The move was widely seen as an effort by Trump to retaliate against one of his most fervent critics and it has triggered concerns about whether others in the national security community will be affected.
The move is one that legal analysts say is unprecedented — marking the first instance of a president unilaterally intervening in a security clearance case of a former, high-level official.
Experts agree that Trump, as commander in chief, is within his authority to make determinations regarding who has access to classified information.
But Trump’s decision triggered a debate on whether he crossed the line given the seemingly partisan nature of his move.
It sparked a maelstrom of criticism from former intelligence officials and Democrats, who accused the president of seeking to silence his political foes.
Mark Zaid, a D.C.-based national security lawyer, said the decision could have a chilling effect on scores of individuals who need security clearances to perform their jobs.
“It raises the concerns that if you are politically opposed to the president, your security clearance is in jeopardy,” Zaid said. “They may now be stifled from voicing privately their political opinion.”
Some Republicans offered support for Trump’s move, however. There was also criticism of Brennan, who on social media and in cable television appearances has scorched the president with criticism.
“On one hand, we are venturing into territory where you have an administration exacting retribution on its predecessor — and that isn’t a good precedent to start setting because the favor will surely be returned,” said one former official who worked in Trump’s White House.
“On the other hand, Brennan has routinely sought to undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the current administration and someone engaged in that kind of behavior has no business having access to classified information,” the former official said. “Now he gets the same level of access as any other campaign hack.”
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a statement Thursday criticized Brennan for writing in The New York Times that Trump’s claims of “no collusion” are “hog wash.” Burr contended that Trump was right to revoke his clearance if Brennan’s statements are “based on conjecture.”
Some Republicans, while criticizing Brennan’s highly political comments, also worried Trump was setting a dangerous precedent.
“Unless there was some disclosure of classified information of which I’m unaware, I don’t see the grounds for revoking his security clearance,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who called Trump’s decision “unwise.”
Historically, former officials have retained their clearances for practical reasons, so they can provide guidance to current officials on issues they worked on.
But Trump, in a statement read by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday, charged that Brennan’s “lying and recent conduct characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary is wholly inconsistent with access to the nation’s most closely held secrets and facilities.”
Sanders flatly denied that Trump was acting to silence his critics.
But the president in an interview with The Wall Street Journal cited Brennan’s involvement in the beginnings of the Russia counterintelligence investigation, muddying the waters as to his reasoning.
The developments come as Trump continues to wage war publicly against the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference, which he again derided as a “rigged witch hunt” in the interview with the Journal on Wednesday.
The White House, meanwhile, is also fighting the growing political fire ignited by former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman, who has been releasing secretly recorded tapes of conversations with other administration officials and making salacious claims about the president as she promotes her new book.
One GOP consultant described Wednesday’s announcement as a “nakedly partisan” stunt to distract from Manigault Newman’s disclosures.
“It’s a nakedly partisan stunt and it bumped Omarosa off for 20 minutes until Omarosa comes out with her next tape,” the source said.
Still, the move, whether perceived as a partisan stunt or to address national security concerns, could play well for the president among his base.
“Not only are you going after your political opponents who have wronged you, but you also are raising a substantive policy question about security clearances and who should have them when they leave the government,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said, calling it smart political messaging.
It is unclear what the fallout from the effort will be.
Under normal practice, legal analysts say, Brennan would have legal recourse to appeal the decision, under an executive order governing access to classified information signed by former President Clinton in 1995. It is unclear, however, if Brennan has received that notification from the White House, which did not respond to an inquiry for more information.
“He is supposed to receive a written revocation setting forth the reason why and a framework as to how he can appeal that decision,” said Zaid.
The White House is also reviewing whether to revoke security clearances belonging to other current and former officials, including Bruce Ohr, a Justice Department official who has become a target of House Republicans as they investigate the controversial Steele dossier, and former FBI Director James Comey.