Whether because of his primitive gut instinct or some diabolical strategic scheme, Donald Trump has been undermining—denigrating, disparaging, humiliating, shaming, insulting, abusing, blind-siding—American institutions since he stumbled onto the political stage. He cut his teeth taking pot-shots at the institution of the Presidency with his “birther” accusations, suggesting Barack Obama wasn’t eligible to be President because he hadn’t been born in the United States. (After the accusation got Trump the national attention he craved, he found it expedient to abandon the often repeated charge: “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.”) In the nearly four years he has occupied the White House, President Trump has managed to sabotage the Justice Department, the State Department, the FBI, the Defense Department and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Council, the Postal Service, even America’s NATO alliance, not to mention the various public health agencies that had to walk back his off-the-top-of-the-head cures for the coronavirus (such as when Trump publicly suggested the possibility that injecting bleach into the human body could fight the Covid19 infection). Being outrageously wrong about something, though, has never cramped his style: “I have an Article II [of the Constitution],” he has claimed in a stunning misreading of the document in question, “where I can do whatever I want as President.”
But the institution that Trump has compromised the most, in terms of America’s long-term national security, are the seventeen members of the American intelligence community. From the get-go, Trump was suspicious of and relentlessly hostile to the spy chiefs who serve the President; in his warped view, they represented the “deep state” that was obsessed with thwarting his policies (among them the Paris Climate Agreement on reducing greenhouse emissions and Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran, both of which he was determined to walk away from). While all seventeen American intelligence agencies in Washington were convinced that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election, Trump took the intelligence community’s conclusion as a personal insult concocted to poison his election victory. “I don’t think anybody knows if it was Russia that broke into the Democratic National Committee [e-mails],” he said during the first debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016. “It could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds. Okay?” When the heads of the CIA and FBI, along with Jim Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence and the putative boss of the entire American intelligence community, turned up in Trump Tower in New York in January of 2017 to brief the President-elect, they told him that Russian President Putin had personally ordered the campaign to help Trump win the election. Trump’s reaction: soon after the meeting he tweeted his scorn for his spy chiefs and the agencies they represented, comparing them all to Nazis.
The relationship that began on this rancid note took a turn for the worse on the first day of Trump’s Presidency. Rank and file CIA officers had assembled in the Langley headquarters lobby to hear a pep talk from the just sworn in President. But Trump, speaking with his back to the wall filled with 117 stars representing CIA officers who died in the line of duty, true to form rambled on about himself, inflating the size of his inaugural crowd to claim that more people had turned out to witness his swearing in than Obama’s, four years before. In the audience, eyes rolled.
The nail in the coffin was driven home at the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki in 2018. At the post summit joint press conference in Finland’s Presidential Palace, a journalist put the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue: “Every U.S. Intelligence agency concluded that Russia did it [meddled in the 2016 election]. Who do you believe?” Glancing over at Vladimir Putin, Trump never hesitated. “President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia,” he replied. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
You could almost hear the collective gasp emanating from the seventeen American intelligence agencies in Washington: The President of the United States had very publicly proclaimed that he believed the ex-KGB agent who ran the country most observers considered to be America’s arch antagonist over his own intelligence people.
Things went downhill from there when CIA director Gina Haspel, testifying in Room 216 of the Senate Hart Office Building on Iran, declared that, concerning the enrichment of uranium and international inspection protocols, CIA analysts had concluded that the mullahs in Teheran were in compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated under Obama. Trump, who believed that the Iranians were surely cheating and could be secretly constructing nuclear weapons, was furious. “The intelligence people,” he tweeted, “should go back to school!”
There were episodes that further eroded the already shredded shards of trust between the Trump White House and the intelligence community, the most serious being when Trump, buttering up Russian diplomats visiting the Oval Office, boasted about America’s sensitive counterterrorism capabilities. It was an open secret after that that America’s closest allies were having second thoughts about the wisdom of sharing intel with the CIA lest Trump — remember the WWII slogan: Loose Lips Sink Ships — expose top secret sources and methods of intelligence collection.
The intelligence community’s relationship with the White House, what was left of it, scraped rock bottom when an anonymous whistleblower—who accused Trump of “flagrant abuse of law” when he invited the Ukraine to provide “dirt” on Joe Biden—turned out to be an active duty CIA officer who had worked in the White House. The whistleblower’s account, reinforced by sworn testimony from others with first-hand knowledge of Trump’s phone conversation with the President of the Ukraine, led to the President’s impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, and his acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate. But the venom had spread.
More recently, some CIA analysts concluded that there was persuasive evidence that Russia had offered bounties for the killing of American servicemen in Afghanistan. There were dissenting voices inside the intelligence community but the matter was urgent enough to bring to the attention of the Commander in Chief, Donald Trump. Recognizing that the President wouldn’t appreciate intel that painted Putin as the villain in the bounty scheme, the CIA slipped the detail into the PDB, the President’s daily intelligence briefing delivered to the Oval Office in writing—which he famously doesn’t bother to read. And the briefing officer that morning—aware of Trump’s aversion to hearing people badmouth Putin’s Russia and no doubt fearing a tongue lashing if she delivered the intel about the bounty — didn’t include the detail in the shorter verbal briefing. Not surprisingly, Trump doesn’t seem to have raised the possibility that Russia offered bounties for dead American soldiers with his great friend Putin.
Which is pretty much where things stand today. “If the intelligence community generates intel that the President likes, he praises them,” Jim Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, has said. “If it generates intel he doesn’t like, he shoots the messengers.”