The Pattern and Practice of Trump’s Assaults on the Intelligence Community

Amid President Donald Trump’s recurring rounds of insults to the U.S. intelligence community, there’s been justifiable concern about the damage inflicted on the internal morale and public stature of the intelligence professionals who keep us all safe. The latest insult—Trump’s tweeting of an apparently sensitive image of an Iranian facility—adds to this set of concerns. Trump’s approach to his own intelligence and diplomatic services, combined with his approach to direct engagement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is costing the United States real insight into hostile foreign actors’ intentions while paving the way for domestic disinformation in years to come.

In what follows, we catalogue the pattern of Trump’s actions and their potential ramifications. What might explain the President’s insistence on repeatedly dismissing, denigrating, and even denouncing the U.S. intelligence community? Two key drivers appear to be (1) Trump’s dogged pursuit of desired policies regardless of the assessments of the real world offered by the U.S. intelligence community and (2) Trump’s elevation of his own political and personal self-interest over the nation’s security.

Let’s look more closely at the overall pattern that’s emerged.

Tendency 1: Blinding the intelligence community

In several ways, Trump has blinded intelligence professionals in different areas of their work. Consider his attempt to declassify large swaths of the Russia counterintelligence investigation—for political gain—and his willingness to expose intelligence products in an impulsive moment, such as boasting to the Russians in the Oval Office about sensitive counterterrorism collection capabilities and, most recently, tweeting an overhead image of Iran’s launch site. These actions will undercut our spies’ ability to recruit foreign sources and to convince foreign intelligence agencies to share vital secrets with us. Those foreign sources and agencies must have trust in our intelligence community, and that trust is based in large part on our government’s ability to safeguard the most sensitive information obtained by it. Some of America’s closest allies reportedly have become unwilling to share as much with us in light of Trump’s actions.

What’s worse, President Trump also has taken steps that can blind U.S. intelligence agencies more directly.

Let’s start with the critical insights into Russian intentions that America is losing because of Trump’s unique approach to his meetings with Putin. The corollary to Trump’s denigration of our nation’s intelligence services is his insistence on meeting—repeatedly—with Putin one-on-one. After all, Trump is the President who insists that, when it comes to handling America’s foreign affairs, “I’m the only one that matters.” And there’s reason to believe he genuinely holds such a view, or something close to it.

So what exactly is lost, in terms of intelligence value, when the President meets alone with the man who continues to direct disinformation operations aimed at America’s very democratic foundations?

Here’s what: We need to understand Vladimir Putin and how he interacts with our President. And that’s precisely what trained professionals—whether they’re intelligence officers and diplomats (including Kremlinologists)—have studied hard and learned to do. Whatever Trump might be saying to Putin in these meetings, there’s much to be gleaned from Putin’s reactions—his facial expressions, his body language, even his hands. And however Putin might be responding, there’s even more to be learned—not just from what he’s saying but also from how he’s saying it. But we’re not learning any of that, because Trump is deliberately going it alone. His personal insistence on demeaning and forgoing the benefits of our nation’s extraordinary intelligence and diplomatic professionals is our national intelligence loss.

It’s important to recall other ways in which Trump has come close to eliminating the U.S. intelligence community’s ability to gather vital information. Recall Trump’s astonishing tweet suggesting Congress should not reauthorize key intelligence collection authorities:

The President’s tweet, which followed a Fox & Friends segment, put at risk one of the Justice Department and FBI Director Christopher Wray’s top legislative priorities, given the immense value of the collection authorities at issue. The damaging tweet was quickly reversed by a second tweet, under two hours later, for a reason: the initial tweet was surely preceded by little, if any, attention to the potential cost in blinding the intelligence community, whereas the second presumably reflected actual input from our government’s experts—who had undoubtedly panicked after seeing the first tweet.

Tendency 2. Discrediting the intelligence community

Trump isn’t just blinding us from potential insights that include understanding a key adversary on the world stage. He’s also taking a page from Putin’s playbook by laying the groundwork for a disinformation campaign—by impugning the very notion that our intelligence services can yield judgments that the American people should trust.

