National Security

If Russia Is Blackmailing Trump, Tell Investigators, Not MSNBC

The former CIA chief's insinuations on cable news play right into the president's hands.

He knows how to testify. And he knows it doesn't happen on a TV set.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

For a few hours on Wednesday, America's worst fears about Donald Trump seemed to be confirmed: Someone who ought to know implied that the president was being blackmailed by Russia. Former CIA director John Brennan, who was in his post right up until Trump's inauguration, told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" panel that he thinks Trump is afraid of Russian president Vladimir Putin. "The fact that he has had this fawning attitude towards Mr. Putin and has not said anything negative about him, it continues to say something to me that he has something to fear and something serious to fear," Brennan said.

Yes, this has been whispered by Democrats and implied by some in the media since the final weeks of the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton famously called Trump a Russian puppet. The opposition research dossier paid for by her campaign compiled these allegations from assorted Russian sources of the former British spy Christopher Steele. That Trump is owned by Putin has been a running punch line on late-night comedy shows.

But on Wednesday it was no joke. When pressed if he believed the Russians had something on Trump, Brennan answered, "I believe the Russians would opt for things to do if they believed if it was in their interest and the Russians I think have had long experience with Mr. Trump and may have things they could expose." Was this blackmail material personal, Brennan was asked? "Perhaps, perhaps," he responded.

Trump's critics, understandably, jumped all over this. And Brennan is correct that Trump's sycophancy towards Putin is bizarre and troubling. Trump invites lurid speculation about Russian blackmail when he congratulates Putin on winning a faux election a few days after America's closest ally (not to mention the U.S. State Department) accused Russia of deploying a deadly nerve agent in an attempted assassination on British soil.

But Brennan is not just some talking head. He is a former CIA director who continues to have access to classified information. If the agency had reason to believe the incoming president in 2017 was vulnerable to Russian blackmail, Brennan would know it.

This is of course why Brennan's remarks got so much attention. He later clarified that was a false alarm. Thanks to good reporting from Matthew Rosenberg of the New York Times, we learned that Brennan was just speculating like the rest of us. "I do not know if the Russians have something on Donald Trump that they could use as blackmail," he told the Times in a written statement.

Now, a savvy reader might say that Brennan has to say that. Any evidence he may have seen as CIA director on this most sensitive of questions would still be highly classified. Brennan would be disclosing state secrets and breaking the law if he were to speak about this matter directly. Call it patriotic innuendo.

But this assumes that Brennan has no other way of getting this vital information to the people who most need it. Thankfully "Morning Joe" is not the only avenue open for those who may know the executive branch to be compromised. There is also an ongoing investigation now through which special counsel Robert Mueller will examine all of this. Why would Brennan insinuate publicly and tip off the president about what the CIA may or may not have?

What's more, Brennan's speculations about blackmail are coming more than a year into Trump's presidency. This is after Trump's government has taken a much harder line on Russia than the president on everything from providing anti-tank missiles to Ukraine to enforcing the sanctions against Russians suspected in the detention and murder of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who exposed the largest tax fraud in modern Russian history.

A better explanation for Brennan's behavior is that he is now a part of the resistance. He is using his position as a former CIA director to wage a political war against the president. That's his right as a U.S. citizen. And Brennan has good reasons to oppose Trump. Angry over the leak of the opposition research dossier before he took office, the president compared the intelligence community to the Nazis. Trump has denigrated the work of the agency that Brennan headed on the vital assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election. .

That said, the former spy chief is also playing a dangerous game. It's bad enough that Trump is politicizing the intelligence community and eroding the public trust necessary for its institutions to function. Similarly, when Brennan uses his authority as a former CIA director to launch flimsy attacks on the president's legitimacy, he validates Trump's claim that the intelligence agencies are biased against him.

Sixty years ago, defenders of Senator Joe McCarthy excused his patriotic innuendo. The cause of opposing communist infiltration was too important to get hung up on proving some his public accusations. As we all know, of course, it backfired. In the end McCarthy tarnished his cause by alleging secret knowledge to impugn the loyalty of his targets. Brennan would do well to study this period. He may think he is standing up to a compromised president, but his public speculations only undermine the agencies he is trying to defend.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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