Then-CIA Director John Brennan pauses while taking questions at the Global Security Forum 2015, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Then-CIA Director John Brennan pauses while taking questions at the Global Security Forum 2015, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. Andrew Harnik/AP

A Former CIA Director Describes the Dangers of 'Trump Unleashed'

John Brennan praises the advisers who restrain Donald Trump’s impulses, calls out the president’s “enablers” inside the White House, and considers the prospect of World War III.

You sense that the stakes are high, and the circumstances exceptional, when the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency issues the kind of rebuke of a sitting president that John Brennan did on Friday, in an interview with The Atlantic.

“There’s never been a previous president, at least in my lifetime and experience, who had the impulsivity that Mr. Trump exhibits,” said Brennan, who spent nearly 30 years at the CIA. Before leading the agency during Barack Obama’s second term, Brennan served as a high-ranking intelligence official under George W. Bush and was the architect of Obama’s drone policies against suspected terrorists. He left office in a huff as Trump compared intelligence agencies investigating Russia’s election interference to the Nazis and bragged about crowd sizes in front of a CIA memorial to fallen officers. And he hasn’t exactly warmed to the president since then.

In contrast to his predecessors, Brennan told me, Trump often “acts and speaks before thinking” and appears to make national-security decisions based on “what’s in the best interest of Donald Trump” rather than what’s in the best interest of the United States. He is “woefully inexperienced in international affairs,” Brennan argued, and so far has shown little interest in learning on the job. His “bullying tendency … compounds all of the other deficiencies,” and he does not seem “competent in international brinkmanship.”

The upshot, according to Brennan, is that whether the scenario is an imminent terrorist threat or an impromptu clash in the air above the Korean peninsula, “Trump unleashed is a dangerous thought.” That’s why Brennan places so much stock in the “governors” of the president’s impulses, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford, and why he’s so disturbed by the “enablers” of Trump’s “bad instincts,” who on occasion have included Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. In making political statements about the failed policies of the previous administration, McMaster, an active-duty general, “does a disservice to the uniform,” Brennan said.

“For many years, the United States was loath to initiate” a conflict with North Korea, Brennan noted. “I don’t know what Mr. Trump is capable of deciding or doing.”

Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

Uri Friedman: Is Bob Corker right? Is the president leading the country toward a world war?

John Brennan: In terms of what both [Republican Senators] Bob Corker and Jeff Flake have said quite publicly, I certainly share a lot of their concerns about the actions of Mr. Trump and how they are not advancing the interests of U.S. national security on the global stage. When I look at some of the [president’s] tweets and comments, I do believe that they are irresponsible, even reckless.

A couple of weeks after Mr. Trump talked about the “fire and fury” that would be unleashed [against North Korea over its nuclear-weapons program], like the world has never seen, Kim Jong Un issued a personal response, which was rather unprecedented. Now what we have are leaders of two countries who have a lot of personal stake and political face vested in this issue. It is not helpful to engage in these rhetorical broadsides publicly because it makes each side less able to climb down from that tension while still maintaining face. I don’t see either Mr. Trump or Kim Jong Un saying, “OK, you win.” It’s not in their DNA.

This is a very complex issue that requires a very deft touch, diplomatically and publicly, and I have not seen anything out of Mr. Trump that indicates to me either that he understands the issues, or that he is competent in international brinkmanship. A lot of what we see is his traditional methods of trying to bully and intimidate his opponents. That is not going to work well when it comes to these nettlesome international problems.

Friedman: At a recent talk at Fordham, you thanked your “lucky stars” that [Defense Secretary] Jim Mattis and [White House Chief of Staff] John Kelly and [Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe] Dunford are around the president. You argued that they serve as “governors” of some of his “instincts.” Senator Corker has saidsomething similar—that people around Trump are helping “contain” him and fend off “chaos.” Is it fair to conclude, then, that these foreign-policy advisers are protecting the United States from the president of the United States?

Brennan: People like Jim Mattis and Joe Dunford, who are part of the defense establishment, who are very experienced, very deliberate, very thoughtful—it’s critically important that they continue to explain to the president and to others just how fraught some avenues are, because they have seen war up close and personal. And if there were to be war on the [Korean] peninsula, it would be unlike what we have seen before. It would be horrendous.

