Return to Transcripts main page


White House Looking to Revoke Security Clearance of Trump Critics. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 23, 2018 - 16:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the breaking news in our politics lead, and ,again, unchartered territory.

The president of the United States this afternoon threatening retaliation against officials from both the Obama and Bush administrations. Why? For criticizing him.

This afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders announcing bombshell news, revealing that President Trump is contemplating revoking the security clearance of former intelligence and national security officials, including former CIA Director John Brennan, Director of National Intelligence retired General James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, and former NSA and CIA Chief retired General Michael Hayden.

By the way, Mr. President, Comey and McCabe no longer even have their security clearances, so they can't be revoked.

But, more importantly, these officials have been critical of President Trump, specifically on the subjects of President Trump's relationship with Vladimir Putin and the subject of why President Trump continues to deny what the intelligence community says, that there was election interference by the Russian government in 2016.

It's a denial that the president reiterated this weekend, calling runs election interference -- quote -- "all a big hoax."

Again, according to all those experts, it's not. Experts say that until this afternoon, there's always had to be serious grounds for revoking such security clearances and criticism has never before counted as such grounds. After all, remember, former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency retired General Flynn leading the charge to lock up Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Republican Convention.


MICHAEL FLYNN, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Lock her up. That's right. Yes, that's right. Lock her up!


TAPPER: You will note President Obama did not revoke General Flynn's security clearance.

Now, traditionally there has to be evidence of abuse for that to be revoked. Now, the White House has cited no evidence of abuse by these former officials.

They have said what Sanders called today monetizing and politicizing their public service is the offense. You heard that right, a spokesperson for President Trump objecting to the monetizing of public service. Sanders went on to criticize those former officials for -- quote -- "making baseless accusations of an improper relationship of Russia."

Again, you heard that right. A spokesperson for the nation's formerly most prominent proponent of the lie that President Trump was not born in the U.S., a guy who suggested that Senator Ted Cruz's dad may have played a role in the Kennedy assassination, apparently, he doesn't like baseless accusations.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House for us with this breaking news.

Jeff, there's really no way to look at it other than President Trump wants to punish his critics.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, there's no question about it, wants to punish them and silence them as well, perhaps.

But it was pretty extraordinary in the White House Briefing Room when Sarah Sanders was asked that. It was an unexpected answer to a question that has been sort of floating out there. Senator Rand Paul was raising the idea earlier that perhaps John Brennan's security clearance should be stripped.

The White House confirmed that the president is indeed looking into that. And watch Sarah Sanders as she answered the question on this. She was reading from a prepared statement, which means she'd given some thought to this. This is what she said.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearance 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 against the president is extremely inappropriate.


ZELENY: So then Sarah Sanders went on to name the people that the president is considering.

Now, it is unclear if this is going to actually happen or if this is something the president's simply speaking about. She said there's no set timetable of when this might happen, Jake, but it is extraordinary that they're even thinking about it.

As far as we can see, it's unprecedented, certainly for one president to do it to former officials from a recent administration, Jake.

TAPPER: As I noted a few minutes ago, Comey and McCabe no longer even have these clearances to be taken away.

Sanders also suggests that President Trump could get more Involved in the Russia investigation. What does that even mean?

ZELENY: Jake, we don't know what that means.

If you think about it, the president's already been pretty involved. He fired James Comey, of course. There's a special counsel investigating, so it's unclear exactly what she was meaning, you know, how he would become more involved. Would he try and make other changes at the Justice Department?

She said more and more every day he sees evidence this is a hoax. Jake, one thing that is happening, of course, the Paul Manafort -- the first person to face a jury on this is happening. It was supposed to be later this week. Now it's next week.

So, clearly, the investigation moving to a new phase. The president watching it, saying he will be more involved, we have no idea what this means, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny at the White House with this breaking news for us, thank you so much.


A CIA spokesperson just told CNN that the agency has no comment on this threat to revoke security clearances.

Let's discuss with our friends here.

David Urban, this is unprecedented. You don't have to defend it if you don't want to. But I have never heard of such a thing.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Listen, so, yes, it's unprecedented.

But, you know, the revoking of security clearance -- I know this is a revoking of security clearances. These gentlemen have been retired for quite some time. I think it is a nicety that they're allowed to keep the clearances to be part of the club as former directors.

The revocation of a security clearance at that level, I don't think it takes abuse or scandal or anything along those lines. I'm not quite sure why they are allowed to maintain them. (CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: We are going to go to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon to explain that in one second, but first I do want everybody's reaction.

What do you think of the president's...


KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: The thing is, is that he's not applying this equitable, obviously. It's only against people who have criticized him.

