The digital clock next to my bed showed 4:06 a.m. As usual, my body clock had stirred me awake before my bedside radio alarm was set to go off, nine minutes later. I stared motionless at the pitch-black ceiling for a few minutes. With some effort and greater discomfort, I bent and stretched for a minute or two more before swinging my legs over the side of the bed. I shut off the alarm before it went off and then tiptoed awkwardly through the darkness to the bathroom, hoping not to stumble and wake my wife, Kathy, in the process. I had taken the same steps so many times over the preceding decades, I could have done it in my sleep. I probably did many times.
My eyes adjusted to the glare of the bathroom lights and I squinted at my reflection in the mirror. The Brennan genes had long coursed through my face, but I noticed something very different that morning. I could see my father’s deep-set eyes, tired yet piercing, looking straight into mine. “You can do it, John,” they seemed to be saying. “You can do it.” The tears welled up in my eyes, as the memory of my father’s life and the example he set filled me with deep pride and overwhelming sadness at the same time. The mere thought of briefing President-elect Donald Trump that afternoon and then gathering with my family a few short hours later at the wake of my father—the moral, ethical, and intellectual antithesis of Trump—jarred my very soul.
I splashed cold water on my face and tried to straighten my thinning yet hopelessly disheveled hair. I took one last glance at the mirror, looked into my father’s eyes with newfound strength, and said aloud, “Don’t worry, Dad. I can do it.”
My security detail was waiting outside my Herndon, Virginia, house, as they unfailingly did every morning when I was the CIA director. After I climbed into the back seat of the up-armored pitch-black SUV, a copy of the President’s Daily Brief and a collection of intelligence reports that had arrived at CIA headquarters overnight awaited me. I leafed through the material to see if there was anything especially alarming that would require my immediate action. Thankfully, there wasn’t.
The first of two briefings that were scheduled that day was for congressional leaders. As soon as the briefing concluded, I hustled back to my SUV, which had pulled up to a covered entrance on the House side of the Capitol to take me to Joint Base Andrews. I sunk into the soft black leather seat and leaned against the tinted and bullet-resistant window, oblivious to the world outside. My security agents rode up front in stoic silence.
In all my years riding in such protective cocoons, I had never felt more comforted by the SUV’s seclusion and solitude than I did on that cold January morning. I closed my eyes and thought about my father’s death the week before, his heart finally giving out after nearly 97 years. Thinking about my father brought back wonderful memories of growing up in New Jersey. Behind closed eyes, I could see my family gathered in our small, modestly appointed kitchen in North Bergen. My mother dishing out the standard dinner fare of a blue-collar family—potatoes, green beans, and meat loaf. My father sitting with his sleeveless T-shirt, his arms resting on the dinner table, his powerful biceps bouncing rhythmically while he buttered his bread. My older sister, Kathleen, younger brother, Tommy, and I competing for our parents’ attention as we told stories about our days.
Tears began to fill my eyes for the second time that morning. Closing them, I wanted so badly to be a carefree teenager once again, enjoying life with my family in North Bergen, rather than being the CIA director.
“We’re here, sir.”
I must have dozed off briefly; the words of the lead security agent sitting in the front passenger seat startled me. I opened my eyes and could see that we had pulled alongside an Air Force C-40, the military version of a Boeing 737. The C-40 was on the tarmac of Andrews, ready to take me, along with Jim Clapper, the director of national intelligence; Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency; and our respective security teams, to Newark International Airport.
I must have flown on several hundred U.S. military aircraft during my career, and whenever I boarded one, I could feel the enormous strength and might of the greatest superpower the world has ever known. On this sunny and brisk morning, however, the glistening blue-and-white aircraft had an especially majestic yet solemn quality to it. If its powerful engines were revving, I don’t think I heard them. My attention was drawn to an Air Force airman, wearing a crisply pressed blue uniform, who was standing at attention with perfect posture at the base of the carpeted mobile stairs. The cabin door, 20 feet above ground, was open and beckoned me to board my last flight as a government official on a U.S. military aircraft.
“Welcome aboard, Director Brennan.”
The professionalism, sense of duty, and pride that were evident on that young man’s face really struck me. Despite the deep concerns I felt that morning about Donald Trump’s lack of experience on national-security issues, my confidence in the strength and resilience of our country was renewed simply by looking at a single American serviceman less than half my age.
