Facing a barrage of criticism, including among Republican Party members, for failing to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin at the recent summit in Helsinki over Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections, US President Donald Trump has threatened the unprecedented step of silencing his critics by revoking the security clearance of several former senior intelligence officials who worked for his predecessor Barack Obama.
On 23 July, White House Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters that Trump was contemplating the revocation of the clearances for individuals, including former CIA directors Michael Hayden and John Brennan and ex-director of National Intelligence James Clapper, because they had been sharply critical of his performance and statements following his meeting with Putin on 16 July.
“The president is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearances because they politicise, and in some cases monetise, their public service and security clearances,” Sanders said.
“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,” she added.
Brennan had been vocal in his criticism of Trump, raising eyebrows even among former intelligence officials. He charged that the president had been “treasonous” in his dealings with Putin when Trump said he believed his claims that Moscow had not intervened in the 2016 elections, contradicting the findings of all US intelligence agencies and reports issued by the US Congress Intelligence Committees.
Former representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who chaired the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s threat was worrying but also questioned the outspokenness of Brennan.
“It’s petty. It’s certainly below the stature of the office of the president of the United States,” Rogers said. He noted, however, that “it is also not customary for the former CIA director to be off the reservation where he is either.”
Hayden and Clapper, both of whom now work for the news channel CNN as commentators, have also been searing in their criticisms of Trump, though they have been more temperate in their language.
Clapper has wondered whether the Russians have something on Trump. Hayden has written that the president is “the epitome of a post-truth era in politics.”
“It’s pretty obvious what the reason is: why we were singled out for this contemplated action is because of criticism that we have expressed and reservations that we have expressed about the president,” Clapper told CNN on Monday.
Trump maintained his confrontational attitude, not only rejecting criticisms of his ties with Putin, but even declaring that he would invite the Russian president to a second summit in Washington in the autumn.
In a tweet on 23 July, Trump said he “gave up nothing” at the 16 July private meeting with Putin, but he remained elusive about their conversation as fellow Republicans and other critics questioned potential deals. The two leaders met with only translators present for two hours before aides were allowed to join in.
Following the summit, Trump had previously said they discussed a range of issues, including efforts to denuclearise North Korea, Middle East peace efforts and cyber-attacks, but he has not given any details.
Russian officials have said Putin made concrete proposals to Trump during their one-on-one talk regarding the conflict in Ukraine. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said the two men discussed the Syrian crisis.
But top US intelligence officials and members of Congress have said they have not been briefed. “I gave up NOTHING, we merely talked about future benefits for both countries,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Both Trump and Putin praised their first meeting as a success and blamed forces in the United States for trying to belittle its achievements. In one Twitter post, Trump blamed the media. “The summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media,” he said.
Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer criticised the invitation to Putin. “Until we know what happened at that two-hour meeting in Helsinki, the president should have no more one-on-one interactions with Putin. In the United States, in Russia or anywhere else,” he said.
US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who roundly defended the intelligence agencies’ findings of Russian meddling, also advised against a one-on-one meeting with Putin, saying he “would look for a different way of doing it”.
A senior White House official said Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton had extended the official invitation to Putin late last week via his Russian counterpart. No date has been set, and it was unclear whether it would be timed for the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in late September.
Last week was one of the toughest for Trump since he took office 18 months ago as aides struggled with damage control, aiming to convince Americans that the president did not favour Russian interests over those of his own country.
Forty-two per cent of registered voters said they approved of Trump’s overall job performance, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken after the summit.
Bolton laid out four talking points for the crisis-hit White House, according to one official: that Trump stress he supports US intelligence agencies; that there was never any Russian collusion with his campaign; that Russian meddling is unacceptable and that the United States is doing everything it can to protect elections in 2018 and beyond.
Critics have complained that Trump was given ample opportunity at a joint news conference in Helsinki to scold Putin over Russian interference in the elections but instead accepted Putin’s denials over the word of American intelligence agencies.
Facing fury by Democrats and many Republicans, Trump sought to correct himself. He said he “misspoke” during the news conference.
Putin was asked about the possible extradition of 12 Russian intelligence officers indicted in the United States on charges of interfering in the 2016 elections by carrying out cyber-attacks on Democratic Party networks.
He said he would permit American law-enforcement officials to observe questioning by Russian officials of the indicted Russians and vice versa for the Russian investigations. Standing alongside Putin, Trump called the idea “an incredible offer.”
However, Sanders said “it is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it,” a day after saying the proposal was going to be discussed by Trump’s team.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Trump silences critics