On Saturday, President Donald Trump called former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper “political hacks” for disagreeing with his friendly stance toward Russia.
They both hit back on Sunday — claiming the president is getting “played” by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“By not confronting the issue directly and not acknowledging to Putin that we know you’re responsible for this, I think he’s giving Putin a pass,” Brennan said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday morning. “I think it demonstrates to Mr. Putin that Donald Trump can be played by foreign leaders who are going to appeal to his ego and try to play upon his insecurities, which is very, very worrisome from a national security standpoint.”
Clapper piled on: “He seems very susceptible to rolling out the red carpet and honor guards and all the trappings and pomp and circumstance that come with the office, and I think that appeals to him, and I think it plays to his insecurities.”
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who came on the show minutes after Brennan and Clapper, then pushed back. “Those were the most ridiculous statements,” he said. “President Trump is not getting played by anybody.”
Brennan and Clapper, who both served in the Obama administration, were referring to Trump’s comments on Saturday where he said he believed Putin’s claim that Russia didn’t meddle in the 2016 presidential election. “He said he didn't meddle, he said he didn't meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One. “Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn't do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”
That wasn’t the first time Trump accepted Putin’s account about election interference. On July 7, the two men had a one-on-one meeting at the G20, a gathering of the world’s top 20 economies. There, Putin also denied Russia’s efforts to interfere in the election, and Trump reportedly took it at face value.
The problem is, in January, the FBI, CIA, and NSA clearly assessed that Russia did interfere in the election — and that Putin was behind it. After Trump’s comments, the CIA said its director, Mike Pompeo — who is close to Trump — stood by the January assessment, something a CIA spokesperson told me last week.
But on Sunday, after a pugnacious tweetstorm and before the Brennan-Clapper appearance, Trump sort of walked back his comments. "I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election," Trump said during a news conference in Vietnam, referring to Putin. "As to whether I believe it or not, I am with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with the leadership."
“I don’t know why the ambiguity about this”
On CNN, Brennan said he wasn’t sure why Trump is waffling on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
“I don’t know why the ambiguity about this,” Brennan said. “Putin is committed to undermining our system, our democracy, and our whole process. And to try paint it in any other way is, I think, astounding and, in fact, poses a peril to this country.”
Clapper agreed: “It’s very clear that the Russians interfered in the election, and it’s still puzzling as to why Mr. Trump does not acknowledge that and embrace it and also push hard against Mr. Putin.”
Part of the answer could be that Trump is easily flattered by foreign leaders if they praise him, as Clapper noted. Putin has said some marginally nice things about Trump, and he makes time to meet with Trump whenever possible.
But Trump’s continued willingness to build closer ties with Russia — especially as special counsel Robert Mueller investigates any possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow during the election — is peculiar at best.
It’s also clearly worrying some former top senior intelligence officials — and that’s no small thing.
You can watch the full interview with Brennan and Clapper here: