Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

Trump Revokes John Brenna's Security Clearance Over the Russia Probe; Mixed Reaction From Lawmakers On Capitol Hill About The President's Decision To Strip Former Cia Director John Brennan Of His Security Clearance. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired August 16, 2018 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[09:00:01] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York.

"Hogwash." That is the word reverberating this morning from former CIA director John Brennan. Brennan clearly not intimidated by President Trump's decision to revoke his security clearance this morning declares that collusion -- his word -- collusion with the Russians in the 2016 campaign is now beyond question.

He's talking about the Trump team in a scathing opinion piece that he wrote this morning for the "New York Times." And Brennan writes, quote, "Mr. 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 and to silence others who might dare to challenge him."

Now in the White House briefing room yesterday a statement read by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders asserted that Brennan lost his access to highly sensitive information because of his, quote, "erratic conduct." Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Mr. Brennan's lying and recent conduct characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary is wholly inconsistent with access to the nation's most closely held secrets and facilities, the very aim of our adversaries which is to sow division and chaos.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Well, later yesterday in an interview with the "Wall Street Journal" the president gave him more revealing explanation of why he chose to revoke Brennan's security clearance saying that Brennan is among the Obama era officials that he blamed for the Russia probe.

Here's what the president told the "Journal." Quote, "I call it the rigged witch hunt, it's a sham and these people led it so I think it's something that had to be done."

Let's go to our Abby Phillip, she joins me now at the White House.

Abby, a few question for you this is morning because as you've heard and pointed out a number of pundits this morning are saying this is President Trump repeating a similar pattern of behavior that he exhibited after firing James Comey, telling one thing to reporters, to the press, after he has his own officials go out and give a totally different line of reasoning. Any attempt from the White House this morning to reconcile the two?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. It certainly seems like an almost parallel situation in which the White House goes to great lengths to lay out all of the reasons why John Brennan's security clearance was being revoked. Sarah Sanders said erratic behavior was the reason, using his clearance for politically motivated purposes or perhaps for profit but then the president keeps it pretty simple.

In this interview with the "Journal," he says it's a rigged witch hunt. It's a sham. And these people led it. That is pretty clearly a very different explanation from what we heard from Sarah Sanders yesterday. And it's similar to what the president did right after James Comey was fired.

When Comey was fired, the White House said that he was fired because of his treatment of Hillary Clinton during the campaign. That was unfair to her. Later the president told NBC in an interview that he was fired because he thought about the Russia -- what he called a witch hunt and said that something needed to be done about it. He thought -- he said it was unfair to him.

So, essentially, Poppy, the White House is struggling to reconcile these two but it's notable that yesterday Sarah Sanders was asked, are you going to apply the same standard that you used to apply to John Brennan against all of these other people that she listed off that they are considering revoking their clearances. She wouldn't say that they would do that.

HARLOW: Right, that's a great point. Also, you know, this list of sort of threats I guess, threats that they might revoke security clearance for includes some new names, different from what the White House had previously been talking about, about a month ago. I mean, it includes names like Bruce Ohr, someone who is going to testify before Congress in just a few weeks.

What ties together all of those new names that have been added?

PHILLIP: Yes. I think this is really significant. And Bruce Ohr that you just mentioned is unlike all of these other people on that list. He is a current official working in Trump's government right now so that's -- that makes even more unclear what is going to happen to his clearance if the president does in fact revoke it. But the White House added a few names. They added Sally Yates, former Trump official in the Justice Department. They added Peter Strzok, Lisa Page and Bruce Ohr.

Peter Strzok, Lisa Page and Bruce Ohr are all people who are associated with the Russia probe in some way. They are all people that the president has attacked on social media, criticized in some cases, in Peter Strzok and Lisa Page's case, for their criticism of him but it really does seem to be a slight change here for the White House instead of just talking about a former Obama-era officials who are critical of him. They are now adding people who the president has zeroed in on as being associated with the Russia probe.

HARLOW: Right. Important point. Abby, thank you for the reporting.

Let's talk about the intelligence aspects of all of this. With me, a couple of CIA veterans, CNN national security analyst Elliott Ackerman and former -- and from the Heritage Foundation and former CIA department division chief Bruce Klingner.

Thank you, gentlemen, for being here.

Bruce, let's take a listen to what Michael Hayden, the former CIA director, NASA chief, what he said last night to Anderson Cooper.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[09:05:02] MICHAEL HAYDEN, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NSA AND CIA: The White House just messaged the entire American intelligence community if you stand up and say things that upset the president or with which he disagrees, he will punish you. And that is a horrible message to be sending to folks who are there to tell you objective truth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Is Hayden right? I mean, is this a threat to others to be quiet?

