WASHINGTON — Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday that he thinks President Trump is “trolling” people with his threat to revoke the security clearances from former top national security officials who have criticized him and his policies.
“I think he’s trolling people, honestly,” the Wisconsin Republican said, chuckling slightly, when NBC News’ Kasie Hunt asked if Trump’s threat is dangerous.
But if he's serious, there wouldn't be much Congress could do about it, according to Ryan: “This is something that’s in the purview of the executive branch,” he said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told MSNBC's Garrett Haake on Tuesday that he couldn’t believe that the White House “thought seriously” about pulling the security clearances of former Obama-era staff because they criticized the president recently. Corker, who recently traveled to Venezuela, said that this behavior is what can be seen there and in other non-democratic countries.
“It’s a banana republic kind of thing,” Corker said.
Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a frequent Trump critic, sounded a similar note. "I'd like to see the reason. Did someone breach protocol in terms of classified material, or break a law, then it would certainly be appropriate. If it's not, it would just look to be just kind of political retribution."
Others were skeptical of the president's actions while being critical of his critics. “Should you revoke somebody’s security clearance because they’ve been a butthead? I don’t know," Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said Tuesday. "Maybe you should just ignore the buttheads...”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday that the president is considering taking away the security clearances of former CIA Director John Brennan, an NBC News contributor; former FBI Director James B. Comey; former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden; former National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice; former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.; and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
"Not only is the President looking to take away Brennan's security clearance, he's also looking into the clearances of Comey, Clapper, Hayden, Rice, and McCabe," Sanders said at the White House briefing Monday. "The president is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearance because they've politicized and, in some cases, monetized their public service and security clearances."
Classification expert Steven Aftergood of the Project on Government Security told NBC News' Ken Dilanian that he was not aware of any previous case in which a president moved to revoke the clearances of officials from a previous administration, "especially those who had expressed criticism of his actions."
Clapper said Monday that his security clearance "has nothing to do with how I or any of us feel about the president. And I don't get the briefings," he said on CNN. "I don't have access to classified information. It's frankly more of a courtesy that former senior officials in the intelligence community are extended the courtesy of keeping the security clearance. Haven't had a case to use it, and has no bearing whatsoever on my regard or lack thereof for President Trump or what he's doing."
Hayden expressed much the same sentiments. "I don't go back for classified briefings (although they occasionally ask me in to offer a view on something)," he told NBC on Monday. "Won't have any impact on what I say or write."