“Thank you. Thank you very much.”
Feeling a surge of patriotism, I attempted to bound up the stairs but had to settle for an unsteady and less-than-speedy hobble on my two prosthetic hips and one prosthetic knee. I made my way without stumbling, which I considered an unqualified success.
Jim Clapper was already on board when I entered the plane, and Mike joined us a few minutes later. We sat together and discussed the briefing we had just completed for the Gang of Eight. Clapper and I took some delight in telling Mike that it would be up to him and FBI Director Jim Comey to carry on the fight with the Russians and American politicians after Inauguration Day, since we were about to leave government. We told him that we weren’t sure which fight would be tougher.
Both Clapper and I had retired from government previously—Jim had done it several times; I had done so only once—and we were both looking forward to catching up on the sleep, books, cultural events, and, most important, family time that had eluded us over the past eight years. Nevertheless, we also knew that we would deeply miss being part of the national-security mission and witnessing firsthand the camaraderie and the selfless sacrifice that defined the women and men of the intelligence community.
For much of the flight, I sat silently and then gazed out the window as we entered the airspace of the state of my birth. As we approached Newark, I tried to pick out northern New Jersey landmarks. Once on the ground, we waited for Comey’s aircraft to arrive so that we could deplane and caravan together, heralded by police sirens and lights, through the Lincoln Tunnel, under the Hudson River, to our appointed meeting in midtown Manhattan. Our respective SUVs, security details, and NYPD escorts converged on Trump Tower in near-flawless traffic-paralyzing synchronization, much to the dismay of nearby New York commuters, taxi drivers, and even pedestrians who were forced to come to a dead stop.
Quickly exiting our vehicles, we made our way to the Trump Tower service-entrance elevator bank, each of us flanked by our own earpiece-wearing, gun-toting, grim-faced security agents. We piled into several elevators and ascended to an intermediate floor before transferring to another bank of elevators that would bring us to the floor where the briefing was slated to take place. The two Jims, Mike, and I were directed by our security details to a windowless conference room with 10 chairs surrounding a rectangular conference table in the middle of the room.
The lock bag containing my briefing notes was not the only thing I brought with me to the Trump Tower conference room that day. I also carried a mental catalog of the many unfavorable impressions of Trump I had accumulated over the previous decades. As a product of a northern New Jersey upbringing and a university education at Fordham University’s Bronx campus, I had long been familiar with Trump’s antics. Over the years, I had heard and read many stories of Trump’s reliance on intimidation, untruths, ruthless litigation, and bankruptcy laws—augmented by his routine defaults on contractor payments—to fuel his eponymous business ventures and achieve some measure of wealth. His penchant for playing fast, loose, and without principles gave him a well-deserved reputation for being a self-promoting and publicity-seeking blowhard, even by generous New York City standards.
My jaded view of Trump was reinforced by his performance in the run-up to the November election and his disparagement of the intelligence community after he won. Although I had witnessed many politicians over the years make hollow campaign promises and specious claims about their own accomplishments, as well as the failings of their opponents and previous administrations, no individual came close to Trump’s dishonesty, unabashed self-aggrandizement, and demagogic rhetoric.
When Trump officially announced at Trump Tower, on June 16, 2015, that he was running for president, I had dismissed it as yet another one of his many clever public-relations gambits, designed to raise his public profile and name brand, which would bring him financial benefit. But when he proceeded to trounce his Republican opponents in the primaries in scorched-earth fashion, it was undeniable that he possessed a charisma that allowed him to repackage his political snake oil as a magical national elixir.
But like most Americans, including Trump, I was shocked at his subsequent electoral-college victory. I could not understand how so many voters thought he was qualified—intellectually, morally, ethically, temperamentally, or experientially—to be the president of the United States. I had badly underestimated the appeal he had to a large segment of the American electorate that clearly was fed up with Washington politics as usual.
But were American voters so gullible as to believe that Donald Trump could assume and carry out the responsibilities attached to the presidency of the United States of America—the most powerful position the world has ever known? Was the number of Hillary Clinton haters far larger than anyone had realized, and much greater than I could fathom, such that Trump won in what amounted to a protest vote? Or did the Russian interference that the intelligence community had warned about tilt the election in key swing states so that Trump came out on top? Those questions haunted me that day as I prepared to meet Trump. They haunt me still.