So, it's being used as a tool to try and silence people who are criticizing him, people who I have certainly had disagreements with and I'm sure other people have had disagreements with, but who I think we all would agree are pretty patriotic individuals, people who have -- some served in the military, they have held positions working for Republicans and Democrats.

And so, you know, to make it out like it's not that big of a deal, it is a big deal when the president singles out people who are criticizing him who are very reputable people in our country to try and silence them.


URBAN: That list is heavy with one name on there, I think, is obviously much more critical than the others. I think Mike Hayden comes on and is not as harsh and critical as Clapper is. Right? You see -- I think he is the shining beacon of...

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's sort of a who's-who of the enemies of Donald Trump, of conservatives, of FOX News.

And if you looked at FOX News over the last couple of days, this is something they have been talking about, too. Tucker Carlson, he brought this up specifically. Why does John Brennan still have his security clearance? Then Rand Paul jumps on it, too.

It is clearly -- the president has been back on his heels in some ways, even on FOX News. So I think he has grabbed on to this idea that has been floating around among conservatives for a while. You hear from Clapper and the folks who have these honorary clearances.

It's not like they're going back for briefings every day. Susan Rice is on the board of Netflix at this point. I think she's moved on a bit from needing or even wanting a security clearance.


POWERS: ... on the idea that President Trump is opposed to the idea of people monetizing their government service.

TAPPER: Right. POWERS: If that the case, perhaps you would like to talk to your

daughter, your son-in-law, your sons, and maybe Sean Spicer, who is promoting a book right now, which he has every right to do.


URBAN: The most draconian lobbying ban for any administration.


POWERS: Let's all take a minute to laugh at the idea that Trump is serious when he is saying he opposes that.

But, secondly, Brennan is being accused of divulging classified secrets. I am not aware that that's happened. There's lots of people saying that. I'm aware that he said the Putin meeting was treasonous, which you need classified briefings to form that opinion, although it's controversial.


TAPPER: Let me put that tweet up there. Brennan said last week about the president's behavior when he stood next to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, he said -- quote -- "Donald Trump's press conference performance in Helsinki rises to and exceeds the threshold of high crimes and misdemeanors. It was nothing short of treasonous."

That, of course, is something -- I could certainly why President Trump would object to it, but is the question is, is it appropriate to revoke his security clearance?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, that's an opinion and these people have a right to an opinion, as controversial as it may be.

And you saw that Clapper, when he spoke earlier on CNN, said, listen, I don't need these security briefings to go comment to the press. So I have would encourage those people to double down in the press, because this is a direct action aimed at silencing them. And if they feel strongly about it, they should speak out.

TAPPER: And Clapper called it an abuse of the system.

But I want to go to Barbara Starr right now at the Pentagon to explain for us, because I think there is some confusion out there and at this table, why does -- do these officials even have security clearances? Is it a nicety? Why does this exist?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It is neither honorary or a nicety or some kind of protocol.

Senior former officials in the intelligence and military community, like you said, General Flynn, retain these clearances so that they can be consulted by currently serving officials.

Let's say there's a terror attack. An immediate crisis with North Korea. An immediate crisis with Iran. Some kind of military contingency. A development with al Qaeda. You want to be able to go back to the former officials who dealt with these problems over the years and be able to talk to them in a classified setting.

What did you know? How did you deal with the problem? Do you have any recommendations about it going forward? Given the amount of turnover in the Trump administration, it might be nationally -- from a national security standpoint rather valuable for Mr. Trump to retain these people to have that ability to consult them.

That's what this is all about. They don't go on TV and disclose classified information. They don't go trolling through files and computer disks. They don't even have necessarily a need to know that would allow them to even get into classified information. It's very specific.


So current officials can go back to former officials who have decades of experience in these critical matters in a crisis and say to them, how did you deal with it? What can we learn from you?

That avenue now may be shut off -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr, thank you so much.

I want to get the responses coming in from some of these officials.

I want you to take a listen to a little clip from the former director of national intelligence under President Obama, James Clapper, reacting to this news.


JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: If he chooses to do it for political reasons, well, that's -- I think that's a terrible precedent and it's a very sad commentary. And it's an abuse of the system.


TAPPER: And also, Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA and NSA under President Bush, he's on a plane, so we can't have him on the show right now.

But he did respond to a tweet of mine when I noted what had just happened. He wrote to me on Twitter: "I don't go back for classified briefings. Won't have any effect on what I say or write."

That's the reason.

URBAN: So, again, the notion that somehow the Trump administration is going to sit around and sing kumbaya with the officials from the Obama administration? It's farcical.


