Donald Trump’s fight with his own intelligence services will only get worse

Trump’s defense of Russia was a startling conclusion to draw, especially in public, and it was met with criticism from across the US political spectrum.

Open dissent
Trump dissident and leading Republican John McCain tweeted that the press conference was “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”. In a later statement, he added that “the damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate”.

Former intelligence officials were also quick to denounce the president. John Brennan, former CIA director, tweeted that Trump’s performance “raises to and exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’. It was nothing short of treasonous.” Trump was “wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you?”. Interviewed on CNN, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called the conference “unbelievable”: “On the world’s stage, in front of the entire globe, the president of the United States essentially capitulated and seems intimidated by Vladimir Putin. So it was amazing and very, very disturbing.”

Trump has faced criticism from former officials before. In 2017, Clapper claimed American democracy was “under assault” and, following Trump’s apparent support for a far-right rally in Charlottesville, his “ability to be – his fitness to be – in this office, and I also am beginning to wonder about his motivation for it” provoking a backlash from the president.

Trump had previously cast doubt on intelligence community’s unanimous assessments of Russian hacking. In October 2016, the director of national intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security confirmed the U.S. intelligence community was “confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from US persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations”. In January 2017, another joint report by the FBI, CIA and NSA concluded that Russia’s president had ordered an “influence campaign” aimed at undermining Clinton in favor of Trump – who was, they concluded, the Kremlin’s “clear preference” for the White House.

Trump’s team responded that “these are the same people who said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction”. Trump himself poured fuel on the fire, openly questioning the CIA’s – and wider intelligence community’s – judgement on Fox News: “I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it. I don’t know why … Every week, it’s another excuse.”

So things were already going from bad to worse. But Trump’s latest slap in the face to America’s spies will only speed up the disintegration of the intelligence-policy relationship.

Coming apart
While presidents and intelligence officials haven’t always got on, Trump’s relationship with intelligence officials goes from bad to worse. Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs, this isn’t a healthy place to be right now. An intelligence community cut out of presidential decision making can become easily frustrated, leading to leaks and private briefings to journalists.

For a president to ignore U.S. intelligence community assessments could be disastrous, but Trump has been dismissive of the implications from the off. “I don’t have to be told – you know, I’m like a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day … I don’t need that,” he told Fox News after his first briefings. In office, Trump has preferred an oral (not written or digital) Presidential Daily Brief – a daily intelligence update described as the “holy grail” of the community, openly criticized intelligence and pressed officials to bend intelligence to suit White House policy.

Trump’s nativity as an intelligence consumer does not bode well for the U.S. intelligence community. By criticizing U.S. assessments next to Putin, the sacking of FBI Director James Comey and dismissing reports of Russian interference in American democracy, Trump is destroying the relationship between the intelligence community and the government. While it’s foolhardy to predict the future at the best of times, never mind under the Trump administration, it’s certain that America’s spies and President Trump face a stormy future.

Dan Lomas is Program Leader, MA Intelligence and Security Studies, University of Salford. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.