President Trump is setting out to uncover the saboteurs leaking damaging details about his administration, as speculation intensifies over whether current officials or a cabal of Obama lieutenants – or both – are turning the faucets.
One former senior intelligence official told Fox News he suspects ex-intelligence and other security officials, including former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, were in some way involved in revealing details of Michael Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador. Those details contradicted what Flynn had told Vice President Pence and other Trump officials, leading to his resignation as national security adviser earlier this week.
“There were rumors from Day 1 when Mike Flynn signed aboard Team Trump that people were going to come after him,” the source said, suggesting it was part of an effort to preserve the Iran nuclear deal and settle old grudges. “Individuals within the intelligence community that fired him once didn’t want him to come back.”
A Clapper spokesman put out a statement late Thursday appearing to distance the former intel boss from any leaks, voicing support for a probe while urging the new administration to take a sober approach to the investigation.
“Leaks need to be investigated, but those investigations should be conducted in a manner that is not disparaging of our dedicated IC professionals, nor destructive to the entire community,” Clapper spokesman Shawn Turner said.
How exactly Trump’s investigation proceeds is not yet clear. He said during his Thursday news conference he’s called on the Justice Department to “look into the leaks” that have buffeted the start of his White House tenure.
“Those are criminal leaks,” Trump said.
The White House also is said to be looking at hiring New York financier Stephen Feinberg to lead an intelligence community review.
Asked Thursday how he would plug the leaks, Trump seemed confident that with his new selections in place at key intelligence agencies, the faucet would finally turn off. He specifically cited his CIA director and director of national intelligence – the roles previously held by Brennan and Clapper, respectively.
“Our new people are going in,” Trump said.
Flynn, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, would have made a prime target for top Obama intelligence officials. Flynn had been pushed out of his prior role as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in August 2014 by Clapper, following management clashes with former Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers.
A vocal critic of the Iran deal who, in February, delivered the Trump administration statement putting the Islamic Republic “on notice,” Flynn’s views also run counter to the aims of Brennan and former Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes.
Brennan, a longtime Obama loyalist, said in November it would be the “height of folly” if the Trump administration were to tear up the Iran deal, as the then-president-elect had publicly stated he aimed to do. Rhodes perhaps had the most metaphorical skin in the game. As Obama’s top foreign policy adviser, Rhodes had helped engineer a self-described “echo chamber” to promote, and ultimately push, the deal across the finish line.
“They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say,” Rhodes bragged to The New York Times in a fawning May profile.
Rhodes, in an email sent to The Atlantic, denied any involvement in the leaks.
“It’s totally absurd and doesn’t make any sense,” he wrote. “I don’t know who the sources are for these stories and I don’t even understand the false conspiracy theory—how would getting rid of Flynn be the thing that saves the Iran Deal? It’s an effort to make the conversation about anything other than the actual story of what happened with Russia.”
Certainly not everyone in the intelligence community agrees the outcome of the Flynn situation was the result of a leak conspiracy.
Former CIA covert operations officer and Fox News contributor Mike Baker said the entire situation would be moot if Flynn simply had been honest with Pence and others, regarding the fateful conversation he had with a Russian counterpart in December.
“Mike Flynn has nobody to blame except for Mike Flynn,” Baker told Fox News. “I suspect his conversations were completely uninteresting [with the Russians]…But what? You’re going to be less than transparent with those around you who are your bosses?”
But while Flynn certainly contributed to his downfall, the source who spoke to Fox News said the events leading up to Flynn’s implosion were likely orchestrated.
“They were laying all this out as a trip wire,” the official told Fox News.
Subsequent reporting has shown the intelligence community – still under the purview of those installed by the Obama administration – was listening in on Flynn’s conversations with foreign counterparts during the transition of power. This period followed on the heels of concerns regarding Russian meddling in the U.S. election to boost Trump.
So Flynn’s Dec. 29 phone conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak – on the same day Obama expelled dozens of Russian diplomats and announced sanctions as punishment for the hacking of Democratic operatives – would have been fertile ground for those seeking to undermine Trump.
Two weeks after they occurred, news of the phone conversations, courtesy of an anonymous senior U.S. government official, appeared in a Washington Post article. The article posed the question, “What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions?”
Reuters, on Jan. 13, wrote about the Flynn call citing three sources familiar with the matter. One source proffered that Russia would probably want to have a sense of Team Trump’s thoughts on the recent sanctions, intimating sanctions were indeed discussed – though all three sources admitted they didn’t know the contents of the conversation.
On Jan. 15, Trump tweeted a Fox News article and publicly questioned if Brennan had been leaking information.
“.@FoxNews ‘Outgoing CIA Chief, John Brennan, blasts Pres-Elect Trump on Russia threat. Does not fully understand.’ Oh really, couldn’t do much worse - just look at Syria (red line), Crimea, Ukraine and the build-up of Russian nukes. Not good! Was this the leaker of Fake News?” Trump wrote.
The Washington Post on Feb. 9 cited “nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls,” to report that Flynn had explicitly referenced sanctions. Noting that the day after sanctions were announced Putin said he would not retaliate, one source implied the Flynn calls might explain Putin’s reaction: “Something happened in those 24 hours.”
In the final days of the Obama administration, Clapper and Brennan agreed that the Trump team should be informed about the Flynn call, fearing his public denials that sanctions were discussed may have put him in a position to be blackmailed, The Washington Post reported on Feb. 13, citing former and current officials.
However, no quid pro quo reportedly was discussed and the White House counsel determined nothing illegal took place.
Still, on Feb. 13, with the Flynn matter dominating news coverage, Trump asked for and received the resignation of Flynn, who had ardently supported Trump throughout his presidential campaign. Trump said Thursday he was not troubled by the call itself, but how Flynn handled the aftermath.
After sacking Flynn, Trump quickly turned his attention to the leaks themselves.
"Intelligence, papers are being leaked," Trump said during a news conference on Wednesday. "Things are being leaked. It's a criminal action -- criminal act -- and it's been going on for a long time. Before me. But now it's really going on."
He later emphasized that the "documents and papers" were "illegally -- I stress that -- illegally leaked."
Trump tweeted earlier Wednesday: "The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by 'intelligence' like candy. Very un-American!"
While Baker agreed the leaks needed to be investigated and the culprits punished, he said notions of a so-called “deep state coup” should be rolled back: “The hysteria is such that the truth is somewhere in the middle.”