Former CIA Director John Brennan suggested "fear" played into President Donald Trump's behavior toward the Russians on Sunday in a blistering interview on CNN, calling him intimidated by Vladimir Putin.
Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper savaged Trump's rhetoric about the U.S. intelligence community, the Russian election interference campaign, and his belief in Putin's denials during a joint interview with Jake Tapper on "State of the Union."
"[Putin] said he didn't meddle. He said he didn't meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times," Trump said Saturday aboard Air Force One. "Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn't do that.' And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it."
Trump called Brennan, Clapper and former FBI Director James Comey "political hacks," and Trump added he believed Putin was "insulted" by the accusations. However, he backtracked Sunday during a news conference in Vietnam, saying he was "with our [intelligence] agencies."
"As to whether I believe it or not, I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted," Trump said. "As currently led, by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies."
Tapper asked Brennan what he made of Trump's remarks that Putin was "insulted" by the charge that he ordered the interference campaign.
"I think Mr. Putin is very clever in terms of playing to Mr. Trump's interest in being flattered, and also I think Mr. Trump is, for whatever reason, intimidated by Mr. Putin, afraid of what he could do or what might come out as a result of these investigations," Brennan said. "So it's very worrisome, and I think it sends a worrisome, very disturbing signal to our allies and partners who are concerned about Russian interference in their democratic processes, as well. So it's either naiveté, ignorance or fear, in terms of what Mr. Trump is doing vis-a-vis the Russians."
Tapper asked Brennan if he wondered if rumors that the Russians had "compromising material" about Trump were relevant, given his ambiguity about Putin.
"Well, I don't know if Mr. Trump is considering that," Brennan said. "I just know that he has been very determined to try to delegitimize any effort to come up with the truth in terms of this investigation. His attacks on the intelligence community, on the assessment, the attacks on the media, this is an effort to, again, try to undermine those quarters that could pose a serious threat to him."
"Also, I think it shows the insecurity that he still feels about the election, and how Russian interference may have contributed, in fact, to that election. So I think there's a combination of factors that are motivating the president at this time," he added.
Brennan also called Trump's language regarding the election interference "puzzling."
"It's very clear that the Russians interfered in the election, and it's still puzzling as to why Mr. Trump does not acknowledge that and embrace it, and also push back hard against Mr. Putin. The Russian threat to our democracy and our democratic foundations is real," Brennan said.
Pointing to Trump's stating he believed Putin but also stood with U.S. intelligence agencies, Tapper said Trump's comments on the subject were "vague" and asked Clapper why he was doing it.
"I don't know why the ambiguity about this, because the threat posed by Russia … is manifest and obvious and has been for a long time," Clapper said. "Putin is committed to undermining our system, our democracy and our whole process, and to try to paint it in any other way is, I think, astounding and, in fact, poses a peril to this country."
Clapper pointed to the "depth and magnitude" of the Russian election interference efforts and the "very aggressive" modernization of its nuclear program, including a "very capable and scary counter-space program."
"They only have one adversary in mind when they do this," he said.
Brennan also had sharp words for the "political hacks" attack by Trump.
"I found it particularly reprehensible that on Veterans Day that Donald Trump would attack and impugn the integrity and the character of Jim Clapper, who served in uniform for 35 years, who responded to the call of his country to go to Vietnam," Brennan said. "To impugn the character of somebody like Jim Clapper on Veterans Day, who has dedicated so much of his life to this country, I just find that outrageous, and I think it's something Mr. Trump should be ashamed of, but it doesn't seem as though anything he does he feels any shame whatsoever."
Clapper added he did not think Trump's rhetoric had a good effect on morale in the intelligence community.
"I do believe in my heart that the men and women of the intelligence community will continue to convey truth to power, even if the power ignores the truth," he said.
"I think it's very naive and, again, perilous to this country to make an assumption that Russia is going to behave with the best interests of the world or certainly the United States in mind. They're not," Clapper said.