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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Trump elevates Brennan in proxy fight over Mueller probe

President wants to make the former CIA director a public face of the Russia investigation

Former CIA director John Brennan testifies before the House Intelligence Committee to take questions on Russian active measures during the 2016 election campaign. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Former CIA director John Brennan testifies before the House Intelligence Committee to take questions on Russian active measures during the 2016 election campaign. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

With tweets and taunts, president Donald Trump is attempting to turn one of his most outspoken critics into the public face of the Russia probe that he has long worked to discredit.

In John Brennan, the blunt former CIA director, Mr Trump believes he has found an unsympathetic foil — one with whom he can spar publicly as he seeks to bolster his public-relations campaign against special counsel Robert Mueller and a team of federal investigators.

Where Mr Mueller's disciplined silence creates a void, Mr Trump is eager to fill that empty space with Mr Brennan.

Mr Trump has long been unable to resist a fight with a foe who publicly challenges him, particularly on television, and Mr Brennan got under the president's skin with his declarations and innuendos about Mr Trump's fitness for office and ties to Russia. But White House aides and Trump confidants say his attack on Mr Brennan is as much strategic as it is impulsive.

Goaded on by Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has been fiercely critical of Mr Brennan's policy views and actions for almost a decade, Mr Trump signed an order weeks ago to strip the career intelligence official of his security clearance. The president has told confidants in recent days that he views Mr Brennan as a useful adversary.

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In a decision he later spelled out on Twitter, the president began attacking Mr Brennan not just as a critic but also as a face of the institutional government corruption he believes is driving the Mueller probe, according to two Republicans close to the White House who are familiar with Mr Trump's thinking.

One White House official put Mr Trump's motivations more bluntly, saying the president simply doesn't like Mr Brennan.

"Many people don't even know who he is, and now he has a bigger voice," Mr Trump told reporters Friday. "And that's OK with me because I like taking on voices like that. I've never respected him. I've never had a lot of respect."

Although many in the White House urged Mr Trump to ignore Mr Brennan, others in the president's orbit labeled the former CIA director as the epitome of the deep state that they believe has conspired to undermine Mr Trump.

Mr Brennan's loud criticism of Mr Trump, including repeated accusations of "treasonous" behavior alongside Russian president Vladimir Putin last month, has caused even some allies to roll their eyes.

"The common denominator among all of us that have been speaking up, though, is genuine concern about the jeopardy or threats to our institutions and values," former National Intelligence Director James Clapper, himself a frequent Trump critic, said Sunday on CNN's State of the Union. ''But John and his rhetoric have become, I think, an issue in and of itself."

On Monday, 175 national security professionals joined 75 others before them in signing an open letter protesting Mr Trump's decision to revoke Mr Brennan's security clearance but indicated there is not unanimous support for how Mr Brennan has conducted himself either.

"Our signatures below do not necessarily mean that we concur with the opinions expressed by former CIA director Brennan or the way in which he expressed them," the letter stated. "What they do represent, however, is our firm belief that the country will be weakened if there is a political litmus test applied before seasoned experts are allowed to share their views."

Mr Trump's fight with Mr Brennan comes as the Mueller inquiry looks into the president's conduct in office and as Mr Trump devotes more of his public comments and private griping to trying to undermine the investigation. It also comes amid his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort's financial fraud trial and as his lawyers engage in a back-and-forth with the special counsel's office on a potential presidential interview.

"He has become nothing less than a loudmouth, partisan, political hack who cannot be trusted with the secrets to our country!" Mr Trump tweeted of Mr Brennan over the weekend.

"Everybody wants to keep their Security Clearance, it's worth great prestige and big dollars, even board seats, and that is why certain people are coming forward to protect Brennan," Mr Trump said in a Monday tweet. "It certainly isn't because of the good job he did! He is a political 'hack.'"

White House officials are also preparing paperwork to revoke the security clearances of more than a half-dozen current and former national security professionals who have criticised the president or had a role in beginning the federal probe of potential collusion between Mr Trump's campaign and agents of the Russian government.

Some Republicans close to the White House noted that in elevating Mr Brennan, Mr Trump was seeking to exploit partisan fractures over some of the more controversial elements in his past.

While celebrated by former Obama administration officials for his role in the operation to kill Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Mr Brennan's role in the previous administration's drone program had made him a subject of some criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.

The White House has not offered specific examples of Mr Brennan improperly using classified information. But on ABC, national security adviser John Bolton argued Sunday that Mr Brennan politicised his information when he served under president Barack Obama.

"It was my view at the time that he and others in the Obama administration were politicising intelligence," Mr Bolton said. "I think that's a very dangerous thing to do."

Mr Brennan, like other former Obama administration officials, has been a prominent face on MSNBC since leaving office. Mr Bolton is a former Fox News contributor.