WASHINGTON—President Trump questioned the competence of U.S. intelligence agencies whose assessments of Iran, North Korea and other threats differ from his own, sparking warnings from national security experts and lawmakers that such public comments expose the U.S. to greater risks.
In a series of tweets Wednesday morning, Mr. Trump suggested that Iran is close to developing nuclear weapons, and that intelligence agencies that don’t recognize the threat are misinformed. “The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!” Mr. Trump said in one morning tweet. In another, he wrote, “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”
Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell said in an interview that Mr. Trump’s disparagement of the intelligence agencies risks demoralizing the spy agencies’ work forces, tarnishes their credibility with allied security services, and rattles foreigners who spy for the U.S.
“This is a big deal,” said Mr. Morell, who served both Republican and Democratic presidents and now hosts the “Intelligence Matters” podcast.
“Presidents have the right to disagree with the analysis that’s put in front of them. Presidents have the right to take their policies in a different direction than suggested by the intelligence they receive. Never should a president critique his intelligence community publicly. It’s dangerous.”
.. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, testified Tuesday that officials didn’t believe Iran was developing a nuclear weapon. In a report prepared for the committee and released Tuesday, the U.S. intelligence community collectively assessed that Iran continues to implement the 2015 nuclear deal limiting its capability to enrich uranium and facilitating international monitoring of its nuclear activities... Mr. Trump is hoping his personal chemistry with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will help smooth the path toward a nuclear deal. At a rally in West Virginia last year, he noted that he has gotten “beautiful letters” from Mr. Kim and the two “fell in love.” Mr. Trump is planning a summit meeting with Mr. Kim next month, hoping to lock down commitments to roll back the country’s nuclear program... John Brennan, a veteran CIA officer, the agency’s director under President Obama, and an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump, wrote in a tweet of his own: “All Americans, especially members of Congress, need to understand the danger you pose to our national security.”Mr. Trump has long said he is wary of the conclusions coming from the U.S. network of spies and intelligence officials whose job is to keep him informed about foreign threats.
He has used the Iraq war to justify his skepticism, noting faulty intelligence estimates that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. As president-elect, his transition team said of U.S. intelligence agencies, “These are the same people who said Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.”
That statement came in response to reports that U.S. intelligence officials had concluded that Russia interfered in the presidential raceto aid Mr. Trump.
A surge of public activism by former CIA personnel is one of the most unexpected developments of the Trump era
Two former CIA officers — both Democrats, both women, both liberal — were elected to Congress on November 6. Abigail Spanberger, former operations officer, was elected in Virginia’s 7th District. Elissa Slotkin, former analyst, won in Michigan’s 8th District. Both Spanberger and Slotkin incorporated their intelligence experience into their center-left platforms. Their victories tripled the number of CIA “formers” in Congress.
At the halfway point in Trump’s first term, these formers see themselves as a bulwark of an endangered democracy. The president and his supporters see a cabal of “deep state” radicals out to overturn the will of the people. With the appointment of Matthew Whitaker, an unqualified political operative, as Attorney General, Brennan said a “constitutional crisis” is fast approaching. The clash between a willfully ignorant commander in chief and a politicized intelligence community seems sure to deepen.
..I think the blatant disregard for the threat of foreign influence in our election and the demonization of the Intelligence Community was a turning point for a lot of us,” former branch chief Cindy Otis told me in an email. “. . . Critics can call me ‘The Deep State,’ but I joined the CIA under George W. Bush and the vast majority of people at CIA lean conservative on foreign policy/natsec [national security] issues.”
.. in the 1980s, former director Bush and a host of senior agency operatives joined the Iran-Contra conspiracy. They sought to subvert the Democratic majority in Congress that had banned covert intervention in Central America. The agency’s rank and file did not object. Indeed, many applauded when President Bush pardoned four CIA officials who had been indicted in the scandal.
..After the 9/11 attacks, the consensus in Langley that torture was a permissible, effective and necessary counterterrorism technique no doubt struck many intelligence officers as apolitical common sense. But, of course, adopting “extreme interrogation tactics” was a deeply political decision that President Bush embraced, and President Obama repudiated. The agency deferred to both commanders in chief... The problem with Trump in the eyes of these CIA formers is almost pre-political. The president’s policy decisions matter less than his contempt for intelligence and the system that collects it... When we see things that are blatantly wrong, and the president is responsible, it is fair to speak out,” Bakos said in an interview. “If you’re silent, you’re part of the problem.”