BRUCE KLINGNER, FORMER CIA DEPARTMENT DIVISION CHIEF: Well, those still in the intelligence community would not be consulting with or talking with the media, they would be, you know, very wary about any kind of interaction with the media so it would seem to apply more to those who have left the intelligence community and then speaking out in a political way as Mr. Brennan had.

HARLOW: Eliot, when you look at what Brennan wrote this morning in the "New York Times" opinion piece, it is quite an assertion and quite an accusation, and he doesn't lay out the intelligence that gets him to that. I mean, he says that the president's claims of no collusion are hogwash and he goes on to say there is no question that there was collusion on the part of the Trump team.

He says, "The only question that remains are whether the collusion took place that constituted criminal liable conspiracy, whether obstruction of justice occurred to cover up any collusion or conspiracy and how many members of Trump Incorporated attempted to defraud the government by laundering and concealing the moment of the money -- the movement, rather, of the money into their pockets."

Momentous or reckless assertion by Brennan?

ELLIOTT ACKERMAN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think what's momentous here is, you know, the true collusion seems to be, you know, on the far right and the far left, and you know, we're seeing a level of hyper partisanship, you know, infect our institutions like the FBI, like the CIA, and that undermining of these long held institutions which have always been nonpartisan is what is really momentous and it's discouraging to see.

I mean, the real losers here, frankly, are the American people because we don't know if going forward we will ever again truly have a depoliticized intelligence service.

HARLOW: Bruce, Brennan's assertion again, what I just read in "The Times" that it is hogwash to say that there's no collusion, this coming from the man who led the CIA. Is it momentous? Is it reckless of him?

KLINGNER: Well, the revoking of the clearance is, you know, Executive Order 12968 identifies what procedures for accessing or maintaining or revoking security procedures and then there are adjudication guidelines identifying what areas one would lose clearances for, and none of those seem to be applicable in this case so, you know, it does raise the perception that it's politically driven. You know, Brennan --

HARLOW: Right. But I'm asking you what Brennan is saying, the assertion he's making about collusion this morning on the part of the president. What do you make of that?

KLINGNER: Well, the -- you know, the whole Russia investigation is a longstanding investigation that's going its way through the Mueller team, et cetera. So we don't know the results of that until they come out with, you know, indications one way or the other.

HARLOW: OK. Elliott, to you, when you look at why former intelligence officials have their clearance, it is not just as the White House has said to go monetize on it. Right? It's to help current intelligence agencies, to help people currently working in the CIA, to be able to pull on your expertise from things you have lived and worked through and led on. Some are pointing out that what the president has done here actually just hurts his own CIA now. Do you agree with that assessment?

ACKERMAN: I certainly agree with that assessment and I think what we're seeing is unprecedented actions on both sides of this argument. What the president is doing by threatening these mass revocations of security clearances is unprecedented. We've never seen a president do that before. On the other hand, and particularly in the case of John Brennan, we're seeing a CIA director be more aggressive, more political than we've ever seen before in the history of CIA directors and, you know, the reciprocal is that, you know, we're winding up with highly politicized institutions that, you know, function best when they are depoliticized and it's a real poisoning of the culture.

HARLOW: Bruce, what does it tell you that according to our Jim Sciutto's reporting the president, the White House did not consult with the director of National Intelligence Dan Coats about this and that according to our reporting, the CIA was caught off guard.

KLINGNER: Well, the normal procedures would be an agency head or the special executive would, you know, make the -- you know, make the determination to revoke someone's clearance so, as Mr. Ackerman said, this seems to be unprecedented, I'm not aware of a president revoking clearances personally in the past. But during my time in the intelligence community, I found the analysis was very fiercely apolitical, fiercely non-ideological.

[09:10:05] The intelligence analysts call it like they see it. They're providing information to policymakers to enable them to make the best policy decisions possible on behalf of the United States. So, you know, once people leave the intelligence community they can exercise their First Amendment rights and we can discuss and debate any of the statements that former officials make. But --

HARLOW: Right. And, I mean, and just to that point, quickly, Elliott, I mean, isn't that what Brennan is doing as a private citizen, no longer leading the agency, saying look, the way that you handle yourself on the world stage, in Helsinki, you know, Mr. President, was tantamount to treasonous? I mean, that's not him saying it in his official capacity. He's, you know, a former agent.