URBAN: OK, because they have -- they have serious policy disputes with the folks.


CARPENTER: But they have no knowledge that could be learned from their experience?


URBAN: Go back in the way, way back machine to President Bush, to President Carter. Pick somebody, right? Stan Turner. Zbigniew Brzezinski. Pick anybody. Right?


URBAN: Do they still have their clearance?


URBAN: I'm not discounting their experience. I'm making a statement.

I doubt that this administration is going to sit down and take counsel from people who they have diametrically opposed opinions with.


POWERS: This is an incredibly damning thing to say.


POWERS: Actually, that is not true. Obama -- you're telling me Barack Obama and George Bush never spoke?

URBAN: No, no, I didn't say that. The administration...

POWERS: OK. Or the idea that there was never any communication.

Look, they were talking about -- what Barbara Starr was just talking about is a crisis. And the idea that in a crisis that no one would ever communicate with somebody that has knowledge I think is wrong.

And the fact that you have some policy disagreements means you can never speak to each other, I think, is very problematic.

But, look, I think abuse of power is the right thing to call this. And what we see with Trump over and over is, we're learning a lot about our system, right, that the president can do this. It's just that no president ever did do this.

And that's what happened over and over, that our system is predicated on the idea that you're going to be patriotic, that you're going to put the country before yourself and your petty little problems with other people, and that you're going to recognize that there are people that disagree with you. And you're going to be OK with that.


TAPPER: So, one of the things that -- one of the criticisms coming out right now is a spokesperson for Andrew McCabe, noting that McCabe doesn't even have the security clearances, suggested that this is just the White House trying to change the subject.

What are they trying to change the subject from? President Trump reiterating that he does not believe the intelligence. Let's just put up the tweet that's causing a lot of the attention today.

"So President Obama knew about Russia before the election. Why didn't he do something about it? Why didn't he tell our campaign? Because it is all a big hoax. That's why. And he thought crooked Hillary was going to win."

And the suggestion being made by Democrats and others, look, President Trump is just trying to change the subject from the fact that he again doesn't believe the intelligence community and doesn't believe what pretty much everyone else in the country except for the president and some people at a different network think it's true, which the Russians interfered in your election.

HENDERSON: I think that's true, that he's trying to change the subject.

And you have seen him kind of don't do that over the last couple of days. The tweet about Iran seemed to be an attempt to change the subject in all caps basically saying fire and fury is going to rain down on Iran they keep smart-talking the U.S.

Even the stuff about the Cohen leaks, the tapes from, that seemed to be an attempt to change the subject. So this too I think is in the same category. You saw Sarah Sanders loaded for bear there, right, with that statement, with all of the names, the most wanted names really on that list that she had.

Didn't even do the research, right, enough to know that Comey and McCabe didn't have security clearances anymore. So I do think they thought this was going to be a big bombshell. Everybody was going to react and maybe overreact.


CARPENTER: And this is one of Trump's favorite things to do against his opponents, which is to dangle out something that may do to them and keep that threat hovering over them, make them react, and then pummel them again.

This is one of his class tricks.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about.

Our next guests had a security clearance. One of them still does. The former head of the House Intelligence Committee and a former top FBI agent are going to weigh in next.

Plus, one state lawmaker starts yelling the N-word and pulling his pants down on purpose in front of TV cameras. So, what is up with that?


[16:19:10] TAPPER: We're back with the breaking news.

The White House announcing this afternoon that President Trump looking at revoking the security clearances of former national security officials including former CIA Director John Brennan, director of national intelligence, retired General James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, and former NSA and CIA chief, retired General Michael Hayden.

We should note that Comey and McCabe don't even have the security clearances anymore, so that threat is kind of meaningless.

I want to talk about this with CNN's Josh Campbell, who is an FBI supervisory agent and former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, who was also a special agent at the FBI.

And, Mr. Chairman, you still have your clearance security. Josh, you don't have your FBI clearance anymore because you left the agency.

Chairman Rogers, what do you think about the president threatening to revoke the security clearance for criticizing him?

MIKE ROGERS (R), FORMER HOUSE INTELLIGENCE CHAIRMAN: It's petty and it's certainly below the stature of the office of the president of the United States.

[16:20:02] I mean, even to weigh into this. Now, it is with courtesy and custom that former directors keep their clearances and they do that for the purpose of trying to gather up quarterly or even, you know, biannually to be able to express in an open way very classified information that may be perplexing the director of fill in the blank agency. So, that's why by courtesy and custom they do that. To me, that makes sense to continue to do that.

That said, I will say one thing. It is also not customary for the former CIA director to be off the reservation where he is either.

