Donald Trump’s fight with America’s spies
President-elect Donald Trump’s feud with the intelligence community is taking on surreal overtones just over two weeks before his inauguration, raising the potential of unusual tension with the nation’s top spies when he moves into the White House.
Unless he changes course, Trump will take office having invested more credibility in the views of Russian President Vladimir Putin and WikiLeaks fugitive Julian Assange than in leading US intelligence agencies.
His dismissal of assessments by US analysts that Russia meddled in November’s election has already soured his ties with America’s leading espionage agencies. But his move Wednesday to invoke Assange, who has spilled some of the nation’s most closely held secrets, to raise questions about Russia’s influence in American politics could poison his relations with rank-and-file intelligence operatives along with some leading Republicans on Capitol Hill.
The clash is ultimately a battle of wits between Trump, who never likes to admit he is wrong, and intelligence agencies that insist they have the evidence to back up their conclusions about the Kremlin’s alleged election operation. The confrontation, and the political divisions it has opened, will be center stage on Thursday when Sen. John McCain presides over a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on foreign cyber hacking that will include testimony from the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
“This is a power struggle like we have never seen before between an incoming president and the intelligence community,” Rod Beckstrom, former head of the National Cybersecurity Center, told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin Wednesday on “Newsroom.” “In this case, Trump is making very clear from day one, ‘I am the leader here, sit down and listen to me.’ He’s putting the (intelligence community) in an extremely difficult position.”
Trump’s decision to cite Assange was extraordinary.
While he is viewed in some quarters of the world as a heroic whistleblower, Assange is wanted in Washington over the publication of hundreds of thousands of documents related to the Iraq War and classified embassy cables. Some US officials believe his disclosures endangered US troops serving the field. He has holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012 and returned to prominence Tuesday evening when an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity — one of Trump’s biggest media backers — aired.
Assange’s entire philosophy is to undermine US and allied governments. That’s what makes it so stunning that an incoming American president would go out of his way to cite him as a credible source.
Trump could hardly have cited a more radioactive figure had he been intending to insult US intelligence and State Department personnel who were left to deal with the fallout of one of the biggest leaks of classified intelligence ever.
“It’s a sad day when politicians place more stock in Vladimir Putin and Julian Assange than in the Americans who risk their lives daily to provide objective non-partisan intelligence analysis,” one US intelligence official told CNN.
Those views are shared by many Republicans.
“In Julian Assange’s world, we’re the bad guys,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN Wednesday. “Not the Iranians, not the Russians, not the North Koreans.”
He added: “You’ve got to remember who this guy is.”
Trump’s series of tweets on WikiLeaks were not his only new swipe at US spy chiefs. On Tuesday, he complained that a scheduled briefing he had requested on the alleged Russian hacking had been delayed until Friday.
“Perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!” Trump tweeted.
Intelligence agency chiefs said the meeting with CIA Director John Brennan and James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, was never due to take place before Friday.
The feud is already raising questions about how far the disconnect between the next president and the intelligence community — which is at the fulcrum of everything the US government does in the world — could harm US security.
“Let’s stare this reality square in the face: PEOTUS is pro-Putin and believes Julian Assange over the @CIA. On Jan. 20 we will be less safe,” said George Little, a former CIA spokesman, on Twitter.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s statements were alarming.
“That he would now cite people like Assange who have demonstrated universal hostility to the United States and its interests takes him into new and even more treacherous territory,” he said in a statement. “With every conspiracy theory-laden tweet and erratic off-the-cuff comment, the President-elect does damage to our national security, while raising new concerns about his capacity to grow into the job.”
Former House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican who is now a CNN analyst, said Trump needed to undergo a “maturation process.”
“He is going to need the CIA and the CIA is going to need him,” he told CNN’s Jim Scuitto on “The Lead.”
Aides on Capitol Hill say GOP lawmakers are privately expressing disbelief and incredulity at Trump’s continued insistence on believing Russia over the US intelligence community. Everything they have seen points to Russian responsibility for election-related activity, the aides say, and add that Republicans hope Trump comes around.
WikiLeaks’ Assange: Russia didn’t give us emails The estrangement between Trump and the CIA and other agencies represents an unorthodox strategy — even for Trump.
One theory that might explain his behavior is his extreme sensitivity to any suggestion that his November election triumph was not legitimate. He appears to view debate about Russia’s role through that prism, and his aides have repeatedly tried to spin such talk as a Democratic plot to undermine him.
Some intelligence community officials believe that Trump’s hostility might be based on a misunderstanding.
“The intelligence community is not saying that Vladimir Putin won the election for Trump,” one official told CNN on Wednesday. “We’re saying they did a series of things to sow doubt and some people think they wanted Trump to win, but no one has ever said they got into the mechanics of the ballot boxes.”
If it lingers, the bad feeling between the President-elect and the spies he will soon command could also have a corrosive impact on the analysts and agents who do America’s most secret work. There will be fears for morale, especially among those who serve in covert missions in hostile foreign theaters with only a promise of a star on the CIA’s Memorial Wall if they are killed.
CNN Intelligence Analyst Phil Mudd, who worked in counter-intelligence for the CIA, warned that Trump risked badly damaging his credibility.
“Who enters a management relationship dissing the entire workforce before they even meet not only the workforce but talk to the leadership of the workforce?” Mudd asked.