Over the past 25 years, John Brennan has served as CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, provided daily intelligence briefings to President Bill Clinton, was appointed the first director of the National Counterterrorism Center by President George W. Bush and became the CIA’s director under President Barack Obama. In November, President Trump gave Brennan a new handle: “political hack.”
Trump’s remarks hit Brennan, along with former director of National Intelligence James Clapper and ex-FBI chief James Comey, just a couple of days before I interviewed Brennan, who will speak at the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall Lecture Series on Jan. 22. I wondered if Brennan would dodge the call, but at precisely 9 a.m. on a Monday morning my phone rang. “Good morning, John Brennan here,” he announced.
After so many years at the highest levels of national security, I ask, how did it feel to be ridiculed by a sitting president?
“Oh, I’m doing fine,” Brennan says. “I’ve always let those kinds of things roll off my back. But in this case, considering the source of the criticism, I considered it a badge of honor.”
Brennan speculates that Trump lashed out at him to “delegitimize” the findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in favor of Trump and against Hillary Clinton. The Intelligence Community Assessment made that case in January of 2017. The following months have brought new details of Russia’s efforts to influence voters, including posting fake stories on social media, as well as reports of the Trump team’s contacts with Russians promising dirt on Clinton.
“Jim Clapper, Jim Comey and John Brennan did not write that assessment. It was written by the professional intelligence officers and law enforcement officers of this great country,” Brennan says. “I find it puzzling that Mr. Trump continues to embrace Mr. Putin. Mr. Trump is trying to have it all ways. He says he believes the intelligence community and at the same time he disparages the formulation of the community. I think he is concerned, if not afraid, of insulting Mr. Putin.”
Brennan says that he is confident that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who he has known for many years, will get to the bottom about whether the Trump campaign broke any laws. He says Mueller is as honest and nonpartisan as anyone he has ever known in government.
He’s more worried about Trump’s snipes at foreign adversaries, particularly North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whom Trump has ridiculed as “Little Rocket Man.” Brennan finds those remarks to be a clear and present danger.
“The prospects for a military clash have increased significantly because of the saber-rattling on both sides,” Brennan says. “Things can escalate into a larger military conflict.” Instead of “hurling broadsides and insults,” he says, the United States should continue the international pressure on North Korea through sanctions, which can help prevent the flow of money, equipment and expertise into North Korea.
“I was very concerned when Kim Jong-un personally responded to Mr. Trump’s ‘Fire and Fury’ message,” he says. “Previously, North Korea’s spokesmen have responded. We have two leaders who are hurling personal insults at one another and they now have a lot of domestic face invested in this.”
More effective, he says, is the “quiet, behind-the-scenes, back-channel diplomacy” that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was trying to conduct when Trump undercut him with a tweet that said, “Save your energy, Rex.”
...Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2017
“We have to take this out of the Twittersphere and move it to direct or indirect discussions where we can find a way to move forward without involving military conflict,” Brennan says.
Brennan has similar thoughts about another U.S. adversary, Iran, saying diplomacy, not threats, will lead to progress. He says there is a counter-movement within Iran against the hard-line mullahs, which we should nurture and which could lead to a new relationship with Iran.
Brennan, the son of Irish immigrants, joined the CIA after seeing a recruiting ad in The New York Times in the 1970s while he was attending Fordham University. He has said he saw it as a chance for public service. But does he find it hard to remain hopeful after years of dealing with one threat after another, when al-Qaeda gives way to a more violent ISIS, when Kim Jong-il is succeeded by his apparently even crazier son, Kim Jong-un?
“Actually, I’m very positive and hopeful about the future for our nation,” Brennan says. “We have some painful political challenges to get through in the short term, but our economy is doing well, jobs are plentiful, and our people are strong.”
About the Ringling Town Hall Lecture Series
Former CIA Director John Brennan will give two talks Jan. 22 at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall as part of the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall lecture series. Other speakers this season, the 38th year for the series, include (from left) historian and author Jon Meacham, cancer researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee (author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer), author Michael Lewis (The Big Short) and CEO of Girls Who Code Reshma Saujani. For more information about the lecture series, go to rclassociation.org.