Speaking at Australia’s National Press Club on Wednesday, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made a case that the scandal that brought down President Nixon pares in comparison to President Trump’s connections with Russia.
Clapper’s comments are particularly damaging because Trump and top White House staff have repeatedly cited his views as “proof” there was no substance to the Russia investigation. Trump and his press staff have invoked Clapper’s names dozens of times in recent months to deflect questions about the burgeoning controversy.
Asked by a reporter for his thoughts about “the critical difference” between Watergate and Trump-Russia, Clapper said, “I have to say though that I think when you compare the two, Watergate pales, really, in my view, compared to what we’re confronting now.”
Former DNI James Clapper: "Watergate pales, really, in my view, compared to what we're confronting now." pic.twitter.com/VmlRq4pmTz
— Axios (@axios) June 7, 2017
During his prepared remarks, Clapper said that as a private citizen, he’s “very concerned about the assault on our institutions coming from both an external source — read, Russia — and an internal source — the president himself.”
— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) June 7, 2017
With regard to the threat posed by Trump specifically, Clapper detailed interactions he had during the transition period with the then-president-elect that left him concerned. He began with Trump’s January 11 tweet in which he compared leaks from the intelligence community about Russian meddling in the presidential election to the behavior of officials in Nazi Germany.
Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to "leak" into the public. One last shot at me.Are we living in Nazi Germany?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
Clapper said that tweet was “prompted” by team Trump’s “extreme paranoia about, and resentment of, any doubt cast on the legitimacy of his election.”
Clapper said he called Trump about it, and to his surprise, the president-elect took his call. During their conversation, Trump asked Clapper to publicly knock down reports about an unverified intelligence dossier that claims Russia has “compromising personal and financial information” about Trump.
“I tried, naively it turned out, to appeal to his ‘higher instincts’ — by pointing out that the intelligence community he was about to inherit is a national treasure, and that the people in it were committed to supporting him and making him successful,” Clapper continued. “Even transactional, he simply asked me to publicly refuse the infamous ‘dossier,’ which I could not and would not do.”
Trump, however, provided a very different account of what was discussed during that call on Twitter.
James Clapper called me yesterday to denounce the false and fictitious report that was illegally circulated. Made up, phony facts.Too bad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2017
Parts of the dossier have since been verified.
Clapper said he kept an open mind about Trump up through his first speech as president to the intelligence community, a January 21 address to the CIA in Langley, Virginia, in which Trump focused on bashing the media for accurately reporting the relative smallness of his inauguration crowd.
“For the intelligence community — not just the CIA — the wall in the front lobby at CIA headquarters is hallowed, with over 120 stars commemorating CIA officer who have paid the ultimate price,” Clapper said. “He chose to use that as a prop for railing about the size of the inauguration crowd on the Mall, and his battles with the ‘fake news’ media. His subsequent actions — sharing sensitive intelligence with the Russians, and, compromising its source… are likewise very problematic.”
Clapper also denounced Trump for firing former FBI Director James Comey amid the FBI’s active investigation into his campaign for possible collusion with Russia, saying the “episode reflected complete disregard for the independence and autonomy of the FBI, our premier law enforcement organization.”
From talking point to vocal critic
In recent weeks, Clapper has gone from being a favorite Trump talking point to one of the administration’s most vocal critics.
Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly appealed to Brennan’s authority while trying to refute allegations that his campaign colluded with Russia. Their comments were based on a March 4 Meet the Press interview in which Clapper was asked by Chuck Todd if he’s aware of evidence the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
“Not to my knowledge,” Clapper replied.
Two weeks later, Comey confirmed that the FBI is investigating the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia during testimony before Congress. That same day, Trump seized upon Clapper’s Meet the Press remark to try and undercut the notion he’s involved in a scandal.
James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia. This story is FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 20, 2017
Trump returned to the point repeatedly.
Director Clapper reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows- there is "no evidence" of collusion w/ Russia and Trump.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 8, 2017
When James Clapper himself, and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the witch hunt, says there is no collusion, when does it end?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
Spicer also seized upon Clapper’s Meet the Press comments during press briefings. On March 8, the press secretary told reporters, “you look at former DNI Clapper’s comments, he literally said, the DNI — he said, ‘The DNI, which includes the NSA, FBI and CIA, did not find any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian agents.’”
On May 9, Spicer reiterated that point, saying Clapper, when asked if he had seen evidence of collusion, “said no.”
“And I think that at some point — I said it before in this briefing room — but we have to take no for an answer,” Spicer continued. “He said that — the Director of National Intelligence asked, has there been anything that you’ve seen additionally that shows collusion. He answered very clearly — the answer is no. And it continues to be no.”
But that talking point twists of Clapper’s words. It was debunked during a Senate hearing the day before Comey’s firing when Clapper explained that his previous public comments simply indicated he wasn’t aware of the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign at the time — not that collusion didn’t take place.
During an MSNBC interview days later, Clapper clarified further.
“My practice during the six and a half years that I was at the DNI was always to defer to the director of the FBI — be it Director Bob Mueller or Director James Comey — on whether, when, and what to tell me about a counterintelligence investigation,” Clapper said. “So it is not surprising or abnormal that I would not have known about the investigation or even more important, the content of that investigation. So I don’t know if there was collusion or not, I don’t know if there is evidence of collusion or not, nor should I have in this particular context.”
Clapper’s comments at the hearing and on MSNBC didn’t stop the Trump administration from citing him, however. The morning after Clapper’s testimony, Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders grossly misrepresented Clapper’s words during an interview on Morning Joe, saying, “I hope that the Senate completes [their investigation] so that they can come to the same conclusion that everyone else has, and that every person has said, whether it’s been [former Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper or others, that there is no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.”
Not only did Huckabee Sanders mischaracterize what Clapper said, she also mischaracterized Comey. During the March 20 House hearing where he confirmed the Trump campaign is the subject of a counterintelligence investigation, Comey said, “I’ve been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.”
“That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” Comey added.
In late May, former CIA Director John Brennan told the House Intelligence Committee that he’s aware of communications between the Trump campaign and Russian officials that sparked concern about possible collusion.
Brennan declined to get into details, saying that specifics about the people involved and what was said remain classified. But he said he “encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals, and it raised questions in my mind whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.”
That “information and intelligence,” Brennan added, led to the FBI’s counterintelligence probe of the Trump campaign, which began in July 2016.