.. Former personnel know better than anyone that the CIA has a license to kill. The agency can spy, capture, bomb and assassinate. It can overthrow governments, foster (or smash) political movements, even re-organize entire societies, according to the inclinations of the president and his advisers.CIA operatives could trust both neoconservative George W. Bush and internationalist Barack Obama with that arsenal because they believed, whatever their politics, both presidents were rational actors. With Trump, they can have no such confidence.
Trump’s contempt for the intelligence profession, weaponized in his “deep state” conspiracy theories, has agency personnel feeling professionally vulnerable, perhaps for the first time. An irrational chief executive has shattered their apolitical pretensions and forced them to re-examine what their core beliefs require.
.. Larry Pfeiffer, former chief of staff to Hayden, told me, “Until now I’ve been mostly a Republican voter at the national level because Republicans shared my views on national security. For a lot of people inside the national security community, that is not necessarily the case anymore. The Republican Party under Trump has abandoned people like us.”
.. When Pfeiffer told me, “Who knows? I might have to vote for Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders in 2020,” he sounded amazed by the possibility but not averse to it. Two years of Trump can do that to a former spy.
The point is not that the CIA is getting more liberal, says John Prados, author of “The Ghosts of Langley,” a history of the agency. Rather, the election results show that the voting bloc that supports the president now skews even more to the hard right. “The migration of [the] political spectrum to the right makes the agency look more liberal than it is,” he said in an interview.
.. “I find it sad — and maybe a few other adjectives — that Brennan now gets a pass for some of [the] things he did as director, just because he’s combatting Trump,” Prados said.
.. “If Trump is going to carry out a secret war against Iran as he seems to want to do, who is our ally?” Prados asked. “Mossad [the Israeli intelligence service]? Who can work with Mossad? The CIA. If that is Trump’s Middle East agenda, the interests of current CIA people and the formers may diverge.”
.. “Trump is not only relying on lies and falsehoods in his public statements, but I have to believe he is pushing back on the realities that are brought to him. Imagine Gina Haspel goes to the White House with a briefer to talk about the latest intel on — fill in the blank:
- North Korea’s missile program.
- What China is doing to supplant America in Asia.
- Where Europe wants to go with NATO.
Does the president listen or care? Or even understand? We’re not in crisis on any one issue, but can we really say the government is functioning?”
.. Harrington expects the mistrust between the president and the intelligence community to grow in the next two years.
“No director of any federal agency can turn away the inquiries of the Democratic House,” Harrington said. “CIA people have to deal head on with the consequences of a president who is fundamentally not dealing with reality.”
If there’s one thing to be learned from talking to former CIA personnel, it’s the sense that the CIA system — powerful, stealthy, and dangerous — is blinking red about the latest news of an authoritarian leader in an unstable nation.
His weekend Twitter outburst calls into question his ability to discharge his powers.
President Trump’s out-of-control weekend Twitter storm has raised these concerns to new heights. Our European allies no longer know what to believe. “Is it deeds? Is it words? Is it tweets?” asked Germany’s foreign minister at the annual Munich Security Conference. While senior administration officials offered reaffirmations of traditional American positions, our allies did not know whether they were speaking for the president and if so, for how long.
We know what is required of every American citizen. It is enshrined in the oath that every naturalized citizen must take—to “defend the Constitution and laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Surely no less is required of the president. But when his own national security adviser stated that “the evidence is now incontrovertible” that Russia worked to undermine our most basic constitutional processes during the past election, Mr. Trump slapped him down with a tendentious tweet.
He has repeatedly chosen to take the word of Vladimir Putin, the autocratic ruler of Russia and a former KGB agent, over the judgment of the entire U.S. intelligence community.
Mr. Putin’s Russia, which is waging war in Eastern Europe and propping up Bashar Assad in Syria, has become an enemy of the U.S. Can any fair-minded person say that the president is doing what he should to defend our Constitution and laws against this threat?
