What Else Does the CIA Know About Trump and Russia?
In a new book, former CIA Director John Brennan traces how he came to believe that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. There’s still more about Russia that worries him.
The part that I wasn’t expecting, sitting at a picnic table with the former CIA director near the center of a working farm with goats and chickens and a cider barn, was when a man interrupted us—just as we were starting to talk about Barack Obama’s initial reaction to intelligence reports of Russian election hacking—and asked if we could help him jump his car battery. He had no idea that this was John Brennan climbing over the fence in his oxfords, showing him how to hook up the cables, making sure he wasn’t going far to get home, and revving the engine until the pale-blue Subaru started again.
Or maybe he did, and this was all some op out of The Americans. The whole afternoon felt more like pseudo-spycraft than a usual interview. Meet in a parking lot in suburban Virginia. Trust that the place really is called Frying Pan Farm Park. Assume that all the kids and their parents running around have no clue that a person who had access to America’s top-secret information was sitting there explaining the difference between compromise and kompromat.
There’s a moment in Brennan’s new book, Undaunted, that should be jaw-dropping, but at this point fits into the Twilight Zone of the past four years. Briefing the top Donald Trump team a few days before the inauguration, going through the CIA’s assessment that Vladimir Putin had ordered the election tampering, Brennan gets an uneasy feeling. Trump seemed less disturbed by the briefing than interested in probing for how Brennan knew what he knew, what the sources were. “This deeply troubled me, as I worried what he might do with the information he was being given,” Brennan writes.
The then-director of the CIA was suspicious of the president-elect of the United States, feeling that he couldn’t be trusted with American national security. Brennan writes that he had been wary of Trump going into the meeting, couldn’t believe he had won, then came away from that meeting thinking “foreign intelligence services take much the same approach” to interrogating information in search of sources. Despite the intelligence community conclusion that Russia was behind the attack, Trump was full of his own postulations about what other country might be responsible. And as they finished, Brennan writes, Trump looked at him and said, “Anyone will say anything if you pay them enough. I know you know that.” (Judd Deere, a White House spokesperson, replied to my request to verify this statement by cc’ing several current National Security Council staff on an email, but that was the extent of the response.)
We’ve lived through four years of drips and leaks and reports and insinuations, but no single piece of information neatly explains what exactly we’ve been living through. Is it just a bunch of coincidences, overinterpreted bits of facts, and the Kremlin poking at our confusion, or is Trump part of some Russian plot? Does Putin have something on him? In his book, Brennan describes a days-long process of going through all the intelligence, the most-secret secrets, before calling the White House and saying he had to brief Obama on what he knew. He’s got to know.
“I find it difficult to explain the extent to which Donald Trump has kowtowed” to Putin, Brennan says to me. One theory is that the Russians do have some compromising material or information on Trump, he offers. Another theory holds that he’s trying to line up future financial support from the oligarchs, who take their cues from Putin. Yet another option, I point out, is that Trump just likes strongmen; he has a toddler’s jealousy of the leaders who get to do whatever they want without being asked annoying questions like “Why?” or “Isn’t that against the law?”
That would make more sense if Trump hugged all authoritarians the way he hugs Putin, Brennan says.
So Putin does have something?
“I don’t know what Putin knows. Obviously, I know some of the things that Putin knows. I know some of the things that Donald Trump knows. But my description of those things in the book are limited by my security obligations,” Brennan says.
I can’t tell, I say to him, whether he’s not telling me something, or not telling me anything.
“I have my suspicions of things,” Brennan says. “But I think it would be unfair of me to just roll out my suspicions without doing the necessary review and the digging.”
More crazy-making. What about the pee tape? Is that real?
“I have no idea,” he says. “To me, that’s less important than all the other stuff. Trump has survived so much stuff. Will he be able to survive a pee tape? Probably. If Putin has something on him and/or if Trump is concerned about what Putin or the Russians could reveal, I think it would be something more significant. And I don’t think it’s unrelated to the reason why he’s not releasing financial records. He has a very well-deserved reputation, Donald Trump, for skirting regulations, laws, rules, whatever else he will do, whatever it is to advance his interests, and for many, many years, his focus was on advancing his brand as well as his financial interests.”
Brennan and I spoke two days before the New York Times exposé of Trump’s tax returns hit, but some of the broader facts about the Trump Organization’s melee of foreign debts and entanglements were already known—and they certainly seemed to be on Brennan’s mind.
