Donald Trump’s insult-laced dismissal of reports that the CIA believes Russia hacked the 2016 election to help him is rattling a spy community already puzzled over how to gain the ear and trust of the incoming president.
Some fear that Trump’s highly public rebukes of the U.S. intelligence apparatus will undermine morale in the spy agencies, politicize their work, and damage their standing in a world filled with adversaries. After all, if the U.S. president doesn’t believe his own intelligence officials, why should anyone else?
“There is nothing more sacred to intelligence officers than their professionalism, honesty and non-partisanship. Trump’s charges strike at the core of their integrity,” said John Sipher, a former CIA officer with broad expertise on Russia.
Trump, a career businessman with no national security experience, has long taken positions that have alarmed intelligence officials, such as supporting torture and suggesting that it’s OK to kill the family members of terrorists.
His choice of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a man who promotes conspiracy theories on Twitter, as his national security adviser has unnerved observers. And his apparent reluctance to accept daily intelligence briefings since winning on Nov. 8 has fueled concerns that Trump will assume the presidency blind to the dangers facing the United States.
But Trump, who often speaks fondly of Russian President Vladimir Putin, really struck a nerve during the latter stages of the presidential campaign by refusing to accept the U.S. intelligence consensus that Moscow was behind cyber-attacks on U.S. election organizations. On Friday, after The Washington Post reported that the CIA believes Russia was trying specifically to help Trump, the president-elect’s team compared the allegations to the flawed claims that prompted the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
President Barack Obama has ordered a “full review” of hacking-relating activity aimed at disrupting last month’s presidential election.
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“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Trump’s transition team said in a statement that made jaws drop across the intelligence world, where many blame the George W. Bush administration, not spy agencies, for selective use of the data that led to the war.
Incoming Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer on Saturday called for a bipartisan congressional probe into the reports of Russian electoral interference. “That any country could be meddling in our elections should shake both political parties to their core,” the New York Democrat said.
But Republicans have remained largely quiet on the subject, possibly out of an awareness of where the president-elect stands. Even Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, who acknowledged that the notion of Russian interference was not a surprise and signaled plans to probe the matter in the next Congress, noted, “The CIA has not always been exactly right, to say the least.”
Trump would not be the first U.S. president to harbor a distrust of the intelligence community, which has worked hard to restore its standing in the public eye since the invasion of Iraq and revelations of intelligence agencies use of waterboarding and other torture techniques.
Richard Nixon, for instance, was deeply hostile to the CIA, which he suspected had caused him to lose his 1960 run for the White House. But Nixon was a former vice president and lawmaker who eventually reached the White House with far more knowledge of foreign affairs and governing experience than Trump, who has spent most of his career in the real estate business.
In interviews with several former intelligence officials and others connected to that community in recent days, POLITICO found a deep wariness of what a Trump presidency will mean.
The vast majority of people who work for intelligence agencies are career professionals deeply averse to the politicization of intelligence; there’s also a deep and long-running suspicion of Russia in the intelligence community that Trump is unlikely to root out.
Amy Jeffress, a former Department of Justice official, told POLITICO that she’s been in touch with intelligence community officials to discuss the challenge ahead.
“They don’t like the president-elect’s criticism and are even more concerned that he is skipping his intelligence briefings,” Jeffress said. “The new administration will need to reassure the career professionals, who of course include Democrats and Republicans, that they will not misuse or politicize their work.”
The question of the intelligence briefings is one that some analysts are more worried about than others.
Most recent presidents-elect have welcomed the in-person daily briefings by intelligence officials as an opportunity to verse themselves in the threats facing the United States before they take office. Trump is reportedly receiving at most one such verbal briefing a week.
Meanwhile, it’s not clear if Trump is reading the President’s Daily Brief, the written, top secret document produced every day by the intelligence community for the serving president and designated aides and which also is available to presidents-elect. Trump transition officials did not respond to questions about whether Trump is reading the written document and how many in-person briefings he has received.
In the case of Nixon, the CIA could not convince him to take a single face-to-face briefing during his transition to the presidency, according to David Priess, a former intelligence official and author of “The President’s Book of Secrets.” The CIA delivered Nixon’s team the written daily brief every day, but at the end of the transition period, those envelopes were all returned unopened, Priess said.
