Leaving federal government service after decades can be, well, liberating.
Just ask James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, and John Brennan, the former leader of the Central Intelligence Agency. They unloaded on President Trump and the “baffling” way he has embraced Russia while criticizing his own intelligence apparatus during a session at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday in Colorado.
Asked whether the president is taking the Russia threat seriously, Clapper replied: “Well, it’s hard to tell. Sometimes I think he’s about making Russia great again.”
That remark, playing off Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan, drew laughter and gasps from an audience of current and former government officials and the business executives who work with them. But underlying the humor was a tone of deep concern about the morale of people responsible for protecting the nation’s security — and dismay about where the country may be headed.
“In some respects, we’re a nation in crisis right now,” Brennan said.
Then, for the next hour, they counted the ways.
The veteran spies expressed surprise that Trump campaign officials including then-chairman Paul Manafort, son Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner would take a meeting in New York last year with a Russian lawyer who promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
“They should have known better,” Brennan said. “If they didn’t, they shouldn’t have been in those positions. … Seems as if some folks swallowed the bait.”
Both men withheld judgment on why Kushner had repeatedly revised a government form seeking information about his foreign contacts. But, Clapper said, if that were done by an ordinary federal employee, he would at minimum suspend the person’s security clearance, “take a pause” and investigate the reasons the material had been omitted.
Clapper and Brennan said they were particularly distressed by a series of Trump tweets attacking the U.S. intelligence community, including one where the president likened them to Nazis. “Well, I was kind of hopeful that after he got rid of the two chief Nazis — John and myself — things would improve,” Clapper said.
They didn’t. In recent weeks, the president has continued to cast doubt on a unanimous U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in the presidential election and has called the special counsel investigation “a witch hunt.”
Compare that with the warm greeting the president offered Russian President Vladimir Putin, “a great honor to meet you,” at their recent meeting.
Brennan said that was “a very, very bad negotiating tactic” for a man whose name appears on the front of a book called The Art of the Deal.
“This is Mr. Putin, who assaulted one of the foundational pillars of our democracy — our election system — invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, that has suppressed or repressed political opponents in Russia and caused the deaths of many of them,” Brennan said.
Moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN pointed out that prominent House Democrats such as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have been wondering, “What do the Russians have on Trump?”
Clapper replied, “Well, hopefully special counsel [Robert] Mueller will get to the bottom of that.”
“If there’s nothing to hide,” Brennan said, “they should cooperate fully in an accelerated fashion.”
They agreed Mueller, a former FBI director who worked under presidents from both political parties, was “absolutely” the right man for the job. And, Brennan said, if the president carries out a threat to fire Mueller, members of Congress need to stand up and take action.
Despite the gloomy portrait the two old hands painted, they said the intelligence community would continue to speak the truth, even if the White House doesn’t want to hear it.
“The national security apparatus is bigger than one person,” Clapper said, “even the president.”