The White House on Monday threatened to strike back at critics of President Donald Trump’s contacts with Russia by revoking the security clearances of six former U.S. officials, drawing accusations that he was abusing his power and aiming to stifle dissent.
Trump has targeted the former U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said, because they have “politicized and in some cases monetized their public service and security clearances, making baseless accusations of improper contact with Russia or being influenced by Russia,” according to Reuters.
Among them is John Brennan, who headed the CIA under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama and was one of the most vocal critics of Trump’s performance at his summit last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. After Trump gave credence to Putin’s denial of meddling in the 2016 U.S. election despite findings by the U.S. intelligence community, Brennan called the Republican president’s remarks “nothing short of treasonous.”
Trump’s threat against Brennan and former U.S. officials James Comey, James Clapper, Michael Hayden, Susan Rice and Andrew McCabe represented an extraordinary politicization of the U.S. government’s security clearance process. Critics called it petty and unprecedented.
“An enemies list is ugly, undemocratic and un-American. Is there no length Trump will not go to stifle opposition?” asked U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Sanders, who said Trump is “exploring the mechanisms” to remove the security clearances, made reference to Brennan’s treason comment in explaining the president’s threat. Asked if Trump was punishing the former officials because of their criticism, Sanders said, “No, I think you are creating your own story there.”
Trump came under criticism after Helsinki, including from many fellow Republicans. One of the few who publicly sided with him last week, Senator Rand Paul, said he met with Trump on Monday and asked him to revoke Brennan’s security clearance.
Many former U.S. officials retain security clearances after leaving government service because they continue to advise their former agencies or because it is a condition of employment as government contractors or consultants. Stripping the clearances also would represent a public rebuke of the officials and sever a connection with the intelligence community.
“Clearances are taken away for security violations, usually after an investigation,” former deputy CIA director John McLaughlin said on Twitter. “These people do not talk classified publicly. It would be political punishment infringing on first amendment rights. It’s something Putin would do.”
The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protects free speech.