There is a delicate balance between being a governor and a restrainer, and being an enabler. And I believe there are some individuals around the president who are rather enabling of some of his bad tendencies and bad instincts. It is the duty of advisers to provide their experience and expertise, but always stop far short of being enablers or, even worse, sycophants. They need to make sure that they don’t lose sight of their north star and their professional responsibilities and their ethical standards as they try to do what they can to keep our national security on an even keel.

Friedman: Is there anyone in particular you have in mind?

Brennan: I know and admire and respect John Kelly. And I think that John Kelly—I won’t speak for him, but knowing him as I do—looking back on the comments that he made in the press briefing room [criticizing the Democratic congresswoman involved in a controversy over Trump’s call to the widow of a U.S. soldier killed in Niger], I am confident that he wished he could have another chance at that—that that wasn’t handled as well as it could be. There were a number of people who were disappointed in some of his comments. I was as well. That doesn’t mean I admire him less. It just means that he needs to be mindful that he needs to carry out his duties with the same credibility, integrity, and professionalism that were the hallmarks of his career.

The same thing is true of H.R. McMaster, who I don’t know well. He still wears the uniform of a three-star general. Quite frankly, I think there have been times when General McMaster has made comments that were really of a political nature. I was surprised that a three-star lieutenant general would criticize the actions of a previous commander in chief [in Barack Obama]. General McMaster can try to make arguments and points to support Mr. Trump’s policies. That’s exactly what the national security adviser should be doing. But then to fall in with others, to criticize and then compare this administration's actions with the weaknesses, the problems, and the failures of previous ones—I think he does a disservice to the uniform. He has to be mindful that he still wears that uniform as an active-duty general. He could do a better job of balancing the obligations that he has as a military officer with his national security adviser responsibilities.

Friedman: [Are you suggesting] that the president can’t be left to his own devices—or, if he were, that it would be a national-security concern? And, if so, is that alarming? Or—you served under six presidents—is it true that every president needs advisers and can’t be left completely to their own devices?

Brennan: There’s never been a previous president, at least in my lifetime and experience, who had the impulsivity that Mr. Trump exhibits. He frequently will tweet or say something or act upon his gut instincts, which apparently served him well in business. And it clearly served him well as far as the campaign. But he is woefully inexperienced in international affairs.

His approach is to tear down that which came before him and to criticize those who came before him without understanding the reason why certain policies were formulated and implemented. So his modus operandi is to do things in a very spontaneous fashion. And when you’re talking about international security issues, that could have tragic consequences, both in the near term as well as over the longer term.

In my experience with other presidents, they recognized the sacred obligations that they had as president. Before acting or speaking, they would internalize what the implications were and what the likely outcomes and reactions were going to be. Mr. Trump does not do that. I think he acts and speaks before thinking, a lot of times, about what the effects and impact are.

Friedman: [Are your reservations about Trump] primarily about differences with the specific policies he’s pursued? Are they more about the manner in which he’s pursued them? Or is it about his fitness to command more fundamentally?

Brennan: It’s a combination of concerns and factors. There are his traits, his personal qualities that are a concern. There is the lack of deliberate thinking that’s a concern. There is a lack of understanding and knowledge that’s a concern. And then there is this bullying tendency that compounds all of the other deficiencies.

Friedman: Are there certain actions that you think Trump would have taken had the “governors” [of his instincts] not been governing?

Brennan: He probably would have fully scuttled the [Iran nuclear deal] and not pushed it over to Congress, although I think both the governors as well as his political advisers saw that as a better choice because then he can blame others for it, which is his modus operandi. I think his initial, very negative statements about NATO would have continued to prevail if it wasn’t for individuals like a Jim Mattis and a Joe Dunford and others who explained to him exactly why Article 5 is so important. I think he probably would have embarked upon a foolhardy improvement in relations with Mr. Putin without any conditions or smart negotiation if it wasn’t for the hue and cry that has existed as well as congressional pressure.

Friedman: But sometimes a president’s impulses and instincts are what matters, ultimately, right? Aren’t there moments in a president’s job when advisers can only do so much?

