U.S. President Donald Trump has revoked the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan and threatened to do the same to other former top national-security officials in what opponents said was an unprecedented act of retribution against vocal critics of his presidency.
Most of those targeted late on August 15 were top intelligence and law enforcement officials from the administrations of former President Barack Obama and other previous presidents who have spoken out against what they see as mistakes and abuses by Trump.
In a highly unusual personal directive, Trump justified his removal of Brennan's access to top-secret documents and briefings about events around the world because he said Brennan's "erratic conduct" posed national-security "risks." Trump claimed that, as president, he had a "constitutional responsibility" to protect the nation from such risks.
But Brennan said Trump's move was an "abuse of power," and other Trump opponents accused the president of creating an "enemies list" of personal foes that mirrors the behavior of "banana republics" and "dictatorships, not democracies."
In an opinion piece in The New York Times on August 16, Brennan said Trump revoked his security clearance because Trump's election campaign colluded with Russia to influence the results of the 2016 vote. He said Trump is now desperate to end a special counsel's investigation into the matter.
Brennan cited press reports and Trump's own call during the campaign for Russia to find missing e-mails of his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Brennan, a contributor on MSNBC, claimed the president is trying to curb his free speech, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, in a "politically motivated" action that he said should "gravely worry all Americans."
Former top government officials like Brennan traditionally have retained their security clearances so they can advise their successors as well as continue to work in high-level foreign affairs positions.
Trump himself drew a direct connection between the revocation of Brennan's clearance and the Russia probe, telling The Wall Street Journal the investigation is a "sham," and "these people led it!"
Trump supporters and critics both said his move marked an unprecedented politicization of the U.S. government's security-clearance process and an escalation of Trump's ongoing battle with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Trump's announcement accused Brennan of having "leveraged his status as a former high-ranking official with access to highly sensitive information to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations, wild outbursts on the Internet and television about this administration."
"Mr. Brennan's lying and recent conduct characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary is wholly inconsistent with access to the nation's most closely held secrets," he said.
Brennan made headlines last month calling Trump's performance at a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after a summit in Finland "nothing short of treasonous."
Trump said he was considering stripping the security clearances of other top officials who have criticized him, including former FBI Director James Comey, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director Michael Hayden, former national-security adviser Susan Rice, and former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
Comey was leading the FBI's investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign when Trump fired him last year. Trump's list also includes FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was fired earlier this week for sending texts that were critical of Trump while he was participating in the Russia investigation, and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who was the recipient of Strzok's private texts.
Trump told The Wall Street Journal late on August 15 that he targeted some people on the list because they led the Russia investigation, which he called a "sham" and a "witch hunt."
Clapper, reacting on CNN, said he didn't plan to stop speaking out about the Trump administration.
"If they're saying that the only way I can speak is to be in an adulation mode of this president. I'm sorry, I don't think I can sign up to that," Clapper said, adding, "This is, at least in my memory, unprecedented."
Clapper said he and the others targeted had all "directly run afoul" of Trump and his administration in some way.
Hayden said Trump's threat "will have no impact on what I think, say, or write,”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders insisted Trump was not targeting only his critics.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Republican, both called Trump's move "banana republic" behavior.
Democrats in Congress accused Trump of creating an "enemies list."
"Trump demonstrates again how deeply insecure and vindictive he is -- two character flaws dangerous in any president," said Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
He added that "I also believe this action to silence a critic is unlawful."