We had been seated around the table in the conference room for about 10 minutes when the door opened, and Trump and his retinue entered. Trump led the procession, followed closely by Vice President–elect Mike Pence and National Security Adviser–designate Mike Flynn. Others in the group included the CIA director nominee Mike Pompeo, Chief of Staff–designate Reince Priebus, Deputy National Security Adviser–designate K. T. McFarland, and Homeland Security Adviser–designate Tom Bossert. The press spokesperson Sean Spicer joined mid-briefing. A senior intelligence-community officer I will not name, who was responsible for giving Trump his daily intelligence briefing whenever he decided to take it, also was present.
It was the first time I had ever seen Trump in person. He was larger than I had anticipated, both in height and width, even when he removed his expensive black overcoat. He made his way around the table and proceeded to shake our hands, making good eye contact each time. He thanked us for coming to New York and said he was interested in hearing what we had to tell him. He sat at the head of the conference-room table, folded his hands, and asked us to begin. Pence sat at the other end of the table and was flanked by Flynn and Priebus; the rest of Trump’s team sat in chairs along the wall to his right.
Clapper took out the same scripted briefing he had used on Capitol Hill a few hours before and began his presentation. I studiously watched Trump during the approximately 75-minute briefing. He was attentive and focused throughout and only rarely adjusted his body posture. He took no notes. The briefing was interrupted several times by the Trump team members in the room, mostly to ask for clarification or for something to be repeated. Pence, Flynn, Priebus, and Bossert showed the most curiosity about the nature and scope of Russian meddling. At predetermined points of the briefing, Clapper turned to Comey, Rogers, and me to provide our agency-specific offerings.
I had decided beforehand that I would share the full substance of CIA intelligence and analysis on Russian interference in the election without providing any specific details on the provenance of our knowledge. The sensitive sources and methods related to counterintelligence and Russia are among the nation’s most prized jewels, and I lacked confidence that all the individuals in that conference room had the requisite understanding of classification procedures and controls—not to mention the personal discipline and integrity—to avoid devastating disclosures, either inadvertent or willful. Moreover, given his public praise of WikiLeaks, strange obsequiousness toward Vladimir Putin, and disdain toward the U.S. intelligence community, I had serious doubts that Trump would protect our nation’s most vital secrets.
His alertness never faded during the briefing, but his demeanor as well as his questions strongly revealed that he was uninterested in finding out what the Russians had done or holding them to account. Rather, Trump seemed most focused on challenging the intelligence and analysis underlying the judgment among the CIA, FBI, NSA, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that Russia interfered in the election and that the interference was intended to enhance his election prospects. It also was my clear impression—based on the thousands of such briefings I have conducted over more than three decades—that he was seeking most to learn what we knew and how we knew it. This deeply troubled me, as I worried about what he might do with the information he was being given.
During the briefing, Trump posited his own theories about election interference and voiced his skepticism that the culprit was Russia, articulating what would become a well-honed attack strategy of seeking to discredit any suggestion that his election was fraudulent or in any way influenced by Russian interference. “It could have been the Chinese,” he interjected several times during the briefing, seeking to deflect focus away from the unanimous assessment that the Russians were responsible. We each took turns debunking his counterclaims, as there was not a scintilla of doubt in any of our minds that what we witnessed in the run-up to the election was an intense, determined, and broad-based effort by the Russians to interfere in the election.
As the briefing was beginning to wrap up, Trump looked at me and made unsolicited disparaging remarks about human sources. “Anyone will say anything if you pay them enough. I know that, and you know that,” he said. At that moment, my thoughts went to the many foreign nationals who had worked with the CIA throughout its history and had courageously risked and even given their lives because they believed in America and what it stands for. I also thought of how every president I had briefed during my career was deeply appreciative of the CIA’s human sources, even if not all of the intelligence they provided was accurate.
I stared at Trump, shook my head in disgusted disagreement, and bit my tongue nearly hard enough to draw blood. I knew that he saw me at the time not as John Brennan the person but as the director of the CIA, and I did not want to irredeemably spoil the CIA’s relationship with the incoming president before it even got started. It was one of the few times in my professional career that I successfully suppressed my Irish temper when dealing with a politician. I wish I hadn’t.
