John O. Brennan can’t say he didn’t ask for President Donald Trump’s extreme attention.
For obvious reasons, Trump would have to be the last person on the planet deserving of our sympathy after being roughed up by a trash-talker. But for the better part of a year, the former CIA director has been giving it to the president harder than the president gives it to anybody. Brennan has repeatedly picked, prodded and poked Trump about his Russia connections, seemingly determined to provoke a reaction. Appearing on CNN on November 12, 2017, Brennan said he thought Trump was “giving Putin a pass” by not confronting him directly about election tampering. “So it’s either naiveté, ignorance or fear in terms of what Mr. Trump is doing vis-a-vis the Russians,” Brennan continued.
Trump responded, calling Brennan and other national security types who oppose him “political hacks.” But the career spy was undeterred. In the early spring, Brennan escalated, telling MSNBC, “If we have somebody in the Oval Office who is unstable, inept, inexperienced and also unethical, we really have rough waters ahead.” Days later, his tart comments turned acidic as he dunked the president in a vat of aqua regia: “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. … You will not destroy America. … America will triumph over you.” In April tweets, he wrote, “your self adoration is disgraceful” and “Your hypocrisy knows no bounds.”
From time-to-time, Trump would toss insults back at Brennan as if this were the old days when he would feud with Martha Stewart or Rosie O’Donnell in the pages of the New York tabloids. But it was Brennan who kept the fires burning. He questioned Trump’s loyalties and x-rayed his vulnerabilities, all but calling the president a captive of Putin. “The Russians, I think, have had long experience with Mr. Trump, and may have things that they could expose,” he told MSNBC in March. Trump’s character became Brennan’s target in a June Washington Post op-ed. “His focus is to win at all costs, irrespective of truth, ethics, decency and—many would argue—the law,” he wrote. “Mr. Trump grandstands like a snake-oil salesman, squandering his formidable charisma and communication skills in favor of ego, selfishness and false promises.”
There was something Trumpian about the Brennan onslaught, as he roasted the president even on subjects removed from the national security beat. In early June, after Trump dinged Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about tariffs following the G7 conference, Brennan climbed into the ring and threw several punches at the president, writing on Twitter, “Your worldview does not represent American ideals. To allies & friends: Be patient, Mr. Trump is a temporary aberration.”
The strafing continued a few days later in a Brennan appearance on NewsHour. “Mr. Trump is a demagogue because he has preyed upon the fears and concerns of American people, some very legitimate concerns, but he routinely lies, he deceives, and he misrepresents the facts and reality,” Brennan said. “Mr. Trump is really an aberration as far as U.S. presidents are concerned, and that he is deceiving the American public, and it’s going to have consequences, negative consequences, for our national security.”
But Brennan saved his sharpest—or most Trumpian—dig for the July day Donald parleyed with Vladimir in Helsinki. Taking to Twitter, he wrote, “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.”
However low your opinion of the president has descended, it’s difficult to interpret Trump’s kowtowing as any sort of crime or a misdemeanor or even as an act of treason. And while we might very well learn from special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation that Trump is a Putin pocket-toy, it’s a tad unseemly—dare I say Trumpian again?—for our former top spy to toss such charges around without any proof.
Brennan’s language has provided months and months of cheap entertainment for all of us who suspect the worst about the president. But the only reason we listen to Brennan instead of one of the other million Trump-haters on Twitter is that he’s been privy to classified intelligence that we mere mortals will never see. We think, quite rightly, that he is endowed with special insights.
But by his own admission in March, Brennan had viewed no intelligence that points to Trump: When New York Times asked him directly if he knew that Putin had something on the president he had to retreat from his grandiose claims. “I do not know if the Russians have something on Donald Trump that they could use as blackmail,” he told the paper in a written response. So much for Brennan’s confidence that Trump resides in Putin’s pocket or that he’s committed treason.
This vivid contrast between what Brennan says about the president and what he knows about the president should lift a small bubble of sympathy for Trump in the hearts of even the biggest Trump haters. Didn’t we learn six decades ago—when Sen. Joseph McCarthy did it—that spewing wild charges in the absence of evidence is a little uncouth?
This isn’t to suggest that Trump was right to revoke Brennan’s security clearance for bad-mouthing him. He should not have. In needlessly politicizing the security clearance machinery, Trump has self-inflicted yet another wound upon his presidency. But let’s not pretend that Trump has robbed Brennan of his First Amendment rights of free expression. There’s no First Amendment right to a security clearance. And based on the op-ed Brennan placed in today’s New York Times, he seems not to have lost his powers of self-expression.
In the contest of Trump vs. Brennan, both are losers.