The way that Brennan’s critics see him is as a man with Stage IV Trump Derangement Syndrome, which has infected him with unfair suspicions about the president’s ties to Russia. They think he’s used the imprimatur of his former job to cloak an anti-Trump agenda. (Brennan admits in his book that his distaste for the president goes back to the 1980s, when Brennan was in school and Trump was already a tabloid star.) He has already spent eight hours being interviewed for the Justice Department’s probe of the origins of the Russia investigation. He figures that if U.S. Attorney John Durham, who’s leading the probe, ever releases a report—earlier this week, the Justice Department announced that it won’t happen before the election—he’ll make an appearance in it. He bets the report will criticize him for a decision (touched on in Undaunted) to overrule two CIA case officers specializing in Eurasia, who tried to dissuade him from accepting CIA analysts’ assessment that Putin wasn’t just interested in mucking up the election, but in doing so specifically to benefit Trump. To have gone with the officers’ opinion over the analysts’ would have been “a very inappropriate action,” Brennan says. “I’m not going to tell them to change their judgment because you two folks who are now looking at stuff for a brief period of time believe that it should be changed. That would be a corruption of the analytic intelligence process.”
Trump acolytes aren’t the only ones wary of how far Brennan has gone. He’s faced complaints that he became enraptured by a mix of cable appearances and the Steele dossier (which he writes in his book he never saw until December 2016).
Trump’s defenders argue that he was rightly suspicious of the American intelligence apparatus, given that it had failed to stop the September 11 attacks and to properly vet claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction ahead of the 2003 U.S. invasion. That’s one part of a possible explanation for Trump’s response to Brennan during their briefing. Another, maybe, is that Trump’s curiosity about the intelligence methods isn’t nefarious, but just the product of a man new to government as he took over the top job, wrapping his head around what was ahead. Trump could have had ulterior motives then, and throughout his presidency—or his behavior could be explained by his overall instinct to burn down the system. I ask Brennan:
“I think that what all of us struggle with—those of us who don’t have access to many of the things that you had—is trying to figure out if he’s the Tasmanian Devil just tearing down everything or—”
Brennan cuts me off.
“Or the Manchurian Candidate?”
And he chuckles a little. The chuckle of a man who saw a lot during 33 years in intelligence, but who has been more shocked by some of what he’s seen in the past four years, since he’s been out. Amused. Bemused. Disbelieving. Chastened.
Brennan lived across the street from this park for 30 years—in Undaunted, he writes that he got his wife to agree to a two-year assignment in Saudi Arabia by noting that their housing costs would be covered and they’d be able to save up for a down payment. He loved coming here with his children, with his grandchildren. The same house, all the years he worked in the White House and CIA, under Republican and Democratic presidents including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. It’s a special spot to him.
Brennan had to move a few years ago. Speaking out against Trump led to him being a feature of early-morning angry tweets and a false declaration that his security clearance had been stripped. Brennan could deal with all that. What he couldn’t deal with were the wackos who found his address online and started showing up at his door, or the pipe bomb sent with his name on it to CNN’s office in New York. (The bomber was a bad researcher: Brennan is an MSNBC contributor.) Now he lives nearby, but keeps his exact address closely guarded.
Undaunted is a self-portrait of a life devoted to American government by a man who knows he has a temper that gets him in trouble. Take out the first chapter and the last three, and it’s a memoir about how someone not in the cast of Homeland ends up joining the CIA and navigates his way to the highest levels of government. It includes the September 11 attacks; his uneasiness with the agency’s use of torture (a word he won’t use), but a caveated defense of it; and getting to know and work for Obama. If you’d like to read more about how the Presidential Daily Briefing is assembled or what went wrong with Obama’s approach to Libya, or want to get a personalized perspective on keeping the secret of the plans for the Osama bin Laden raid, it’s all there. Brennan provides behind-the-scenes looks at government officials whom he respected but who disappointed him (high up on that list: Bush, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California), and those whose lack of seriousness bred contempt. “Oh, don’t pay any attention to what I say on the Senate floor. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just politics,” he quotes Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina saying to him at one point, and he describes former House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes as “notable for his general lack of curiosity or concern about what I had just told him.” (Graham’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
There’s no taking out those other four chapters, though. The first rumblings of 2016-election interference pass by in the middle of a paragraph, and are initially dismissed. Then, within a page, Brennan’s writing about how quickly the evidence convinced him that Putin was personally ordering the attack, because he “had good experience cutting deals with businessmen who had become heads of government—Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi being a prime example.”
Was this a clue slipped past the CIA, which, by standard practice, had to review his manuscript before publication?
“Well, what I was referring to was Putin’s interest in having government leaders be businessmen who are willing to make deals, and deals that may not be all that ethical or protective of one’s national-security interests. It’s more advancing individual agendas and making sure that they’re able to, you know, line their pockets,” Brennan says. “So, again, I think that there’s a lot there that we don’t know.”
In fairness, Brennan says, it’s been four years since he’s seen the intelligence that was alarming him in 2016, and the CIA did not allow him access to his old files or notes while he was writing his book. He doesn’t know what has been gathered since—what was ruled out, what was followed up on. Much of what he’s learned about what he calls “staggering” Russian information operations came from carefully reading Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report last year. That experience, he says, was both vindicating and frustrating.
