John Brennan: My trouble with Trump? ‘His dishonesty, his character’
The former CIA director is a fierce critic of the US president – and the feeling is mutual
John Brennan: some of Donald Trump’s behaviour has been treasonous, he says. Photograph: Al Drago/New York Times
As John Brennan takes his seat on the patio of the historic Willard Hotel, a few blocks from the White House, there is a ripple of recognition among those sitting nearby.
The former CIA director is a man more used to being in the background. As the head of America’s foreign intelligence agency he was privy to the nation’s most sensitive secrets.
Today, he has become a very public and outspoken critic of President Donald Trump, his fame cemented by his regular appearance on cable news channels such as MSNBC.
As we talk, a member of the public approaches Brennan to shake his hand. He responds politely, his shy smile suggesting that he is still not entirely comfortable with his new public persona.
Brennan will visit Dublin next week for the Dalkey Book Festival. It is one of his many visits to the country, since his first trip more than 40 years ago.
'I worked with six presidents – three Democrats and three Republicans. I’m not a Democrat or a Republican. I’m a non-partisan'
Brennan is intensely proud of his Irish American heritage. His story is in many ways representative of the thousands who made the journey from Ireland to America to seek a better life.
His father, the seventh of 10 children from Co Roscommon, trained as a blacksmith before leaving Ireland for the United States in 1948 when he was 28 years old. Many of his generation took a similar path.
Within a couple of years in the US he met Brennan’s mother, whose grandparents had emigrated from Ireland, at an Irish dance.
They settled in New Jersey, and Brennan recalls being brought up in a typical Irish-American household.
Irish history was “deeply embedded in us”, he says. “For a while I knew as much about Irish history as I did about American history. I think we had a glorified impression of the old country, and we’d often asked my father, ‘why did you come here?’
“He used to say – it took me 28 years to come here, why would I go back?” he smiles. “There was very little opportunity at the time, especially in Connaught.”
Nonetheless his father maintained a deep interest in his home country. Brennan first accompanied his father back to Ireland in 1972. The last time was in 2014 when, together with his brother, he brought his 93-year-old father back to Ireland for The Gathering. “We were in the local paper,” says Brennan with a smile.
The son of an Irish immigrant who rose to the top of the CIA, John Brennan’s career trajectory in many ways encapsulates the American Dream.
After attending High School in New Jersey, he enrolled in Fordham College in New York, commuting an hour and a half each way every day to Manhattan.
A trip to Indonesia during his sophomore year – his cousin Tom was working there as a diplomat – sparked a wanderlust in him.
He first considered attending the American University of Beirut but it closed in 1975 and instead he went to the American University in Cairo. There he learned Arabic and developed a lifelong interest in the Middle East. After completing a masters in governance at the University of Texas in Austin on his return, he saw an advertisement for the CIA and applied.
Brennan joined the agency in 1980, moving rapidly up the career ladder. After a tour in Saudi Arabia, he held senior positions within the CIA. Brennan served under six American presidents including – most controversially – George W Bush. Under this administration he was involved in the response to the 9/11 attacks, including interrogation programmes.
His knowledge of and involvement in those programmes would later dog him when he was first considered as CIA director by President Barack Obama.
While president Trump has accused him of being an Obama man, Brennan is quick to stress that he is non-partisan. “I worked with six presidents – three Democrats and three Republicans. I’m not a Democrat or a Republican. I’m a non-partisan.”
Indeed, he points out that when he was in the Obama administration most of his troubles were with Democratic senators, who raised concerns about the detention interrogation programmes.
Nonetheless, Brennan has a huge respect for Obama. Having acted as a long-distance adviser to Obama during the campaign – he did not meet the president in person until he was elected – he was invited to Chicago. “We had a lot of shared experiences. He spent years in Indonesia, of course, and there was a very strong alignment of our views as well as our principles, and I would say, moral compass.”
While Obama asked him to be CIA director, Brennan eventually withdrew from consideration over the controversy about his knowledge of the enhanced interrogation programmes. Instead he joined the White House as assistant for homeland security and counterintelligence.
“Ironically I got to know him much better and have more influence than if I’d been in Langley,” he says, referring to CIA headquarters in Virginia.
When David Petraeus resigned as head of the CIA in 2012, Brennan replaced him, a move that put him at the very top of America’s decision-making powers.
Brennan’s central role in the Obama administration is captured in the famous photograph taken inside the White House situation room on the night Osama bin Laden was captured and killed – there he stands behind President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and others, watching the operation unfold.
The trouble with Trump
But it is since leaving the US intelligence services and the election of Donald Trump that Brennan has stepped out of the shadows and into the public arena.
The 63-year old has become one of the most vociferous critics of Trump. On Twitter and in multiple interviews he has blasted the president, most memorably describing the president’s behaviour in Helsinki when Trump appeared to take the side of Russian president Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agents as “treasonous”. His status as one of the US’s most vociferous critics of Trump was chillingly underlined when he was one of several prominent Americans, including Obama, who was the intended recipient of explosive packages in the mail last year.
As we sit and talk, with the White House grounds just metres away, talk turns to Trump. Brennan doesn’t hold back.
I find that many of Trump's policies are deeply flawed and are purely tactical to give him a political bounce
“I have disagreed with past presidents about their policy choices, and I worked for them, and I have no problem with differences in policy. But all the presidents I worked for, I really felt that what they were trying to do was in the best interests of the United States government. I always felt that they were trying to represent the American people, and I always felt that they were respectful for the office, and were fulfilling those obligations that we all should expect and demand of a president of the United States,” he says, his voice remaining steady and restrained.
“So my beef with Donald Trump is not because he has done some very foolish things – like reneging on the Iran nuclear deal, or how he has handled the North Korea situation – I find that many of his policies are deeply flawed and are purely tactical to give him a political bounce.