ACKERMAN: Certainly but I think there's also -- you know, there's also precedent and, you know, the precedent is that the directors of CIA are brought in very, very closely to administrations, they handle significant sensitive information for sensitive decisions and so if we have a precedent by which former CIA directors then are extremely vocal of the outgoing -- the counter administration you're going to wind up with a changed intelligence culture and a highly politicized intelligence apparatus in this country, and so the question becomes, is it ultimately worth it? So I think, you know, at this moment, the American people, you know, should not fall into the trap of trying to ascribe blame, you know, is Brennan wrong, is Trump wrong.

It's sort of like, you know, when you have two parents who are going through a divorce and they're yelling at each other at the house, it sure doesn't matter who is right. You know, what matters is the trauma that's being inflicted on the kids who are sitting in the house. And that's what we're seeing right now and I think no one is really discussing this. This is -- again, poisoning the well of what these institutions are supposed to do in this country. It's all hyper partisan.

HARLOW: It's an important point. Elliot Ackerman and Bruce Klingner, thank you both for being with me.

So we are going to talk with the politics of all of this ahead. Also minutes from now, jury deliberations kick off in the fraud trial for ex-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. This is a major test for the special counsel Bob Mueller and we'll take you live outside the courtroom in minutes.

Also, hundreds of U.S. newspapers this morning band together with one message -- we are not the enemy of the people. All this on the same day that the president tweets the fake news media is the opposition party. He just wrote that minutes ago.

And emergency workers could hardly keep up. Person after person dropping in a Connecticut park in one day, more than 70 people overdosing on what is believed to be synthetic marijuana. We have the latest.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

POPPY HARLOW, HOST, CNN NEWSROOM: So back to our top story this morning, mixed reaction from lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the President's decision to strip former CIA Director John Brennan of his security clearance. Some lawmakers are calling it a Nixonian move, an effort to silence his critics, others support him. Lauren Fox joins me with more. So, you're on the Hill, and you're hearing what they're saying. Let's start with the President's critic, which by the way, it's not just Democrats, some Republican senators are calling him out on this.

LAUREN FOX, POLITICS REPORTER, CNN: That's right, Senator Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee called it, like you said, Nixonian. He said that President Donald Trump is just trying to distract the American public, but Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine actually said that the move was quote, "unwise" and Senator Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said it was quote, "a banana republic kind of thing." So a lot of criticism even from some of the top Republicans.

HARLOW: ... senators fully endorsing this move? Who?

FOX: Well, Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky sent out one of the strongest statements yesterday. He said not only that he's applaud the move that the President made, he actually pushed President Trump to revoke Brennan's security clearance.

They also said that he has not supported Brennan for a long time. If you remember in 2013, he actually filibustered Brennan's nomination to lead the CIA, and that was during the Obama administration, but Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana had this to say about John Brennan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KENNEDY, US SENATOR, LOUISIANA, REPUBLICAN: He's been totally political. I think I called him a butt-head and I meant it. I think he has given the national intelligence community a bad name.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOX: So as you can hear, there is a lot of reaction from Republicans who say that they're okay with this move. We're going to talk to more senators this morning on Capitol Hill, but I would expect most Republicans are going to be standing with the President, Poppy.

HARLOW: You just leave it to John Kennedy for the colorful language of the day, right?

FOX: Absolutely.

HARLOW: Lauren Fox, let us know what else you're hearing this morning as they come to work. Appreciate it. Let's discuss with CNN political analyst Julie Hirschfeld-Davis, Karoun Demirjian. Ladies, Julie, to you first. When you look at what the President told the "Wall Street Journal" in this sort of impromptu 20-minute Oval Office interview last night about why Brennan's security clearance was revoked quote, "I call it the rigged witch-hunt, it's a sham. These people led it, so something had to be done." Why does he do stuff like this? Because he did it on after the firing of James Comey as well. Why does he have his staff go out and tell the American public, "Here's the reason why I have done this." And then he directly tells the media, the press something completely different?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD-DAVIS, POLITICAL ANALYST, CNN: Well, you know, this is just another example I think of when the President sort of reads the private rationale out loud, because he basically can't help himself.

But what you have here as you also had in the situation with the firing of Jim Comey is his aides around him trying to craft what would be a defensible rationale that they could present publicly for something that the President cannot be talked out of, that he is intent upon doing.

[09:05:02]

HIRSCHFELD-DAVIS: It's very clear, we saw when the White House put out this statement after Sarah Sanders read it at the briefing yesterday, it was dated July 26th, that was a few days after this meeting he had with Rand Paul where Senator Paul suggested that he yank Brennan's clearance and clearly, President Trump was intrigued with this idea and wanted to do it.

So they sort of construct this whole rational around how you could do this. You set your constitutional authority, you're the President, you have to ultimate role in protecting classified information and that's what you say, but then when it comes down to it and he's asked about why he's really doing it, the President says what he essentially thinks and he has said this before time and again that he considers Brennan, he considers Mike Hayden, he considers Clapper, he considers Comey all to be political hacks, he has said in the past.

