A prominent Republican senator called on Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to resign Thursday after he said Russia and China pose the biggest "mortal threat" to the United States, stunning lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said it's time for Clapper to go after his testimony on Capitol Hill, but the White House said it has the "full faith and confidence" of the director.
Clapper, who just last month startled lawmakers when he claimed during a hearing that the Muslim Brotherhood is "secular," made the comments about Russia and China during an exchange with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. He was in the midst of testifying about global security threats when Manchin asked which country represents the biggest "mortal threat" to the United States.
Russia and China, Clapper answered.
At that point, Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., broke in to say he was "really kind of taken aback" by the answer. Levin said North Korea and Iran are the first nations that come to his mind, not Russia and China.
Clapper clarified that North Korea and Iran are "of great concern," but questioned whether they pose a "direct mortal threat" to the United States. The intelligence chief seemed to be focused on which countries have the capability, not necessarily the intent, to threaten the United States.
Pressed by Manchin to narrow his list, Clapper picked China.
"So Donald Trump is right?" Manchin joked, referring to the businessman-turned-reality-star-turned-possible-presidential-candidate's frequent warnings that China is catching up with America.
Levin, apparently not satisfied by the exchange, again jumped in to press Clapper further.
"I'm just as surprised by your answer to that question. You're saying China has the intent to be our mortal adversary?" he said.
Clapper said he was "loathe" to pick one country, but said Russia and China have the "capability."
He said he could not get into "gauging intent."
Levin, who seemed to be on the verge of laughing, said: "By that measure, the U.S. represents the biggest threat" to China and Russia.
Graham, who sits on the committee, told Fox News afterward that Clapper should go.
"Three strikes and you're out," Graham told Fox News in an interview, citing Clapper's previous public missteps.
It's unclear whether Clapper was stating an administration position Thursday or his own personal view. When Clapper in February testified that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is "largely secular," Clapper's office afterward issued a statement effectively retracting the remark.
The White House stepped to Clapper's defense in December after he stumbled in an interview when asked about a major set of terror arrests in Great Britain.
The White House later acknowledged that Clapper had not yet been briefed about the sweep, while calling him "the consummate DNI."
On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney seemed to indicate nothing untoward by the answer.
"Obviously, Russia and China are two of the three largest nuclear powers in the world. Therefore, they have dangerous weapons and have the capacity. But he made clear that we do not view Russia and China as a threat," Carney said. Carney later added that Graham misinterpreted the director's response.
Though officials often warn that China's economy and military are developing at a rapid pace, the Obama administration has made a push to improve relations with the country. The White House hosted Chinese President Hu Jintao for a State Dinner in January.
The U.S. government also finalized an arms-reduction treaty with Russia, something Clapper acknowledged at the hearing.
Though there are conflicting reports about Iran's intentions and resources, a State Department official said Wednesday that Iran was approaching the threshold of being able to construct a nuclear bomb.
But Graham said he lacks confidence in Clapper's understanding of his job and referred to Clapper's statement that he believes the regime of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi would prevail in fighting against Libyan rebels.