“But if that was the only problem I had with him, I would be silent. What really just rankles me to no end is his dishonesty, his lack of ethics and principles and character, the way he demeans and degrades and denigrates individuals or institutions of government, what he has done and said about the FBI and CIA and the former leadership, the fact that he wilfully misleads not just the American people but the world.”
He pauses to take a sip of water: “He is a pathological deceiver and that lack of ethical, principled behaviour is something that I never thought I would see in the president of the United States who is the most powerful person in the world, who should serve as a role model to all Americans.
“I feel that Donald Trump has not just fallen short of that standard, he has totally trampled that standard. He has always been motivated by personal advancement and gain, so the things he does, the things he says, the tweets that he puts out I find are disgraceful, unconscionable, disrespectful, and are not in keeping with the great tradition this country has tried to establish.”
Clearly, the feeling is mutual. Trump has derided Brennan as an Obama-appointee, who is a “disgrace to the intelligence community”. The White House announced last year that it was removing Brennan’s security credentials, though it has not yet followed through with the threat.
The Mueller report
In particular, Trump has highlighted the fact that Brennan was CIA director in the run-up to the 2016 elections – one of the so-called “deep state” actors that his supporters believe were biased against Trump. Indeed Brennan was one of those who briefed Trump on the threat of Russian interference following the election.
With Trump accusing the US intelligence agencies of illegally spying on his campaign, it is likely that Brennan could be interviewed as part of the new probe opened by attorney general William Barr into the origins of the Russia investigation.
Brennan’s past commentary on the Mueller report came under renewed scrutiny by Trump supporters and conservative commentators, in the weeks following the publication of William Barr’s four-page summary of the Mueller report.
That summary said the report had found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia – vindicating the claims of many Trump supporters that the US intelligence services were biased against Trump.
Did people such as Brennan jump the gun when it came to the Mueller report?
“No. I still stand by my argument that there was extensive collusion, but what the Mueller investigative team determined was that there was not a basis of evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy,” he says.
“Even though the report made no reference to no collusion at all, attorney general Barr said that there was no collusion and Trump continues to say no collusion. That’s not the case – again it didn’t meet the criminal conspiracy threshold.”
As for the current challenges facing Trump, Brennan is hugely concerned about the administration’s strategy on several foreign policy issues.
As we meet, he has just come from a private briefing with House and Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill, where he briefed congressional figures on Iran. The threat of war between Washington and Tehran has appeared to increase in recent weeks amid signs of increased US activity in the region.
“The United States has gone down this cul de sac with Iran, by putting pressure on the regime, in the false belief that they will change. It’s a culture of resistance in Iran,” he says, describing national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as “Iran zealots”.
“By reneging on the Iran nuclear deal, by designating the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] as a terrorist organisation, by tightening sanctions on Iran and forcing European parties to the agreement to renege on their obligations, the perception in Iran is that the Trump administration ultimately wants to overthrow the regime.”
This has emboldened hardliners, he says, and even moderates who put their trust in the US when they signed the 2015 accord.
Brennan is equally dismissive about Trump’s North Korean policy, arguing that he played right into Kim Jong-un’s hands.
President Obama, President Bush and President Clinton – the ones I worked most closely with – they wanted to understand all of the different aspects, all of the details
“It was my impression that Kim Jong Un was already planning before the election that when a new president came into office he would ratchet up his activities to get the nuclear programme to a certain point that it could be a serious threat, and then pivot to try and demonstrate more statesman-like behaviour in the hope of being accepted as a responsible nuclear power like India, or France.
Trump swallowed it hook, line and sinker, he says.
Trump “gave Kim the prominence and profile that he wanted without any commensurate reduction in his nuclear or missile capability” and left the US with very little to show, he says. “North Korea has been able to further develop its nuclear capabilities since Trump came into office.”
Foreign policy failings
Ultimately for Brennan, he believes Trump’s foreign policy failings encapsulate his failings more generally as a president.
“These are all very complex and complicated issues that really require very delicate moves and an understanding of just how complicated the situations are,” he says. “President Obama, President Bush and President Clinton – the ones I worked most closely with – they really absorbed a lot of information. They wanted to understand all of the different aspects, all of the details.
“Clearly Donald Trump feels – and he has said – that he is the smartest man in the world, that he knows more than military generals know. This type of adhocery on foreign policy is a recipe for disaster.”
Trump’s modus operandi has “always been to go in high and hard but then to settle for less but to try to undercut your opponents by threatening them”, he says. “That does not work in the same way on the international stage. I think Trump is finding this out, despite his claims of his tremendous acumen when it comes to negotiations, deal making.”
As for the next chapter in the Trump presidency, Brennan believes that Democrats should continue their methodical investigations into the president’s behaviour in the wake of the Mueller report.
“I really do believe that Mr Trump is hiding something. Preventing people from testifying in front of Congress, not releasing his tax returns? I don’t know what it is, but I think that the American people deserve to know whether their president is a criminal or vulnerable to foreign exploitation.”
As we finish up our discussion, he jokes about if he has been candid enough about his views on the president. He says he puts it down to his Irish heritage.
“I tend to be a bit outspoken, my Irish identity gets the better of me,” he smiles. “I do speak rather bluntly and candidly, but that’s what my father taught me, to be honest and true and to carry out your responsibilities with the greatest integrity. Then you can and let the chips fall where they may.”
With that, he steps out onto the busy streets of Washington DC, ready to respond to whatever the next chapter of this extraordinary US presidency will bring.
John Brennan will discuss Trump’s America and his former role as the head of the CIA at the Dalkey Book Festival. The festival runs from Thursday, June 13th, to Sunday, June 16th. dalkeybookfestival.org