Trump ‘trolling’ on threat to pull clearances

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is dismissing President Donald Trump’s threat to revoke the security clearances of six former top national security and intelligence officials who have been critical of his administration.

“I think he’s just trolling people, honestly,” Ryan told reporters at a news conference Tuesday, addressing what opponents and experts say would be an unprecedented politicization of the clearance process.

“This is something that’s in the purview of the executive branch,” Ryan added with a laugh.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that the president was “exploring the mechanisms” to strip clearance from former CIA Director John Brennan as well as five other former officials who have held some of the most sensitive positions in government: former FBI Director Jim 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 Trump’s deputy FBI director until he was fired in March.

The leaders have served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, including Trump’s. But at least two of the former officials, McCabe and Comey, do not currently have security clearances, making the threat moot.

Sanders accused the officials of having “politicized and in some cases monetized their public service and security clearances” by making “baseless accusations” that the Trump administration had improper contact with Russia or was influenced by Russia.

“The fact that people with security clearances are making these baseless charges provides inappropriate legitimacy to accusations with zero evidence,” she said.

Sanders did not cite specific comments made by any of the officials. But the president has been seething over the backlash to his meeting last week with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the ongoing investigations into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, whether his campaign aides were involved in the effort and whether he obstructed justice.

Experts said there is some dispute about whether the president has the authority to unilaterally terminate a security clearance, but said such a move would be unprecedented and ill-advised.

“Legalities aside, it seems like a terrible mistake to use the security clearance system as an instrument of political vendettas,” said Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted that “politicizing security clearances to retaliate against former national security officials who criticize the President would set a terrible new precedent.”

“An enemies list is ugly, undemocratic and un-American,” he added.

The threat to deny the officials access to classified information marks the latest escalation in the president’s ongoing war with the members of the U.S. intelligence community. It came hours after Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky tweeted that he would be meeting with Trump to discuss revoking Brennan’s clearance for his scathing criticism of the president’s performance at the summit with Putin.

Paul publicly raised the idea of stripping Brennan’s security clearance — and pension — during appearances on Fox News last week, where he also called Brennan “the most biased, bigoted, over-the-top, hyperbolic sort of unhinged director of the CIA we’ve ever had.”

Former CIA directors and other top national security officials are typically allowed to keep their clearances, at least for some period, as a courtesy and so they can be in a position to advise their successors. The clearances are also sometimes required to work for government contractors.

While standing next to Putin, Trump last week openly questioned his own intelligence agencies’ conclusions that Moscow tried to tip the scales of the 2016 election in his favor and seemed to accept Putin’s insistence that Russia’s hands were clean.

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