intelligence community and all of the facts.
This is misleading at best. As the New York Times has said:
The New York Times has reported — and Republicans who hold the majority vote on the House Intelligence Committee have concluded — that the [Russia] investigation began in July 2016 and was prompted by the actions of George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.
Mr. Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat in May 2016 that Russia had political ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate. Australian officials then alerted their American counterparts of the conversation with Mr. Papadopoulos.
The information provided by Mr. Steele did not reach F.B.I. officials who were investigating Mr. Trump’s campaign until mid-September of 2016, The Times reported in May.
Next, President Trump claims:
Mr. Brennan has recently leveraged his status as a former high-ranking official with access to highly sensitive information to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations- wild outburst on the internet and television- about this Administration.
He has made no reference to which “highly sensitive information” Mr. Brennan revealed to the public.
President Trump’s statement furthermore describes Brennan’s public statements as “increasingly frenzied commentary,” attacking Brennan’s state of mind.
What does appear indeed frenzied is the approach president Trump has taken to remove Brennan’s security clearance.
The standard revocation process includes memos that outline why a clearance is being withdrawn, and would allow the former official to offer a defense or a rebuttal. In Mr. Brennan’s case, the C.I.A. did no such review of his behavior or comments.
Not only is the president contradicting security clearance removal precedent, but he made it even more emphatic in a Wall Street Journal interview that he was essentially punishing Brennan for his involvement in the Russia investigation, implying that anyone having anything to do with the investigation could theoretically be victim of Trump’s vindictive actions.
President Trump reflected on Brennan and the Russia investigation, saying to the Wall Street Journal, “I call it the rigged witch hunt, [it] is a sham. And these people led it! So I think it’s something that had to be done.”
According to the President then, because he thinks the Russia investigation is a “rigged witch hunt” and “a sham” that Brennan participated in, Brennan should have his security clearances removed.
Considering only Brennan’s loss of security clearance, this might seem only to be an obstruction of justice and an abuse of power, but in light of there events of this week, it is clear that this is a piece of a broader attack on the first amendment- freedom of speech and of the press, specifically.
Recall the fact that Trump described Brennan’s public statements as “increasingly frenzied commentary”- referring most likely to Brennan’s claim that Trump’s deference to autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin, and refusal to acknowledge the unanimous findings of the U.S. intelligence community, is treasonous.
Trump cited this as part of his rationale for stripping Brennan of his security clearance but Brennan is permitted by the First Amendment to say whatever he wants about the president (so long as he does not reveal confidential information).
The Chicago Tribune reported today that former Trump aid Omarosa Manigault Newman is being attacked for her criticism of the President. Omarosa has released tapes embarassing to the president, such as a conversation between Omarosa and Lara Trump where Trump tries to silence Omarosa with hush money upon being fired by President Trump’s chief of Staff, John Kelley. She’s also written a tell-all book “Unhinged” making claims that there is a tape of the President saying the N word, among other claims.
It has also just been reported by the Associated Press that
Omarosa Manigault Newman has a stash of video, emails, text messages and other documentation supporting the claims in her tell-all book about her time in the Trump White House, a person with direct knowledge of the records told The Associated Press Friday.
President Trump this week embarrassed himself and incited tremendous outcry when earlier this week he referred to Omarosa as a “dog,” giving the public one more example of how Trump deals not in reason or evidence based criticism of his own critics, but rather, resorts to dehumanizing insults.
Trump campaign litigation counsel Charles Harder…sent a letter to Simon & Schuster executives threatening that the book’s publication would subject the company to liability for ‘substantial monetary damages and punitive damages.’
In the letter, according to the Chicago Tribune:
Harder said that excerpts of the book ‘contain confidential information and disparaging statements’ and that the Trump campaign’s potential claims against the publisher include tortious interference and inducement of Manigault Newman to breach her NDA [Nondisclosure agreement] with the campaign.
‘Now that you are aware of these contractual provisions, and Ms. Manigault-Newman’s breaches thereof, the Company will have claims against you, and all persons working in concert with you, should you proceed with publishing and selling the Book,’ Harder said, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The [Washington] Post.
The Chicago Tribune reports that Simon & Schuster outside counsel Elizabeth McNamara said Harder [the Trump campaign lawyer]
did not identify any particular excerpts as false, and the Trump campaign ‘does not have a viable legal claim merely because unspecified truthful statements in the Book may embarrass the President or his associates.’
In other words, Omarosa is being harassed- in fact, Trump reportedly wants Omarosa arrested – and he is attempting to prevent her from speaking, because her book makes the President look bad to the public.
While Simon & Schuster has said it will not stop publishing the book, the fact is the President of the United States swears an oath to uphold the constitution and by attempting to prevent Omarosa for exercising her first amendment right he is in direct violation of the constitution. He is not doing what he has sworn to do.
Washington Post Columnist Jennifer Rubin explains what she thinks ought to happen:
In a perfect world with lawmakers on both sides committed to upholding the Constitution, there would be bipartisan agreement on the need to begin impeachment hearings. there are more than enough grounds to commence hearings based on what we know to date and on Trump’s public conduct, including abuse of his authority over security clearances, his other assaults on the First Amendment, his blatant attempts to interfere with the Russia investigation….his drafting of a phony cover story for the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, his false public denial about payment of hush money to Stormy Daniels, etc.
It need not be “a perfect world” however, for Congress to do what it ought to do. It just needs to be a slightly more honest world- a world with a touch more integrity.
Further, perhaps if enough Americans make it blatantly clear to congress that they will not win re-election if they fail to impeach, congress will act. Trump’s base may be hard to crack but it’s not invincible and not immune to a tripping point that sways supporters from his hypnotic grasp.
People are speaking out in increasing numbers.
These recent first amendment attacks are happening the same week that hundreds of newspaper editorial boards condemn the president’s constant attack on the press,- calling the press “the enemy of the people” for example- after the Boston Globe suggested they all do so.
Showing how visceral the President’s attacks on the press are, Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell reminds us:
When unhappy with Post coverage in particular, Trump has threatened government action against Amazon in an apparent attempt to financially punish its chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, who independently owns the paper.
Journalists and media owners are hardly the only ones whose job or financial security Trump has targeted from his bully pulpit. He called for the firing of National Football League players who kneel in protests during the national anthem. NFL owners, in a secretly recorded meeting in October, expressed concern about the president’s impact on their bottom line.
The president has been so reckless in his attacks that his removal of Brennan’s security clearances has awakened the anger of a retired Navy Admiral who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, William H. McRaven. McRaven wrote: “I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearances as well, so I can add my name to the men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.”
McRaven says of Trump: “Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.”
It is interesting that McRaven notes Trump’s “McCarthy-era tactics” because when McCarthy enraged people in the military during his “witch hunt” for attacking the first amendment it ended his political career and was met with a historical response. McCarthy was told:
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
When will congress tell Trump “You have done enough” and impeach him? Or, are there too many among us willing to sacrifice our First Amendment rights?