By David Nakamura and Josh Dawsey The Washington Post

Aug 17, 2018 at 7:27 AM Aug 17, 2018 at 7:27 AM

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has told advisers that he is eager to strip more security clearances as part of an escalating attack against people who have criticized him or played a role in the investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, two White House officials said.

Over the past 19 months, Trump has fired or threatened to take action against nearly a dozen current and former officials associated with the inquiry, which he has labeled a “rigged witch hunt,” including former FBI director James Comey and top former FBI officials Sally Yates and Andrew McCabe. All three were dismissed.

Trump intensified his attacks this week by stripping former CIA director John Brennan of his security clearance and announcing that others are under review. Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper Jr., who is on Trump‘s review list, were among the Obama administration officials who briefed Trump before his inauguration on evidence of Russia‘s interference in the campaign.

To critics, Trump‘s moves echo President Richard Nixon‘s decision to force the abrupt firing of Watergate special counsel Archibald Cox.

“If you did all this in one day, it would have a ‘Saturday night massacre‘ odor to it,” said Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution fellow who oversees the Lawfare Blog on national security issues, referring to the 1973 move by Nixon that prompted resignations by the Justice Department‘s top two officials. “But you spread it out and get people used to the first one, then you do the second one — over a long period of time, it becomes the new normal.”

Many of Brennan‘s former colleagues have rallied to his defense.

“I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency,” retired Navy Adm. William McRaven, who oversaw the 2011 Special Forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken.”

Inside the West Wing, Trump is eager to move against others on the security clearance review list and could act soon, according to the White House officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Trump believes he has emerged looking strong and decisive in his feud with Brennan, the aides said, adding that he shows a visceral disdain for the former CIA director when he sees him on TV.

But other aides would prefer a more fulsome process or that he drop the matter altogether. Still, the president remains impulsive and unpredictable, aides said.

“If Trump wants to do it, he‘ll just do it,” one White House aide said.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the Brennan action Wednesday by reading a statement in Trump‘s name, citing Brennan‘s “erratic conduct” and “wild outbursts” on television and supposedly erroneous statements.

Later that afternoon, Trump summoned a Wall Street Journal reporter into the Oval Office for an impromptu interview in which he linked Brennan‘s clearance revocation to the “sham” Russia investigation.

“These people led it,” he said, referring to Brennan and others. “So I think it‘s something that had to be done.”

In an op-ed published Thursday by the New York Times, Brennan called Trump‘s claims that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia “hogwash.”

Brennan characterized Trump‘s action as “politically motivated” and said it was “an attempt to scare into silence others who might dare to challenge him.”

Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump‘s attorneys, dismissed suggestions that the president had developed an “enemies list,” saying that decisions on security clearances will be made on a “case-by-case basis.”

“The basis for having it (a clearance) is the president is going to call on you for advice — if that doesn‘t exist, there‘s no reason for you to have a clearance,” Giuliani said.

White House aides confirmed that Trump made his decision weeks ago about Brennan. Senior advisers, including Sanders, recommended to the president that they announce the action Wednesday amid an onslaught of news coverage from former Trump aide Omarosa Manigault Newman‘s new book, the aides said.

Trump has obsessed over the book and media coverage of it for several days, aides said.

Trump grew increasingly agitated about Brennan and others earlier in the summer, believing they were exploiting their credentials to make money, aides said. The president mentioned the Russia investigation when discussing the matter in private and drafted a list of officials who have angered him for Sanders to read at the lectern in the White House briefing room, the aides said.

Advisers cautioned the president that some people on the list — including Comey and McCabe — had already lost their security clearances, but Trump insisted they be included anyway, the senior officials said.