Consider Trump’s bizarre back-and-forth earlier this year in response to his own intelligence chiefs’ assessments of major threats to the United States in highly important congressional testimony. First, Trump personally insulted the chiefs, tweeting that they were “wrong!” and “should go back to school!” Then, the President invited them to the Oval Office; praised them for being “all on the same page” with Trump himself on issues like Iran, ISIS, and North Korea; and lambasted the media for purportedly misrepresenting their testimony. Next, Trump minimized the notion that he’d been the one to allege that the intelligence chiefs had been misrepresented in the media, claimed that they were the ones who’d said so, and disclaimed any view of his own as to whether they had or hadn’t been mischaracterized, instead saying “maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. I don’t really know.”

These public assaults are apiece with Trump’s use of his bully pulpit to attack the integrity of the intelligence community throughout the Russia investigation, a pattern that continued when Trump, as president-elect, tweeted his infamous insult likening U.S. intelligence agencies to Nazis. Trump’s practice took a novel turn on his first full day as president, when he made inappropriately political remarks in front of CIA’s hallowed memorial to its fallen, effectively dragging the agency into partisan politics to a degree that discomfited its own personnel.

What’s the point of all this? Think back to Trump’s own explanation to one journalist of why he relentlessly attacks journalists and the media: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.” It’s increasingly looking like Trump has a similar strategy to discredit America’s own intelligence agencies. So, the next time that, say, the intelligence community’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear developments is at odds with Trump’s policy choices, Trump has laid the groundwork to say to his constituents and media supporters: Don’t believe the intelligence community—I warned you about them! Believe me instead. I know the facts better than they do. Or believe we can’t possibly know the facts—so just stick with my policies.

Trump’s concerted effort to discredit the intelligence community appears to be orchestrated not just to help Trump drive his policies. It’s also a move Trump has made to inoculate himself against adverse findings by the Mueller investigation and, moreover, by the related but distinguishable counterintelligence investigation of President Trump himself. As the nation now heads into the 2020 election, Trump’s disinformation campaign gives him room to shape public messaging around North Korea’s nuclear program, the ISIS threat, white nationalist terrorism, and more.

These explanations are corroborated by Trump’s astonishing attempt to appoint Rep. John Ratcliffe—a man with little experience in intelligence but a proven record as a political wingman for Trump—to head what should be the apolitical Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Tendency 3: Overriding the intelligence community

And now we come to the latest insult: Trump’s tweet disclosing a seemingly sensitive image whose public issuance, experts rightly worry, could tip off Iran and other foreign actors to the nature of American intelligence collection capabilities. This bizarre action appears to have taken place in an unplanned and uncoordinated manner. That isn’t just an affront to the intelligence community that Trump has long denigrated. It’s also an indication of how he views their work: something for him to use as and when he pleases, rather than fundamentally the nation’s. Even Trump’s defense of himself—an assertion that he had an “absolute right” to tweet as he so desired—was all about himself, rather than about the intelligence community whose work he’d cavalierly jeopardized or the nation such work is undertaken to protect.

Nor was this the only occasion on which Trump apparently disclosed intelligence information without agencies being given an opportunity to consider the various tradeoffs and express their equities in a deliberative process before making such a monumental decision. Trump’s impulsive decision to give vital information—implicating a close U.S. ally no less—to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office in May 2017 demonstrated a similarly flagrant disregard for these internal processes. Back then Trump was still new to the job, and perhaps an excuse might be made that he was learning the ropes. No longer.

The most notorious and worrisome instance in which President Trump overrode the U.S. intelligence community was his disgraceful performance in Helsinki, with Trump standing next to Putin on the world stage, accepting Putin’s word over the U.S. intelligence community’s. There are likely untold lesser examples, too. A glimpse of them can be found in Trump reportedly telling his briefer that he did not believe the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of North Korea’s long-range missile capacity because Putin had told Trump otherwise.

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A president who costs us insight into our rivals and demeans our own government servants is a genuine national security threat. President Trump is proving better at spreading disinformation than protecting real information.

Meanwhile, America’s intelligence community professionals continue their efforts to thwart disinformation and safeguard national security information. They’re not, right now, getting the support they deserve from the Oval Office, but that’s all the more reason to ensure they know that they have the rest of our respect, admiration, and gratitude. 

About the Author(s)

Joshua Geltzer

Founding Executive Director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Legal Advisor to the National Security Council, and former Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. Follow him on Twitter (@jgeltzer).

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). Follow him on Twitter (@rgoodlaw).