.. President Trump regards any affirmation of Russian electoral influence as an attack on the legitimacy of his 2016 victory. He cannot distinguish between the national interest and his own insecurities, making it impossible for him to acknowledge the nature of the Russian threat.
.. It is time for the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, and the national security adviser to confront Mr. Trump, collectively and directly, to inform him that unless he publicly affirms the reality of the Russian threat and authorizes the strongest possible response to it, they will have no honorable alternative to resignation. They swore an oath of loyalty to the Constitution, not to Mr. Trump.
.. With Mr. Trump, we face the incapacitation of character—an inability to master his passions sufficiently to distinguish between the country’s well-being and his fathomless self-regard.
.. The Americans who supported Mr. Trump in 2016 had genuine grievances that both parties had neglected for far too long.
But he is a deeply, dangerously flawed instrument of their purposes. In choosing him, they made a mistake that threatens America and the world.
Mr. Trump’s foreign policy reflects his instinct for political realignment at home, based on celebrity populism.
.. First, it professes to reflect the will of a scorned people.
.. Second, populism finds and blames enemies, domestic or foreign, who thwart the people’s will. Mr. Trump has mastered insulting such scapegoats.
.. Third, populism needs “the leader,” who can identify with and embody the will of the people. Like other populist leaders, Mr. Trump attacks the allegedly illegitimate institutions that come between him and the people. His solutions, like those of other populists, are simple. He contends that the establishment uses complexity to obfuscate and cover up misdeeds and mistakes. He claims he will use his deal-making know-how to get results without asking the public to bear costs.
.. Mr. Trump’s foreign policies serve his political purposes, not the nation’s interests
- .. He says the U.S. needs to build a wall to keep Mexicans at bay—and Mexico will pay for it. He asserted he would
- block Muslims from coming to America to harm us.
- His protectionist trade policies are supposed to stop foreigners from creating deficits, stealing jobs, and enriching the corporate elite.
- Mr. Trump also asserts that U.S. allies have been sponging off America. T
- he U.S. military is supposed to hammer enemies and not bother with the cleanup—even if the result, for example in Syria, is an empowered axis of Iran, Shiite militias, Hezbollah and Bashar Assad’s regime.
.. The president’s emphasis on discontinuity—breaking things—demonstrates action while disparaging his predecessors.
.. His style of deal-making prizes uncertainty and brinkmanship, which risks escalation, without a plan for what comes next.
.. Other presidents led an alliance system that recognizes U.S. security is connected to mutual interests in Europe, the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. Past presidents believed that the U.S. economy would prosper in a world of expanding capitalism
.. Mr. Trump dismisses this U.S.-led international system as outdated, too costly and too restrictive of his case-by-case deal-making.
- .. Trump disdains America’s intelligence agencies and is
- dismantling the State Department. His foils at home are
- the courts,
- the press, a clumsy
- Congress beholden to antiquated procedures, and even
- his own Justice Department.
.. Mr. Trump’s recent trip to Asia reveals that foreigners have taken his measure. They play to his narcissism. He in turn basks in their attention, diminishes his own country by blaming past presidents, and preens with promises of great but unspecified things to come.
.. The president’s need to project an image of personal power—for his domestic audience and his ego—makes him more comfortable with authoritarian leaders. Presidents Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte have noticed, as has part of the Saudi royal family.
.. Sixty percent say alliances with Europe and East Asia either are mutually beneficial or mostly benefit the U.S. Record numbers say international trade is good for consumers (78%), the economy (72%) and job creation (57%). Some 65% support providing illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, and only 37% characterize immigration as a critical threat. All these numbers have shifted against Mr. Trump’s positions since the election.
President Trump, with at least two years of full Republican control of government at the national and state levels, has systematically damaged or destroyed his relationship with — well, almost every group or individual essential to success.
Trump’s undisciplined and incendiary style has left the most powerful man in the world with few friends — not onein the United States Senate, for instance.
- The public: Gallup has his approval at 34%, down from 46% just after the inauguration.
- Republican congressional leaders — Senate Majority Mitch McConnell in particular.
- Every Democrat who could help him do a deal.
- The media.
- World leaders.
- African Americans.
- Military leaders.
