President Trump threatened Monday to revoke security clearance from top Obama administration officials who have fanned the flames of Russian collusion conspiracy theories, a retaliation by the White House that legal scholars said would be unprecedented but not illegal.
On the president’s security clearance hit list are former CIA Director John O. Brennan, former Director of National Security James R. Clapper, former FBI Director James B. Comey, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice and National Security Agency Director Michael V. Hayden, said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“They’ve politicized and in some cases actually monetized their public service security clearances,” she said. “Making baseless accusations of improper contact with Russia or being influenced by Russia against the president is extremely inappropriate.”
Former intelligence officials typically keep their high-level security clearances after leaving government jobs and sometimes provide informal advice to current officials.
These six officials publicly leveled accusations of criminal wrongdoing — including treason — against Mr. Trump in frequent TV news appearances.
Several also pocket paychecks for doing it.
SEE ALSO: Rand Paul calls for John Brennan to be stripped of his security clearance
Mr. Brennan is a paid analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. Mr. Clapper and Mr. Hayden are paid analysts for CNN.
Mr. Clapper also is suspected of leaking to CNN in January 2017 information about the anti-Trump dossier that helped spur the FBI’s Russia collusion investigation.
Mr. Brennan took several jabs at the president last week after his meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???” he tweeted.
Mrs. Sanders said the president thinks top-security clearance for former officials who make “these baseless charges provides inappropriate legitimacy to accusations with zero evidence.”
Sean M. Bigley, a lawyer specializing in security clearance cases, said the president was in uncharted territory but as commander in chief had carte blanche authority to revoke security clearances.
“There is nothing legally that would preclude the president from taking that action,” he said.
What’s more, the only recourse to challenge a security clearance revocation is through an administrative appeal process that the president could deny, said Mr. Bigley.
The president’s opponents in Washington quickly accused him of politicizing security clearances.
Mr. Clapper responded on CNN, “It’s kind of a sad commentary, where for political reasons, this is kind of a petty way of retribution, I suppose, for speaking out against the president.”
He said all of the former officials have been speaking “out of genuine concerns about President Trump.”
Others called it an attack on free speech.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who has spearheaded accusations of Trump campaign collusion with Russia, said the president had set “a terrible new precedent.”
“An enemies list is ugly, undemocratic and un-American. Is there no length Trump will not go to stifle opposition? Wake up GOP,” Mr. Schiff tweeted.
“This is what totalitarianism looks like,” tweeted Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, Hawaii Democrat.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, raised the idea of targeting Mr. Brennan’s security clearance in a tweet early Monday and later presented the suggestion to Mr. Trump in a meeting at the White House.
Mr. Paul has been one of the most vocal defenders of Mr. Trump’s performance at the Helsinki meeting, and Mr. Brennan has been one of the loudest critics.
“Public officials should not use their security clearances to leverage speaking fees or network talking head fees,” Mr. Paul tweeted.
The White House announcement followed Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Paul.
The unusual circumstances engulfing Mr. Trump’s presidency made the scrutiny clearance threat “very appropriate,” said David K. Rehr, a scholar of Washington politics at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
He said that all of the Obama intelligence officials on the list had their fingers in the Trump collusion conspiracy and now had a financial incentive to promote the conspiracy theories.
“People need to know that if they are public servants that they are public servants and not servants of political campaigns,” he said.
Mrs. Sanders rejected the accusation that the president was seeking to punish the former officials for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.
“The president doesn’t like the fact that people are politicizing agencies and departments that are specifically meant to not be political and not meant to be monetized off of security clearances,” she said. “When you’re the person that holds the nation’s deepest, most-sacred secrets at your hands, and you go out and you make false accusations against the president of the United States, he thinks that is something to be very concerned with, and we’re exploring what those options are and what that looks like.”
The politicizing of security clearances and the security clearance process is not entirely new to Washington.
Democrats pounced on the Trump White House for the slow pace of security clearance approval for top aides such as Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Republicans in the House and Senate introduced legislation to strip Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton of her security clearance over use of a secret email account and email server for official business as secretary of state.
Mrs. Clinton also came under fire from Republicans for arranging top-secret security clearance for her attorney David Kendall amid the email scandal.
Mr. McCabe lost his security clearance when he was fired as FBI deputy director in January.
“You would think the White House would check with the FBI before trying to throw shiny objects to the press corps,” said McCabe spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz.
Mr. Comey has been engaged in an escalating war of words with Mr. Trump since the president fired him in May 2017.
Ms. Rice said Sunday on a talk show that she didn’t know Mr. Trump’s motivations for seeking a better relationship with Russia, but “I think that’s a legitimate question.”
She called Mr. Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Mr. Putin “a historic mistake.”
As national security adviser under Mr. Obama, Ms. Rice was widely criticized for initially explaining the terrorist attack on U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 as a spontaneous protest against an anti-Muslim video produced in the U.S. The performance prevented her from being nominated as secretary of state.
Mr. Clapper raised questions last August on CNN about Mr. Trump’s “ability to be — his fitness to be — in this office. I also am beginning to wonder about his motivation for it. Maybe he is looking for a way out.”
Mr. Hayden has published a book this year titled “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies.” He said on CBS this spring of Mr. Trump, “We’ve had presidents who disagree with us; we’ve had presidents who lie. We’ve not had presidents for whom objective reality doesn’t seem to be compelling.”
Former House intelligence committee Chairman Mike Rogers, Alabama Republican, called Mr. Trump’s action petty.
“It’s certainly below the stature of the office of the president of the United States,” he said on CNN. “I just wish that the president would be bigger than that.”
He said of Mr. Brennan, “It’s also not customary for the former CIA director to be off the reservation where he is, either. I don’t think John Brennan should do it.”
• Gabriella Muñoz contributed to this article.