Special counsel Robert Mueller’s finding that there was no Trump campaign conspiracy with Russia to steal the 2016 election has unleashed a tsunami of outrage toward Obama-era intelligence chiefs, particularly former CIA Director John O. Brennan and former FBI Director James B. Comey, who are accused of pushing the allegation during congressional hearings, in social media posts and in highly charged interviews on television over the past two years.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also leveled up highly publicized comments that President Trump could even be an “asset” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, part of a slew of remarks that critics say went far beyond the usual partisan sniping that can accompany a change of administrations.
Critics of the ex-intelligence officials say it was Mr. Comey and Mr. Brennan who did the most to foment the notion that Mr. Trump and his associates knowingly colluded with Russian operatives to undermine American democracy, something the Mueller report does not back up.
The full report has not been made public. But Republicans on Capitol Hill have wasted little time in seizing on what is known so far to hammer Mr. Brennan, specifically, for promoting a false narrative by suggesting publicly that Mr. Putin could be blackmailing Mr. Trump and that the Russians may have something on the president that “they can always roll out and make his life more difficult.”
Republicans say the criticisms and insinuations — at one point, Mr. Brennan said Mr. Trump’s remarks at a 2018 press conference with Mr. Putin were “nothing short of treasonous” — went way over the line.
“Brennan should give up his pension,” Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, told The Washington Times Thursday. “He’s a disgrace to the CIA.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, said he was “disappointed” with some of the public statements from intelligence professionals like Mr. Brennan and Mr. Clapper, but he stopped short of suggesting the two should face punishment.
“There may become reputational cost to both of them, but I’m not in the punishment business,” he said.
Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence were holding their fire, noting the full 300-page-plus Mueller report has yet to be made public.
“I’m anxious to see the Mueller report, it needs to be fully released, the sooner the better, because we’ve got, obviously, lots and lots of questions,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel.
Wary of partisanship
While agency officials say privately they’re wary getting even more deeply enmeshed in a partisan fight, they also acknowledge the Mueller investigation has raised delicate questions about the intelligence community’s role in helping to generate the Trump-Russia collusion narrative in the first place.
Democratic operatives may be credited with starting the whisper campaign over “collusion” after news reports in mid-2016 claimed Russian hackers had penetrated Democratic National Committee email servers. But the sources say it was actually an official consensus assessment released by the U.S. spy agencies in early 2017 — just 15 days before Mr. Trump was sworn into office — that set the allegation in stone.
In addition to asserting that Mr. Putin had “ordered an influence campaign” designed to undermine the integrity of the election, the January 2017 assessment circulated by Mr. Clapper claimed outright that Moscow’s goal was to “denigrate” Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and stated categorically that Mr. Putin and the Kremlin had developed a “clear preference” for Mr. Trump’s victory.
“If that line hadn’t been in there, the last two years may have played out very differently,” said former CIA Clandestine Service Officer Daniel Hoffman.
The problem, according to Mr. Hoffman and others, including Shawn Turner, a former director of communications who worked under Mr. Clapper at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is that the line legitimately deserved to be in the assessment because American spies monitoring Russia had come across reliable source evidence on Mr. Putin’s preference for Mr. Trump.
“There’s an extraordinarily rigorous process for determining whether things should be in such assessments,” Mr. Hoffman said. “I don’t have any doubt there was evidence.”
Mr. Turner said that “it would have been based on some form of intelligence-gathering, not analysis or speculation. This would have either been signals intelligence or human intelligence that had been collected.”
A different high-level intelligence source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, went further: “Look, there was a lot of American signals intelligence collection going on around the Russian interference, eavesdropping of what people inside [Russian intelligence] were saying.”
“…Ultimately that’s how you get to the point of a specific assessment that Putin favored Trump over Hillary,” the source said.
But there’s a catch — many now say the allegation of actual collusion only gained steam two months after the January 2017 assessment was released, when Mr. Comey told a Capitol Hill hearing that the FBI was actively investigating whether “coordination” had occurred between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Mr. Brennan made international headlines again in May 2017, saying that while he didn’t know whether collusion had occurred, he was concerned about “contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign.”
Mr. Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief, said in an interview Thursday that such revelations by the former CIA director may well have been appropriate had they simply stopped there.
Going too far?
But in the year that followed, Mr. Hoffman noted, Mr. Brennan emerged as a particularly ardent and biting critic of Mr. Trump, most notably after the July 2018 press conference with Mr. Putin in Helsinki, where Mr. Trump cited Mr. Putin’s forceful denials of U.S. charges of election-meddling.
Mr. Brennan memorably tweeted at the time: “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???”
That tweet, Mr. Hoffman said, crossed a line.
“It’s as if Vladimir Putin injected a virus into our political process and the virus took hold in Brennan,” Mr. Hoffman told The Times. He added, “Those kinds of statements just drove Democrats, who listen to Brennan, to embrace a more partisan approach and that’s exactly what Putin wanted in terms of the goal of undermining our democracy.”
“There’s a deeper lesson in all of this, and it’s that when an intelligence officer plays politics — and that’s what John Brennan did — it doesn’t work out so well for that intelligence officer or for the country,” Mr. Hoffman said. “If Brennan had evidence, he should have shut his mouth about it and brought it to the special counsel, not gone on TV and hurled accusations about it.”
Brennan supporters say his comments have been taken out of context, and Mr. Brennan himself joked that “sometimes my Irish comes out” in his more provocative language. A spokesman for the former CIA director Thursday said those going after Mr. Brennan “are just playing politics.”
“[They] aren’t accepting reality,” said the spokesman, who noted that the Mueller probe did result in indictments against 34 people, three entities and nearly 200 separate criminal charges, with five associates of the president being convicted and another awaiting trial.
Mr. Brennan offered his own mea culpa of sorts this week during an appearance on MSNBC when a show host asked him: “Did you receive bad information throughout this process like so many of us did that there was more there than ended up in the report regarding collusion?”
“Well, I don’t know if I received bad information,” Mr. Brennan responded. “But I suspected there was more than there actually was. I am relieved that it’s been determined there was not a criminal conspiracy with the Russian government over our election. I think that is good news for the country.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, Idaho Republican, said Thursday that Mr. Brennan and others, including Mr. Clapper, were just “really, really wrong” about the collusion charge.
“They were way jumping the gun on this,” Mr. Risch told The Times. “I think the problem with all of this is that people come to the table on this issue with a bias. And if you want something to be true so badly, you can make it true in your own mind.”