In the preparatory session Clapper had convened the day before, it was agreed that Comey would talk to Trump separately about the now-infamous Steele dossier, which alleged misconduct and conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, at the end of the formal briefing. While the dossier was fast becoming the worst-kept secret in Washington, Comey believed that it was important for Trump to understand that such information was circulating in media and political circles inside and outside Washington.
Although Trump and his team most likely already had a copy of the dossier, or at the very least were cognizant of its salacious and unverified contents, we agreed with Comey that it would be best to ensure that at least the president-elect was aware of it. Comey told Trump that he had some information to share with him privately, but allowed that he could have someone from his team join him. Trump opted not to have anyone else participate. Given the nature of the allegations, they were understandably best handled one-on-one.
As soon as I left the conference room, I immediately went to the elevators and descended Trump Tower accompanied only by my security detail. While the briefing was uneventful and the president-elect was relatively well behaved, I had become even more convinced that my long-held assessment of Trump’s narcissism, lack of principles, and unfitness for the country’s highest office was accurate. He showed no intellectual curiosity about what Russia had done and how it had carried out its campaign to interfere in the election, which suggested to me that he wasn’t interested in learning the truth or in taking action to prevent a recurrence. More ominously, I left with a dark feeling that our country was entering what would be a very painful and dangerous chapter of its history.
It was a relief to leave Trump Tower and to have the day’s briefings finally over. I just wanted to get to New Jersey, so I could be with my family to grieve for my father and console my mother.
A few minutes after I arrived at the Higgins and Bonner Echo Lake Funeral Home in Westfield, New Jersey, Kathy and our children, Kyle, Kelly, and Jaclyn, pulled into the parking lot after their four-hour drive from Herndon. Steadily, other family members, friends, and former neighbors poured into the funeral home to say goodbye to Owen Brennan and tell his children and grandchildren how lucky we were to have had such a good and decent man as a father, grandfather, and role model. That evening, Kathleen, Tommy, and I, accompanied by our spouses and children, went to see my mother, Dottie, who, in her 96th year, was too feeble to venture out to the funeral home to be with her life’s partner one last time. “How is Daddy?” she asked us, as we gathered round her.
“He’s fine, Mom,” we said. “He’s now with God.” She then blessed herself, as tears rolled down her face.
The ground was already covered in a blanket of snow when our family gathered at the funeral home early on Saturday morning to pay final tribute to my father’s legacy. As Kathleen, Tommy, and I once again greeted family and friends as they arrived at the funeral home, I was taken aback when I saw two familiar faces arriving within minutes of each other. Jim Clapper and Denis McDonough, President Obama’s chief of staff, were two of my closest colleagues and friends in the Obama administration. Unbeknownst to me or to each other, they had traveled separately early that morning from their homes outside Washington, D.C., to pay their respects to my father. Over the years that we worked together, Jim, Denis, and I frequently shared stories about our families, and I had always taken great delight in bragging about my New Jersey roots and my wonderful parents. As my father’s medical condition had steadily deteriorated in December, Jim and Denis regularly asked about him, and they extended their heartfelt personal condolences when he passed.
The gently falling snow and the handsomely attired Irish bagpiper made for a fittingly picturesque scene when my father’s casket, flanked by his six grandchildren, was slowly guided through the front doors of the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Mountainside. “Owen,” the priest said during the homily of the Mass, “was a man of humble beginnings who made his way from Ireland to America, found happiness and love in his family and friends, and lived a good life.” With those few words, my father’s life was captured in a way that I know would have made him both happy and proud.
The snowfall became more intense as the funeral procession made its way along Route 22 to take my father to his final resting place in Holy Name Cemetery in Jersey City. When we arrived, our family gathered around the casket one last time. Despite being surrounded by my family and so many friends, I felt alone for the first time in my life. It was at that moment that the reality sunk in that I would no longer be able to talk to my father and be comforted by his innate wisdom. I would not be able to ask him questions that ranged from how to repair a leaky bathroom faucet to what the meaning was of life itself. And I would no longer hear his soft Irish brogue when he recited the poetry he learned in his youth, as he did with the 19th-century Irish poem “The Croppy Boy” the day before he died.
My father’s death and my mother’s infirmity also made me more aware than ever before of my own mortality. I bowed my head and pledged I would never forget the lessons of goodness, integrity, and honesty of my parents’ lives. It was an honor to be their son.
This article is adapted from Brennan’s book, Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, At Home and Abroad.