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Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill on May 23, 2017. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill on May 23, 2017. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill on May 23, 2017. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Heaven Taylor-Wynn
By Heaven Taylor-Wynn July 19, 2018

Was John Brennan once a member of the Communist Party?

Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis cast doubt on the credibility of John Brennan over the former former CIA director’s furious reaction to President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Brennan called Trump’s meeting with Putin "nothing short of treasonous" on Twitter.

DeSantis, who is vying for Florida governor, appeared on Fox News hours later to respond.

"John Brennan was a disaster as CIA director," DeSantis said on Fox News on July 16. "He was a disaster as the counterterrorism official. He was a member of the Communist Party during the Cold War."

DeSantis added: "So this is not exactly the guy I would listen to about Russia."

We wanted to look into his statement that Brennan was a member of the Communist Party during the Cold War.

We found Brennan has acknowledged voting for a communist presidential candidate in 1976. That does not mean he was a member of the Communist Party.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and pundit Sebastian Gorka are examples of Republicans who framed similar criticism of Brennan more accurately, singling out the vote but not going as far as saying he belonged to the party itself.

Where is this coming from?

Long before his appointment as CIA director in 2013, Brennan took a required polygraph test before entering the agency.

Brennan discussed the test at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual conference in September 2016, CNN reported. He was a panelist in a discussion about diversity in the intelligence community. Brennan was asked about whether past activism would create a barrier for diverse candidates seeking to enter the intelligence community later in life.

According to Brennan, the polygrapher asked him, "Have you ever worked with or for a group that was dedicated to overthrowing the U.S.?"

Brennan said he was apprehensive — he had voted for Gus Hall for president in 1976, which was while the Cold War was underway. (The Cold War is generally defined as running from 1947 to 1991.)

The New York Times reported Hall earned more support from American voters in his 1976 presidential campaign than in his other three. He won 58,992 votes, putting him in eighth place, behind candidates from the Democratic, Republican, Independent, Libertarian, American Independent, American and Socialist Workers parties.

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"I froze, because I was getting so close to coming into CIA and said, 'OK, here's the choice, John. You can deny that, and the machine is probably going to go, you know, wacko, or I can acknowledge it and see what happens,'" CNN has quoted Brennan as saying. (We searched for video but did not find it.)

Brennan told the polygraph operator that he had voted for Hall, but added that he was never a member of the Communist Party. Speaking at the conference, Brennan said he was relieved to have been accepted into the CIA, because he worried about having compromised his chances by being forthcoming.

"I said I was neither Democratic or Republican, but it was my way, as I was going to college, of signaling my unhappiness with the system, and the need for change. I said I'm not a member of the Communist Party, so the polygrapher looked at me and said, 'OK,' and when I was finished with the polygraph and I left and said, 'Well, I'm screwed.'"

Brennan used the anecdote to make a point about room for diversity in the CIA ranks.

"So if back in 1980, John Brennan was allowed to say, 'I voted for the Communist Party with Gus Hall' ... and still got through, rest assured that your rights and your expressions and your freedom of speech as Americans is something that's not going to be disqualifying of you as you pursue a career in government," CNN reported him as saying.

Does any of this make Brennan a member of the Communist Party at the time? No.

In 1976, Brennan was studying political science at Fordham University. This was the first election after the Watergate scandal, which left many Americans disillusioned with American politics.

He could have voted for the Republican candidate Gerald Ford, who had controversially pardoned Richard Nixon, or he could have cast his ballot for Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter.

Stephen Craig, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said, "Carter (was) a southerner who was not trusted given the legacy of the Jim Crow South by many Democrats and other left-leaning voters."

"Carter was an outsider who promised ethical governance but still represented mainstream politics," added Gregory Koger, a political science professor at the University of Miami.

Importantly, experts agree that voting for a particular candidate in a party does not make the voter a member of that party. Becoming a member of a party is a much more specific and intensive commitment than simply pulling a lever in the ballot booth.

"Brennan was … a young idealistic student pursuing studies in politics who shared the concerns of many about the health of the U.S. political system during this time period," said Thomas Sutton, a political science professor at Baldwin Wallace University.

Brennan’s former CIA deputy chief of staff Nick Shapiro told PolitiFact Florida that it wouldn’t make sense for someone who was a secret communist to out themselves repeatedly.

Our ruling

DeSantis said Brennan "was a member of the Communist Party during the Cold War."

Brennan has openly confirmed voting for a Communist Party candidate for president in 1976. But the DeSantis campaign did not provide evidence that he was a card-carrying party member, and we did not find any.

Voting for a particular candidate in a party does not make the voter a member of that party.

Because it contains an element of truth but twists facts to give a different impression, we rate this claim Mostly False.

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Mostly False
Says John Brennan "was a member of the Communist Party during the Cold War."
a Fox News interview
Monday, July 16, 2018

Our Sources

CNN, Polygraph panic: CIA director fretted his vote for communist, Sept. 15, 2016

CNN, John Brennan Fast Facts, September 18, 2016

Fox News, Nancy Pelosi accuses Trump of failing to stand up to Putin, July 16, 2018

Email interview, Thomas Sutton, Director, Community Research Institute, Burton D. Morgan Chair in Entrepreneurial Studies, Professor, Political Science, July 18, 2018

Email interview, David Cohen, political science professor, Assistant Director, Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, University of Akron, July 18, 2018

Email interview, Stephen Craig, political science professor at the University of Florida, July 18, 2018

Email interview, Gregory Koger, political science professor at the University of Miami, July 18, 2018

Fox News, Rand Paul: Brennan be getting gov’t pension?, July 18, 2018

The White House President Barack Obama, Remarks by the President in Nomination of Secretary of Defense and CIA Director, Jan. 7, 2018

Brittanica, U.S. presidential election of 1976, accessed July 19, 2018

New York Times, Gus Hall, Unreconstructed American Communist of 7 Decades, Dies at 90, Oct. 17, 2000

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