- The intelligence community.
- His own staff.
And who’s happy?
- Steve Bannon.
- Saudi Arabia.
- David Duke.
Why is Trump so bad with words? Blame reality television, Twitter and political talk shows.Trump “cannot give a speech without his hosts distancing themselves from his rhetoric.”.. Consider Trump’s three biggest rhetorical own-goals over the past week.
- His “fire and fury” statement on North Korea forced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to try to talk the United States off a ledge.
- Trump’s belated response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ejection of U.S. diplomats was even worse:
- Trump attempted to address the violence triggered by white nationalists in Charlottesville with a namby-pamby statement that blamed “many sides” for the violence.
- It is odd that a president who claimed to despise political correctness with respect to Islamic terrorists suddenly chose to be circumspect in describing homegrown neo-Nazi terrorists.
- Trump was more willing to call his country’s intelligence community Nazis than he was to call actual Nazis Nazis.
.. Running for office repeatedly tends to hone one’s rhetorical instincts. At a minimum, most professional politicians learn the do’s and don’ts of political rhetoric.
.. Trump’s political education has different roots. He has learned the art of political rhetoric from three sources:
- reality television,
- Twitter and
- “the shows.”
His miscues this past week can be traced to the pathologies inherent in each of these arenas.
.. I have seen just enough of the “Real Housewives” franchise to know that this genre thrives on next-level drama. No one wants to watch conflicts being resolved; they want to watch conflicts spiral out of control. So it is with Trump and North Korea. He never sees the value in de-escalating anything, and North Korea is no exception. Calm resolution is not in the grammar of reality television.
.. I am pretty familiar with Twitter, and the thing about that medium is that it is drenched in sarcasm. It is a necessary rhetorical tic to thrive in that place. The problem is that while sarcasm might work on political Twitter, it rarely works in politics off Twitter.
.. Finally, there are the political talk shows. If there is one thing Trump has learned from that genre, it is the “both sides” hot take. Pundits are so adept at blaming a political conflict on both sides that the #bothsides hashtag is omnipresent on political Twitter.
.. These people are bigots. They are hate-filled. This is not just a protest where things, unfortunately, got violent. Violence sits at the heart of their warped belief system.
.. substantive problems with Trump’s reaction to each of these three crises
- .. He seems overly eager to escalate tensions with North Korea and
- steadfastly does not want to call out Vladimir Putin or white nationalists by name... his limited grasp of the bully pulpit. He ad-libbed all these rhetorical miscues. In doing so, he relied on tropes he had learned from reality television, social media and political talk shows.Those tropes might work for a reality-show hack desperate to engage in self-promotion. They do not work for the president of the United States.
Over just a few days last week, President Trump and his allies stepped up attacks on Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the campaign’s connections to Russia. They tried to push Attorney General Jeff Sessions out of office. They thought out loud about whether the president can pardon himself.
This all points to the same conclusion: Mr. Trump is willing to deal a major blow to the rule of law — and the American Republic — in order to end an independent investigation into his Russia ties.
.. In their first years in office, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Viktor Orban in Hungary claimed that they wanted to fix, rather than cripple, democratic institutions. Even as it became clear that these strongmen sought to consolidate power, most of their opponents told themselves that they were saving their courage for the right moment. By the time the full extent of the danger had become incontrovertible, it was too late to mount an effective resistance.
.. But in other respects the United States is already well on the way to what I have, in my academic work, called “democratic deconsolidation.” Mr. Trump is increasingly emulating the playbook of popularly elected strongmen who have done deep, lasting damage to their countries’ democratic institutions.
.. around 40 percent of voters — and some 80 percent of Republicans — approve of his performance. A number of Republican senators and congressmen have reportedly objected to Mr. Trump’s attacks on Mr. Sessions and voted against parts of his legislative agenda, but most have yet to oppose him publicly.
.. If Mr. Trump fires Mr. Mueller, Congress can ask him to continue his investigation under the auspices of the legislative branch.
And if Mr. Trump pardons himself, disregards court rulings or blatantly oversteps the boundaries of his legitimate authority in some other way, Congress should impeach him.
.. There may never be a time when we know for sure that this decision, today, will determine whether the American republic lives or dies.