Two former top intelligence officials harshly criticized President Donald Trump on Friday for not standing up to Russia for meddling in the presidential election, one of them wondering aloud whether the president's real aim is to make "Russia great again."
Former National Intelligence Director James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan didn't hold back their anger about Trump's past disparaging comments about the intelligence agencies and their assessment that Moscow deliberately interfered in the election and tried to sow discord in the United States.
Asked if he thinks Trump takes the threat from Russia seriously enough, Clapper said he wonders sometimes if the White House agenda is about "making Russia great again." The comment played off Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again."
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In a wide-ranging discussion at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, Clapper and Brennan said that Trump advisers should have been more wary of meeting with a Russian lawyer and others. In June, in the heat of the campaign, the president's son, his campaign manager and his son-in-law met a group at Trump Tower in New York that included a Russian lawyer and Russian lobbyist. Emails about the meeting showed that Donald Trump Jr., attended on the premise of obtaining damaging material the Russian government had on Hillary Clinton
"It would have been a really good idea to have vetted whomever they were meeting with. I think the Russian objective here was to explore to see if there was interest in having such a discussion on offering up dirt on Hillary Clinton," Clapper said. He said the meeting reminds him of standard Russian spy craft.
Brennan, who had also served in George W. Bush's administration as Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, called the meeting "profoundly baffling" and wondered why Trump advisers would "jump at the opportunity" to meet with individuals about getting information on Clinton. "The Russians operate in a very cunning manner and they will take and exploit any opportunity they get," he said.
Clapper also suggested that the security clearance held by Jared Kushner, a Trump adviser and the president's son-in-law, should at least be suspended until it can be determined why he failed to disclose all the meetings he's had with Russians.
Both said they didn't think the Trump administration should return compounds in Maryland and New York to the Russians. President Barack Obama closed them in response to the Russian interference in the election. Clapper called the compound on Maryland's Eastern Shore a Russian "intelligence collection facility." The Russians have said the estates were used for recreational escapes by Russian diplomats and their families.
Both expressed their annoyance at Trump's negative statements about the intelligence agencies' assessments of Russia and the presidential election. Trump has compared the intelligence assessment on Russian meddling in the election to false claims that Saddam Hussein in Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. During the transition before his inauguration, he ripped into the intelligence community for being behind the leaks and even compared them to writing Nazi propaganda.
"It's interesting that Mr. Trump and others will point to U.S. intelligence when it comes to North Korea, or Iran or Syria ... but when it's inconsistent with what I think are preconceived notions as well as maybe preferences about what the truth would be, then the intelligence community assessments, the work force and the profession are disparaged. That's when my and Jim Clapper's blood boils," Brennan said.
Later in the day, Dan Coats, the current national intelligence director, said that during briefings Trump has been keenly interested in U.S. intelligence that's collected on a variety of issues - and that he has praised the work force.
Coats was asked if he ever told Trump that his statements have hurt the morale of intelligence professionals. "No," he said. "I've tried to encourage him to understand the role of the intelligence agencies, how important that role is in formulating the policies, and I think he has recognized that. He has said many complimentary things about the people he's talked with."
Brennan also said he was upset when Trump leaned over to Russian President Vladimir Putin before their recent meeting in Europe to say it was a "great honor" to meet him.
"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," he said. "I thought it was a very, very bad negotiating tactic."
Both also said they were concerned about a second discussion the two leaders had in Europe with only a Russian interpreter. Clapper said Trump should have had his own translator to record the conversation and avoid any misinterpretations. Brennan said he has never heard of any other instance where a U.S. president has had a meeting with a Russian head of state without a U.S. translator.
"To have this one-off and rely on a Russian translator ... It again raises concerns about what else may be going on between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin that is being held behind closed doors or outside the public view," he said.