Two former top U.S. intelligence officials tore into President Donald Trump on Friday, saying in some personal terms that Trump has shown disrespect for intelligence officials and a distasteful affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and warning he may be endangering U.S. national security, Politico reports.
The two former Obama administration officials, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA director John Brennan, also strongly defended their response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election against criticism that they had not sufficiently punished Putin.
“I think we did pretty damn well. … There was no playbook for this,” Brennan said, adding that he “threw a high, hard one” at his Russian counterpart in a phone call last summer warning the Russians to stop interfering in the election.
“This is uncharted seas that we were trying to navigate,” Clapper added. Both men endorsed the creation of a law requiring regular disclosures to Congress of foreign cyber intrusions before U.S. elections.
But it was a sustained critique of Trump that dominated their joint appearance before an audience of national security insiders panel discussion here at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado.
Noting that he had served six presidents, Brennan said that Trump’s actions on the world stage had raised “serious questions about how he is keeping safe our national security.” Both men specifically cited Trump’s recent meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg.
Brennan said he was unhappy to hear Trump tell Putin, in front of television cameras in Germany, that it was a “great honor” to meet the Russian leader. He noted that Putin had annexed Ukrainian territory and is alleged to have condoned the murder of critics and political opponents.
“For a person who supposedly knows the art of the deal, I thought it was a very bad negotiating tactic and I felt that it was not the honorable thing to say,” Brennan said.
Both men criticized Trump’s after dinner conversation with Putin in Hamburg, joined only by a Kremlin translator. Clapper called that “very dangerous” warning of the risk of miscommunication.
Brennan added that the nature of the conversation could allow Trump to distort or conceal details of their private conversation.
“Quite frankly I think there are concerns that sometimes what Mr. Trump says happens is not exactly what happens. I think it just raises again concerns about what else may be going on between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin that is being held behind closed doors and outside of public view.” Brennan said.
The White House has insisted that Trump’s dinner chat with Putin was relatively brief and in line with past diplomatic practice, though many foreign policy experts disagree. The two intelligence veterans, gruff by nature, appeared relaxed and even relieved at their recent retirements from government service.
But their mood repeatedly darkened when asked by the moderator, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, to respond to Trump’s public statements and tweets, including some likening intelligence agencies to Nazi security services.
Brennan excoriated Trump for critical comments about the intelligence community too, saying the information the agencies provide has been instrumental in allowing past presidents to push back against Russian aggression, including during the Cuban missile crisis, Politico adds.
“These types of comments are just disgraceful, never should have happened and the person who said that should be ashamed of themselves,” Brennan said, to sustained applause.
Both men questioned the motives and “risky” and “profoundly baffling” decision by Donald Trump Jr. and top campaign aides Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner to meet with a Russian lawyer and others dangling damaging information about his opponent, Hillary Clinton, during the election.
And they said they remained perplexed by Trump’s continued refutation of U.S. intelligence assessments about Russia’s meddling in the election, and Putin’s personal involvement in it, especially when it came at the expense of the intelligence agencies now under his command.
After seeing Trump invoke Nazi Germany in a January tweet critical of U.S. intelligence agencies, which he accused of leaking “fake news” about his connections to Russia, Clapper said he called Trump to complain.
“I was amazed he took the call,” Clapper said. He added that Trump heard out his complaint—then urged Clapper to issue a public statement refuting the contents of a private dossier compiled by a former British intelligence operative and leaked to the media alleging extensive Russian influence over Trump and his associates. Clapper declined to do so.
The former intelligence chief added that he was upset again when Trump, during a recent visit to Poland, cast doubt on the accuracy of U.S. intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
“I was particularly distressed by, when in a foreign country Poland, he’s disparaging his own intelligence community, which, to me, put him at a great disadvantage in the run up to the meeting with President Putin,” Clapper said.
Brennan noted that intelligence agencies have been instrumental in allowing past presidents to push back against Russian aggression, including during the Cuban missile crisis.
“So these types of comments are just disgraceful, never should have happened and the person who said that should be ashamed of themselves,” Brennan said, to sustained applause.
Both men have been critical of Trump before, but not in such an unvarnished fashion. “In some respects,” Brennan said, “we’re a nation in crisis right now”.