Brennan: Absolutely. The judgment of any president is going to be crucial because a lot of times there will be recommendations and options, and there will be disagreements, and the president’s the one who has to decide. A lot of times there’s a time factor and he needs to make a decision quickly. This is where all those other features of Mr. Trump come into play because he doesn’t have the experience, he doesn’t have the expertise, and I don’t get the impression that he really tries to learn about these issues. Now I’m not in the Oval [Office]. But from everything I have heard him say and do, he hasn’t shown me that he’s a learning president.

The presidents that I worked for in the past, they would absorb tremendous amounts of information, both in terms of reading it as well as briefings. They would process it. They would look at it through the prism of what’s in the best interest of U.S. national security. And it’s my impression that Mr. Trump looks at these decisions through a prism of what’s in the best interest of Donald Trump. Clearly Mr. Trump has demonstrated a fair amount of self-absorption and self-promotion.

With the presidents I served, I was able to witness how they used intelligence, took into account the recommendations of their advisers, and then charted a course that they thought was in the best interests of the United States. Even with those presidential decisions that I disagreed with in the past, such as going [to war in] Iraq, I felt that President George W. Bush did that because he truly believed that it was in the best interest of the United States to address the issue of Saddam Hussein. I think he was misserved, misled by those in the White House who had this preconceived policy agenda. But he didn’t do it because he thought it was going to be in George W. Bush’s interests. I think there are some very legitimate questions that have been raised about why Mr. Trump is doing some of these things.

Friedman: Are there scenarios you worry about where the weaknesses you’ve identified with President Trump would have an effect on national security?

Brennan: Obviously on the terrorism front—if something is brewing and there is a very short period of time to be able to make a decision that’s going to have consequences, [involving] either action or inaction. Those are tough decisions for the president.

The ones that I’ve seen, over my years, that really rely on a president’s deft touch as well as leadership skills is when there is an unexpected crisis or issue. For example, there have been times when U.S. aircraft have been approached by foreign aircraft and forced down. We had an incident with China a number of years ago. And sometimes if tensions in a region are at a hair-trigger, actions are taken that are rooted in the heightened tension but not in a policy decision on the part of a foreign government.

So if there were some type of unintentional clash between forces, whether it be in the [Persian] Gulf or near the [Korean] Peninsula, with the North Koreans or the Iranians, it’s at that time when the president needs to be the one who is going to have a calming presence but also a very commanding presence—to decide what we need to do immediately, what we need to do in order to address the situation effectively, but not to overplay your hand, which could lead to an escalation of tensions and conflict and bloodshed and war.

I am certainly hoping that if there were some clash that took place at a tactical level, that the Joe Dunfords and Jim Mattises and commanders, and [Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson and others, will be making sure that the president has a full understanding of what happened, but also counsel[ing] restraint. Because a lot of times the early information is not 100-percent accurate, and overreacting to those initial reports and trying to show muscularity in a retaliatory way could make a manageable situation much more dangerous. That’s the scenario that I think a lot of people, like a Bob Corker, are concerned about. Trump unleashed is a dangerous thought.

Friedman: At the Fordham talk, you estimated the chances of military conflict [between the U.S. and North Korea at] 20 to 25 percent. What’s behind your thinking?

Brennan: My view is that the prospects for some type of military clash are greater today than they were over the last several decades because of the heightened tension and war of words. It’s not a scientific assessment. Whether it be along the [Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea], or along the coasts, or in the air, there is potential for an inadvertent military engagement that, if several North Koreans or South Koreans were killed, could be the bullet that felled Archduke Ferdinand [to spark] the First World War.

I don’t see that as the likely way forward. I’m hoping that rational heads will prevail. I don’t believe that Kim Jong Un is suicidal. I have a pretty good sense that North Korea does not want to initiate a major military conflict. And for many years, the United States was loath to initiate [a conflict]. I don’t know what Mr. Trump is capable of deciding or doing. One of the reasons for my percentage was not knowing what is going to drive him. The president’s Article II [war-making] authorities are pretty strong. He could decide to do something as a demonstration of U.S. military capability, which could be the first trip wire that could lead to a more serious conflict.