Former CIA director John Brennan has said Donald Trump removed his security clearance because his campaign colluded with the Russians to sway the 2016 election – and the US president is now desperate to end the special counsel’s investigation.
In a column for the New York Times, Mr Brennan cited press reports and Mr Trump’s own goading of Russia during the campaign to find Democrat Hillary Clinton’s missing emails.
Mr Trump himself drew a direct connection between the revocation of Mr Brennan’s clearance and special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, telling The Wall Street Journal the investigation is a “sham”, and “these people led it!”
“So I think it’s something that had to be done,” Mr Trump said.
Mr Brennan wrote that Mr Trump’s claims of no collusion with Russia are “hogwash”, and that the only question remaining is whether the collusion amounts to a “constituted criminally liable conspiracy”.
The former CIA chief wrote: “Trump clearly has become more desperate to protect himself and those close to him, which is why he made the politically motivated decision to revoke my security clearance in an attempt to scare into silence others who might dare to challenge him.”
Mr Brennan’s loss of a security clearance was an unprecedented act of retribution against a vocal critic and politicises the US government’s security clearance process.
Former CIA directors and other top national security officials are typically allowed to keep their clearances, at least for some period of time, in order for them to be in a position to advise their successors and to hold certain jobs.
Mr Trump said he is reviewing the security clearances of several other former top intelligence and law enforcement officials, including former FBI director James Comey.
All are critics of the president, or are people Mr Trump appears to believe are against him.
Mr Trump had denounced Mr Brennan’s criticism of him and spoke anxiously of “the risks posed by his erratic conduct and behaviour”.
The president said he was fulfilling his “constitutional responsibility to protect the nation’s classified information”.
Mr Trump, whose statement was read by his press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, accused Mr Brennan of having “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 outbursts on the internet and television about this administration”.
“Mr Brennan’s lying and recent conduct characterised by increasingly frenzied commentary is wholly inconsistent with access to the nations’ most closely held secrets,” Mr Trump’s statement said.
In the Journal interview, Mr Trump said he was prepared to revoke Mr Brennan’s clearance last week, but that events had been too “hectic” for him to do so.
The president was on an extended working holiday at his New Jersey golf club last week.
Mr Brennan has indeed been deeply critical of Mr Trump’s conduct, calling his performance at a press conference last month with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Finland as “nothing short of treasonous”.
Mr Brennan said he had not heard from the CIA or the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that his security clearance was being revoked, but learned it when the White House announced it.
There is no requirement that an American president has to notify top intelligence officials of his plan to revoke a security clearance.
Mr Trump’s statement said the Brennan issue raises larger questions about the practice of allowing former officials to maintain their security clearances, and said that others officials’ status was under review.
They include Mr Comey; James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence; former CIA director Michael Hayden; former national security adviser Susan Rice; and Andrew McCabe, who served as Mr Trump’s deputy FBI director until he was sacked in March.
Also on the list: fired FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was removed from the Russia investigation over anti-Trump text messages; former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom Mr Strzok exchanged messages; and senior US justice department official Bruce Ohr, whom the president recently accused on Twitter of “helping disgraced Christopher Steele ‘find dirt on Trump.’”
Mr Ohr was friends with Mr Steele, the former British intelligence officer commissioned by an American political research firm to explore Mr Trump’s alleged ties with the Russian government. He is the only current government employee on the list.
Democrats, and even some Republicans, lined up to denounce the president’s move, with US House minority leader Nancy Pelosi calling it a “stunning abuse of power”.
Several Republicans also weighed in, with senator Bob Corker saying: “Unless there’s something tangible that I’m unaware of, it just – as I’ve said before – feels like a banana republic kind of thing.”