Once Trump is sworn in on Jan. 20, he might feel compelled to pay more heed to intelligence issues. But already people connected to the spy world are wondering if they’ll need to radically alter the way they present the information to a man known to have a very short attention span and a dislike of reading.
Trump’s favored mode of communication appears to be Twitter, and he’s known to watch cable news regularly. He’s said in the past that he’s learned a lot about military affairs by watching cable shows. People familiar with his reading habits have told POLITICO he likes information delivered in “short and staccato” bursts.
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Different presidents have had their preferred modes of getting the daily briefing. President Barack Obama does not take oral briefings — he prefers to read the written version, which usually runs five to 10 pages, on a special secure iPad. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, always had a daily in-person briefing, even when he was on the road, Priess said.
Some presidents want very specific information, sometimes requesting detailed paragraphs on particular countries. Others prefer pithier nuggets of information. Bill Clinton was known to like extremely short statements of analysis referred to as “snowflakes” in addition to more substantive pieces. At times, including during the Ronald Reagan era, the written brief has been supplemented with video footage.
The expectation is that Trump will prefer bullet points to paragraphs, and headlines to details. Said Priess: “I would ask the president-elect directly: In what format would you like it? We can brief it to you. We can write it for you. We can do interpretive dance if you want. Just tell us.”
Some sources told POLITICO that it’s not a terrible thing if Trump isn’t devoting half an hour each day to reading the intelligence brief or listening to a briefer. “It’s a misleading metric,” said Philip Mudd, a former CIA officer who verbally briefed Bush. “Some people sleep eight hours a night, some people sleep six. Different presidents absorb information in different ways.”
Mudd and others added that what may prove more important is ensuring that Trump’s closest aides are aware of what the intelligence community needs him to know. Vice President-elect Mike Pence, for example, is reported to be deeply interested in the intelligence briefings and may be a useful conduit to his boss.
At the same time, some of the people Trump has surrounded himself with also are a cause for concern in corners of the intelligence world. Flynn, the designated national security adviser who previously ran the Defense Intelligence Agency, is reported to have scoffed at intelligence that didn’t match his opinions. Days before the Nov. 8 election, he used Twitter to spread false conspiracy theories about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump has designated GOP Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas as the next CIA director. By many accounts, Pompeo is a sharp thinker. But he’s also considered one of the most partisan members of Congress. He was especially vocal in opposing the nuclear deal that the Obama administration struck with Iran. The question for many in the intelligence realm now is whether Pompeo can objectively present their work to a President Trump.
“The poster child is the Iranian nuclear program,” Mudd said. “I can guarantee you CIA people are saying, ‘We’re worried he will shift our analysis on whether Iran is complying with the agreement or not or if he will he put his own spin on it’.”
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But even if Trump surrounds himself with highly competent professionals, even if he feels pushback from Congress, even if he is attacked in the press, he still has tremendous power in intelligence matters.
“He’s a 70-year old billionaire whose entire approach to life was just rewarded. And his approach to life is to not accept facts he disagrees with and attack people who present facts that are inconvenient to him,” said Matthew Miller, a former Obama administration Justice Department spokesman who has been highly critical of Trump. “I don’t know why on earth someone thinks he’ll change just because he takes office. There’s zero evidence he’s going to change.”
Some sources affiliated with the intelligence community also are quietly voicing concerns about Trump’s ability to keep classified information secret, given his habit of going off-script. He uses Twitter to post his unvarnished opinions regularly. And as president, he’ll be dealing with enormous amounts of information, some of it top secret, some of it not, a regular basis. It’s difficult for anyone to compartmentalize all of that data.
It’s entirely possible that, if they haven’t already, foreign countries will analyze Trump’s tweets and public statements and compare them to his calendar to try to see if there are patterns that could offer hints about U.S. national security.
But would it be proper for an intelligence officer to withhold information from Trump if he’s worried about what he’ll do with it?
No, some observers said.
“He’s the president. He gets the best we have to offer,” Mudd said. “No intelligence officer would say, ‘I’m not offering the best we have to the president of the United States.’ We weren’t elected. They were.”
Burgess Everett and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.