How about this question, I say, trying to weave through his career-bred caution and security clearances: In his opinion, how much worse is whatever else he’s seen compared with what has come out publicly?
“I don’t think what is known at this point to U.S. officials gets close to the reality, because I think there’s still a lot about Trump and his background, some of the relationships with Russia between him and others, that is unknown,” Brennan says. “As he’s made clear, he wasn’t interviewed by Mueller; a lot of the financial information was never uncovered or accessed. So I think there’s still a lot there. There’s a lot that I was aware of when I was in the agency—a lot of intelligence. A lot of that intelligence, if it dealt with U.S. persons, got passed on to the FBI. I don’t know what the results of the follow-up investigative efforts were. So it’s really unclear to me, the full extent of it.”
Those FBI recommendations—were they members of the Trump family? Trump himself? Brennan says he won’t go into details. Another attempt: Would we know the people who were in those files?
“There are names that are familiar, sure,” he says.
Though, of course, it’s possible that whomever he’s talking about was investigated and cleared. And maybe, if nothing else has come out, with all the digging that’s been done, there isn’t anything more to connect Trump and Putin.
In 30 years, are we going to know? Are we ever going to know? Or is it always going to be this haze?
We will, Brennan says. He assumes that’s why Trump is fighting so hard to get reelected—not to implement the second-term agenda he has repeatedly been unable to articulate, but to preserve his protection from prosecution under the law.
“Donald Trump, more than anybody else, knows what he has done in his life,” he says. “And I believe he does fear that it could come out once he leaves office, and then he’s not going to be protected, and then he’s going to be potentially subject to some type of liability.”
Brennan’s only answer on whether he thinks Trump should be charged with crimes after leaving office is that lawyers should sort out what is appropriate. But he says Trump has “absolutely, without question” violated his oath of office, that Attorney General Bill Barr is a “co-conspirator,” and that the Republicans in the Senate who have put political expediency ahead of challenging what he believes is a clear and present danger to the country are violating their own oaths. That goes for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who, Brennan writes, responded to his own 2016 briefing on the Russian attacks with, “One might say that the CIA and the Obama administration are making such claims in order to prevent Donald Trump from getting elected president.” (David Popp, a spokesman for McConnell, told me that policy is not to comment on intelligence meetings, but “I’d remind you of what the Leader has said repeatedly in public: intelligence should never be used for partisan political purposes. Leader McConnell has always taken seriously the threat of foreign interference in our elections, and is encouraged by steps taken by Congress, the executive branch, and state and local election officials since 2016 to defend against this real threat.")
The way Brennan and those in his corner see it, he’s given his life and career to this country, the same way he jump-started that car in the lot—when I tried to politely decline the Subaru owner’s request, Brennan sprang into action. Like so many of us, he has regrets about how much he tweets these days. “I certainly wish I never felt the compulsion to go onto Twitter and to tweet, but it was because of Trump. I didn’t want to cede that Twitter-sphere to him,” he insists, arguing that he’s speaking out like that on behalf of his old compatriots in national security, who can’t talk publicly about a man “who is the antithesis of all that is good about this country.”
So yeah, Brennan says, the book will probably inspire more Trump tweets. He’s fine with that. His mind these days is more on hoping that Joe Biden wins, and imagining what a transition would look like. Trump, he thinks, would stoke violence, and probably make some moves aimed at punishing an incoming administration. He’ll challenge the results in court, Brennan thinks. He’ll try to draw out conceding for as long as possible.
Brennan spent all that time at the CIA learning how people tick. He’s studied Trump. He tells me he’s already run through the scenarios of what happens next, on the assumption that the president has information to hide and is worried about protecting himself. He’ll probably pardon himself, Brennan thinks. He might resign a day early as part of a deal to have short-term President Mike Pence pardon him. He definitely won’t go to Biden’s inauguration.
But Brennan doesn’t see Trump refusing to leave the White House if he loses. “He doesn’t want to have a scene of being taken screaming and kicking and crying from the White House. He might take his flag and go down to Trump Hotel and set up his own, you know, whatever.”
The goats have been led inside. A child’s small family birthday party has eaten cake and cleaned up. A little rainstorm is starting to gray the sky. Brennan bangs his hands on the table for emphasis when giving his final answer.
“I mean, he clearly is a historic figure. If that’s what he’s been aiming for, he’s certainly achieved it. But he’s going to go down in history as a very bad person, if not an evil person, who did tremendous damage to this country and also to the world,” he says. “The word Trump is going to just be toxic, I think, in future generations, as well it should be, because he has been so devastatingly damaging to this country.”