TAPPER: He's been -- John Brennan making very, very harsh -- basically accusing President Trump of treason last week.

ROGERS: And I just wish that the president would be bigger than that. I don't think that John Brennan should do it. I didn't -- remember, if you recall, I was saying Comey couldn't be tweeting right after he was dismissed, either. I thought that was inappropriate. And I think this all feeds into that same kind of what in god's green earth is going on kind of a narrative that we're dealing with now.

TAPPER: Josh, let's ask you. You worked for James Comey to a degree. Has the fact that it's true that we have never had a president threaten this type of thing before. We've also never before had a former FBI director saying the things that Director Comey has said about President Trump, a former CIA director saying the kinds of things that John Brennan said about President Trump.

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: No. That's right. I would agree with Chairman Rogers. I mean, this is pettiness, you know, on full display here. But I think it's blowing up in their face because they didn't do their homework to actually understand what the clearance process is like and what goes in to actually, you know, providing clearances and revoking clearances. As we mentioned, you know, both Comey and McCabe no longer have them.

I think what I try to do is separate between two separate issues. There's one access to classified information and knowledge that you take with you whenever you leave government. I sit with you right now, I have information in my mind that I know secrets based on my work in government, but I also know that it's my solemn obligation to this country to protect those secrets and every one of these officials knows the same thing.

So, there was the difference between the knowledge that you have on the basis of doing your work and your ability to speak out in a First Amendment capacity and be able to criticize some of the actions that you're seeing in government. It's not as though these officials that you just listed there are actually out there now divulging classified information in secrets in order to criticize. They're seeing the actions that take place before them and they're actually responding to them.

I think that, you know, it's pettiness and I'll just say that, you know, it is interesting that the irony being you have people here that are now at the White House who, you know, spent a career, no doubt leveraging every relationship and monetizing every experience in order to be swept into office and they're now criticizing those who spent decades and decades in the service of the public and who are now out speaking their mind and, you know, writing books and moving into the next chapter of their life. It's pretty stunning.

TAPPER: And, Chairman, to play devil's advocate here for a second, I think what you would here were Clapper or Hayden or any of the others here, they might say, yes, this is unprecedented, but it's also unprecedented to have a president of the United States who refuses to accept the intelligence's conclusion about an attack on the United States, such as happened with the cyber attack by the Russians. It's also unprecedented for there to be a national security investigation into whether or not that president's campaign in any way, shape or form conspired with a foreign country in that cyber attack, so we are in unchartered territory in many ways.

ROGERS: Completely. Completely. And, by the way, they have the right to speak their mind publicly. They have that right.

What they can't do is disclose classified information. So, for the president and his team to go back, they would have at least clearly demonstrate where they disclosed classified information. Having an opinion doesn't mean you've exposed classified information.

It's just the whole process of this seems unseemly and what I don't like about it is it's now pitting Republicans and Democrats and conservatives and liberals and every spectrum on the political scale against each other on I'm for the FBI now where I used to not be for it but now I am. That is really dangerous. And that's what I worry about.

And that's why I think by past and custom, most of these directors didn't come out in the way. You know, they certainly had opinions. They expressed those opinions. They talked about national security, but they didn't have that really acerbic tone that you have seen in the last few weeks.

That's the part I worry about because I think it's starting to divide Americans in a way that will harm the ability for these intelligence services do the work they have to do.

TAPPER: And, also, Josh, we should point out, as we said in the first part of the show, Michael Flynn, former director of the intelligence agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, led a chant of lock her up at the Republican convention in 2016 and kept his security clearance even though obviously that was incredibly tough thing to say about a former secretary of state.

CAMPBELL: That's right. I think shows that this is pure politics what we see on display. There's a distinction between someone losing their security clearance because they've done something wrong, or there's some type of malfeasance. So, you know, with the case of, you know, Andy McCabe at the FBI who obviously was fired and now is going through a legal issue himself, there's no question there that OK, we can understand someone losing their clearance.

[16:25:08] The same with Michael Flynn, there's this double standard where he got to keep his, acting unbecoming someone who is in that position.

I will say this to echo what Barbara Starr was saying earlier. This is a disservice to our country because if you're an analyst right now at CIA or NSA, and you're working on the project and you think the person who may have knowledge is someone like, one of the former CIA directors or the FBI director, I can no longer tap into those people because they no longer had a clearance.

TAPPER: All right. Josh Campbell, former Chairman Mike Rogers, thanks so much.

More breaking news, a judge delaying the trial of President Trump's former campaign chair Paul Manafort. Does this help or hurt the government's case against Paul Manafort? Stay with us.