Two former top US intelligence officials blasted President Donald Trump on Friday over his handling of Russia, both on its meddling in the presidential election and on the international stage.
Former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper were at times jovial and visibly frustrated when speaking at the Aspen Security Forum on the subject, but the two were overwhelmingly critical of Trump's public comments dismissing Russia's actions in the election, and his praise of Vladimir Putin.
"You know, sometimes I wonder if he's out making Russia great again," Clapper quipped.
Brennan and Clapper both made a career through the ranks of US intelligence agencies and in the end of President Obama's administration, were deeply involved in the US investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election.
Speaking at a forum hosted by CNN's Wolf Blitzer, the two spoke about their involvement in the investigation, clashing with then-president-elect Trump, and his campaign's interaction with Russian officials.
Asked about a meeting during the campaign between Donald Trump Jr., the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner, and former campaign manager Paul Manafort with a Russian attorney linked to the Kremlin and Russian intelligence agency, Clapper said the meeting appeared like "standard tradecraft" employed by Russian agents.
Brennan called the decision for the campaign's top players to attend the meeting "profoundly baffling."
"They should have known better," Brennan said. "If they didn't, they shouldn't have been in those positions."
But the two men were also critical of Trump's decisions in dealing with Russia recently, and questioned why the president has handled Russia differently than other US adversaries such as North Korea and Iran. Brennan, for example, called Trump's plan to work with Russia on a cyber unit to safeguard elections "absurd."
It is no secret that the president and the US intelligence agencies have clashed after Trump blamed them for leaking to the press and openly questioned intelligence assessments that the Russian government worked to disrupt the 2016 election. But when Trump posted a tweet comparing US intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany, Clapper said he had to call the then-president elect.
"I was amazed he took the call, and I was actually hopeful," Clapper said, adding he believed he had "gotten through to him" after Trump announced he would visit CIA headquarters.
"Naive me," Clapper said.
Instead, Trump was interested in trying to get Clapper to refute allegations in a dossier compiled by a former British spy and published by BuzzFeed News, alleging Russia had obtained personally and financially embarrassing information about him.
Trump appears to have referenced this phone call in a tweet he posted the following day.
Clapper, however, refutes that claim. "I couldn't and wouldn't," he said.
When the president did visit the CIA, Clapper said it was disrespectful when Trump began to address agents about the size of the crowd at his inauguration.
"Having spent 34 years in the military, that would have been the same to me had he gone to the tomb of the unknown soldier in Arlington, and stood in front of that hallowed place, and said the same thing," he said.
It isn't the first time former intelligence or military officials have been critical of a sitting president. Still, the criticism from Brennan and Clapper — the bulk of the US intelligence agencies — comes just six months into Trump's presidency.
"It is liberating to be a former" official, Clapper said.
Brennan was also critical of Trump's handling of Putin, pointing to an encounter between the two men at the G20 summit when Trump leaned over to the Russian president and said, "It's an honor to be with you."
"This is Mr. Putin who assaulted one of the great pillars of our democracy, our electorate system, who invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, who has oppressed political opponents and caused the death of many of them," Brennan said. "(For) someone who wrote The Art of the Deal, I thought it was a very bad negotiating tactic, and I felt it was not the honorable thing to say."
Those actions, both men said, have emboldened Russia to continue to pose threats against the US, and weaken the standing of US intelligence agencies abroad.
Though both Brennan and Clapper praised their replacements, Brennan said the president's actions "pose serious questions about who he is keeping safe our national security."
Neither one of them would comment on the current reported tensions between the intelligence agencies and the president, but said Trump's constant criticisms have had less and less impact over time.
That in itself, Clapper said, is concerning.
"It's more comic relief than a serious thing, which is bad," he said. "If President Obama had said to me after a congressional hearing, 'You choked,' I would have been devastated. But this one [president] I didn't care."
Watch the entire exchange here:
Salvador Hernandez is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
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