WASHINGTON – Two former senior intelligence officials Sunday offered an extraordinary critique of President Donald Trump’s mode of dealing with foreign leaders, portraying him as cowed by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and too susceptible to flattery by rivals likely trying to manipulate him.
The criticism by former CIA Director John Brennan and former National Intelligence Director James Clapper follows months of tension between the White House and the intelligence community over the president’s reluctance to publicly accept intelligence assessments that Russia sought to sway the 2016 election in his favor.
Over the weekend, Trump implied that he took Putin at his word that Russia had not acted to influence the U.S. election. Trump also said that raising the issue was insulting to Putin.
On Sunday in Hanoi, Trump partly walked back those remarks. “I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted,” in their assessment — implying he still mistrusted former intelligence chiefs who served in the Obama administration. A day earlier, he described the former directors of major intelligence agencies as “political hacks.”
Brennan, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” said the president’s stance is incompatible with established facts.
“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 back hard against Mr. Putin,” Brennan said.
Trump, he said, should state “very clearly and strongly that this is a national security problem, and to say to Mr. Putin, ‘We know you did it, you have to stop it, because there are going to be consequences if you don’t.’ ”
Brennan was unusually explicit in suggesting that the Russian leader has some sort of hold over Trump, a theory often voiced by Democratic political figures but one that intelligence veterans generally avoid.
“I think Mr. Trump is, for whatever reason, either intimidated by Mr. Putin or afraid of what he can do, or what might come out as a result of these investigations,” Brennan said, apparently referring to the wide-ranging investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and several separate congressional investigations.
Characterizing Trump’s dealings with Russia as colored by “naiveté, ignorance or fear,” Brennan said the tenor of Trump’s encounters with Putin — the latest of which came during his Asia trip — fuels the belief, especially among authoritarian or adversarial leaders, that it is easy to take advantage of the U.S. president.
“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,” Brennan said.
Clapper, also appearing on CNN, said Trump’s reluctance to fully acknowledge Kremlin interference was both puzzling and dangerous.