Most presidents know not to rile the spymasters right off the bat, but Donald Trump is a president-elect who knows little about the ways of Washington or the demands of his office, and so he’s stepping into a bigger, more perilous mud pile than he realizes.
His tweets touting the innocence of Vladimir Putin and the assurances of Julian Assange over the assessments of the entire U.S. “intelligence” community (the belittling quotation marks are Trump’s) tell only part of the story, though they’re startling enough. At Senate hearings on Thursday, James Clapper, the outgoing director of national intelligence, scowled and harrumphed on the distinction—which Trump was ignoring—between “healthy skepticism” and “disparagement.”
More telling, Adm. Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, said at the same hearing that he fears a wave of demoralization that could prod thousands of good intel analysts to flee their jobs for greener pastures.
Intelligence officials at various agencies tell me that colleagues are shuffling between puzzlement and despair over the scornful tweeting from on high and what it bodes for their careers and for the nation. Many intelligence officers are military officers, or have a military background. They’re disposed to respect civilian authority. They want to do well in the president’s eye. But Trump is making them nervous. They don’t know what he wants; they wonder whether his outbursts reflect his inexperience, in which case they might soften or get more serious after a short spell on the job—or whether they stem from some deeper ailments.
One of these ailments is Trump’s national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. Some of the more worried intel officials know Flynn all too well. During the peak of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Flynn was intelligence director of Joint Special Operations Command, then U.S. Central Command, and, by all accounts, was very talented at coming up with new ways to track, find, and kill insurgents on the battlefield. Then Flynn was promoted to director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a job requiring skills in strategic intelligence, policy, and bureaucratic management—and he washed out. His suspicion of Iran (a natural product of his wartime experience) swelled to the point where he imagined its fingerprints everywhere, even in the raid on Benghazi. His hostility to Islamist terrorists metastasized to a paranoia toward Islam—and Muslims—everywhere. And he infused his sense of military hierarchy with authoritarianism, telling his underlings (in an agency of 16,000 officers) that they were to do things his way or no way at all.
Finally, after two years on the job, he was fired—and it is worth noting, in the present context, that the man who gave him his marching orders was James Clapper, the same director of national intelligence who now takes proper umbrage at Trump’s “disparagement” toward the enterprise of intelligence.
Flynn is almost certainly behind plans to “reorganize” the intelligence community in a way that, among other things, slashes the size and role of the job that Clapper is about to leave. Trump’s nominee for his replacement, former Sen. Dan Coats, is well-suited for the soon-to-be-diminished post. Since the position was created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, almost every director except for the first (who was a career ambassador) has been a three-star general or admiral with deep experience in the intelligence agencies. Coats served on the Senate Intelligence Committee but otherwise lacks the administrative or technical experience needed to herd 16 intelligence agencies, coordinate their official findings, organize the President’s Daily Briefing, or run the National Counterterrorism Center.
There is little doubt, among the nervous at Fort Meade and Langley and the other spy centers, that Trump is taking his cues on the subject from Flynn. Or it could be that both men are egging on each another in their antipathy toward the intelligence community at large. Flynn’s aversion is seen as stemming from his bitterness and desire for revenge. Trump’s is rooted in the community’s unanimous—and much publicized—report that Russia’s “senior-most officials” hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign and then distributed the documents to WikiLeaks for the purpose of undermining the 2016 election and, even more, helping Trump win.
Trump was briefed on Friday about the report and came away with his resistance only slightly dented, noting that “Russia, China, outside groups and people” are always trying to hack lots of organizations, “including the Democratic National Committee,” and that it had “absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election, including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.” He ignored the report’s main thrust—that the hack into the DNC and Clinton’s emails was directed by senior Russian officials as part of a massive “information warfare” campaign, which included the spread of fake news and propaganda, for the purpose of getting him elected. Will he come around to this broader view or burrow deeper into his denial and, along with it, his distrust and hostility toward the U.S. intelligence agencies?
Several Republicans at Thursday’s hearing insisted that Russia’s hacking wasn’t the reason for Trump’s victory. Sen. John McCain, in particular, stressed that the purpose of the various investigations, including one that Congress is likely to mount, is “not to question the outcome of the presidential election.”
But Trump must know—as must many of these Republicans—that, if proof of the Russian government’s involvement seems solid, it will taint the legitimacy of his presidency.
Nor, unlike many intelligence estimates, will the findings and supporting evidence be confined to a small circle of insiders. The declassified version of the report was released late Friday afternoon and will be read by the public this weekend. At the same time that the Senate holds confirmation hearings on Trump’s Cabinet nominees, through the inauguration, and well beyond into his term, millions of people around the world will wonder, perhaps with growing alarm, whether the 45th president of the United States was installed by the Kremlin.
If Trump persists in disputing, or ignoring, the evidence, how will he deal with other reports from the intelligence agencies—the daily briefings, the special estimates on high-profile issues, the warnings of a crisis, and the hourly updates as events unfold? For all the blind spots and dark sides of the CIA, NSA, FBI, and the other agencies throughout their histories, they remain the keenest eyes and ears that a president has on the world. For this president, who knows so little about the world, to dismiss what the agencies are telling him—not out of conviction, doubt, or informed instinct, but out of sheer ego and insecurity—would be the stupidest thing he could do.