And all of these conclusions that the intelligence community has reached, all of this information that the law enforcement community has put forth, he considers it to be personal politically motivated attacks against him, not actual intelligence gathering or national security work.

HARLOW: Karoun what do you think that Brennan's op-ed this morning in "The Times" calling any claims that there aren't collusion hogwash, and then saying there's no question there was collusion on the part of the Trump team. Before the Mueller probe is wrapped up, I mean, does that go to the President's argument, to the White House argument that this is all highly politicized?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, POLITICAL ANALYST, CNN: Well, I mean, look, Brennan is no longer serving in the role, but he was serving in the intelligence community, so he can speak freely and he has been speaking freely. He's been very critical of the President based on his experience as an extremely high ranking intelligence officer and he's not backing down from that because he got slapped across the face with Trump revoking his security clearance.

So, it's really not anything different. I mean, if you were going to take that as justification for the President's actions, you would have had just taken before, since he retired, since he's been out there commentating and giving his - pulling no punches, opinions about thinking that the President and the way that he's talking about Russia, the way he's talking about the intelligence community is undermining the national security of the United States.

So that really hasn't changed. I that that if you are of the view where you think this is all a great conspiracy starting with the intelligence community going on down to Mueller's probe and you're just going to continue to think that in line with the President, but there are so many people who don't think that, and then there's many people in the middle as well.

So, it's kind of everybody is sticking to their camps on this one, even clearly the stakes have been raised by the fact that the President took this action, which is fairly - I mean, it's extreme to do this sort of thing because political statements are not usually considered grounds for revoking security clearance. It has to be something much, much more severe.

HARLOW: You guys know, obviously, a name that is not on this list, a name that jumps out because it's not on this list and that is former national security Michael Flynn who is a convicted felon, who is fired by the President for lying to the FBI, whom President Obama did not revoke his security clearance despite him chanting "lock her up" about Hillary Clinton on stage, despite him warning incoming President Trump about Michael Flynn. Does that, Julie give credence to critics who say, "Look, this is just the President wanting to settle scores?"

HIRSCHFELD-DAVIS: Yes, I mean, this is clearly about punishing and threatening people who have been critical of him or who he considers to be threats. The White House - Sarah Sanders said yesterday, he even said yesterday he in that "Wall Street Journal" interview, well, if there Republican that we - that run afoul of what we consider to be the standards for classified information, we put them on this list, too.

Well, the fact is, you just cited one and he's not on that list. And so, I do think that, you know, that sort of gives the lie to the explanation that's been given, but as you pointed out earlier, the President himself has actually undercut this argument by saying that the reason that this had to be done is because he considers Brennan and others to have been the predicate for this entire Mueller investigation, this entire vein of questioning of Russia's interference in the election and any role that his campaign may have had in that, and so, I think it's pretty transparent that this is not about - we're looking at both sides of the aisle and who is misusing their access to classified information. This is about silencing critics of the President.

HARLOW: Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics pointed something out to us this morning on Twitter, so we went back and we dug up the tape and that is the final White House speech from former President Nixon. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Never be petty. Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them and then you destroy yourself.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Karoun, lesson for the President in that this morning?

DEMIRJIAN: It could be give that there's all kind of Nixon era precedents that people are citing for what's going on right now in the Trump presidency given the Russia investigation. I mean, yes, look, the President is his own worst enemy in many ways and that he does not have a filter.

[09:25:05]

DEMIRJIAN: He has his staff go through all these hoops and orchestrate what would seem to be a more legally, ethically, politically defensible argument for why he's taking certain steps and then he completely undercuts it by just kind of releasing his free thoughts the second that he gets a chance to and nobody else is around.

So, I mean, in that way, yes, the President is undermining himself and taking his own emotional visceral reaction, letting that up end what would seem to be a more middle ground. But again, is this impulsivity or is this the President feeling like his impulsiveness is what makes people love him? In a way, he is sometimes vain because of these things and he has parts of his base that believe him on the witch hunt.

HARLOW: And he has the complete authority to do exactly what he did yesterday with Brennan or by the way, with anyone else on that list minus the people who already say they don't have their security clearance anymore. Thank you, ladies, Julie and Karoun. Appreciate it.

In just minutes, jury deliberations begin in the trial of former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. His lawyers walking into court moments ago. You see them there. Before that, a quick check on the market before the bell, the Dow is set to rebound today, futures up more than 200 points, new trade talks with China, we're keeping a close eye on the market. Stay with us. I'll be right back.

[09:30:00]