A History Of Trump's Broken Ties To The U.S. Intelligence Community

Oct 28, 2019
Originally published on October 28, 2019 3:12 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Even when he's praising his spy chiefs, President Trump can't resist taking a swipe. The instinct was on full display this weekend as he announced the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Thank you, as well, to the great intelligence professionals who helped make this very successful journey possible.

KELLY: His intelligence officials are, quote, "spectacular," the president went on - great patriots.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And it's really a deserving name - intelligence. I've dealt with some people that aren't very intelligent having to do with intel.

KELLY: That's right: Even while proclaiming an undisputed intelligence and military success, Trump took a moment to needle. Now, Trump's hostility to the intelligence community has been pretty relentless. He's talked about a deep state, about a witch hunt. And that was all before a whistleblower revealed events that led to the impeachment inquiry - a whistleblower who happens to be a U.S. intelligence official.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEON PANETTA: You know, it did not surprise me that ultimately an intelligence officer was the person who is going to blow the whistle on what the president did.

KELLY: That's Leon Panetta, former director of the CIA and one of several people I called over the last few days trying to trace a through line. You hear the tension in the Baghdadi comments. You see it in the impeachment drama sparked by a whistleblower reported to be a current employee of the CIA.

So how did we get here - to a point where the president of the United States is often suspicious of the spy chiefs who serve him? Well, we're going to take some time now to consider that question and to ask what dangers the rift might pose to national security. I considered a dozen places to dive into this story. I picked this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I don't think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC.

KELLY: September 26, 2016 - the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China - could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds. OK?

KELLY: OK. But by then, candidate Trump was already receiving classified intelligence briefings. And intelligence officials were already privately telling reporters, including me, it was the Kremlin that hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee. Donald Trump continued to reject this conclusion. And then came November and the election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Donald Trump wins the presidency of the United States. He is now going to be called President-elect Donald...

KELLY: By the following January, 2017, that president-elect was sitting down for a top-secret briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Tonight, the face-to-face meeting inside Trump Tower...

KELLY: It's January 6, exactly two weeks before the inauguration. The director of national intelligence, Jim Clapper, along with the heads of the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency, had traveled to New York. Their unenviable task - informing Trump that they were about to hit publish on a report that said Vladimir Putin personally ordered an influence campaign to try to help him win.

JAMES CLAPPER: He had great difficulty, as did his team, accepting the assertion that the Russians interfered.

KELLY: General Clapper. When I asked him about it the other day, he said that while he had been apprehensive beforehand, the Trump Tower meeting was actually pretty cordial.

CLAPPER: But I do think the end result was reflected in the attempt to draft a press statement while we were still there in which they wanted to quote us as saying that the Russian interference had no impact on the outcome of the election, which we could not - did not say. We weren't chartered to assess that.

KELLY: It was a few days after that Trump Tower meeting and still before he had taken the oath of office as president that he tweeted the comment about Nazis - comparing U.S. intelligence to Nazis. You were still the head of U.S. intelligence then. You were the leader of all 17 U.S. spy agencies. What went through your head?

CLAPPER: Well, I was taken aback. I was very disturbed about it - so much so that I put a call to then-President-elect Trump. Amazingly enough, he took the call. And I tried to appeal to his higher instincts, I guess, by telling him that he was inheriting a treasure in the form of the national intelligence community.

KELLY: I asked Clapper to revisit this now-ancient history because it feels worth recalling just how poisoned the well between Trump and the intelligence community was, even before Donald Trump was sworn in as President Trump - because after that, it got worse. General Clapper.

CLAPPER: I was heartened by the fact that, as I heard a couple days later, that he - the first place he was going to visit after the inauguration was CIA. Naive me, I thought - well, perhaps my message got through to him. Not so.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: This is my first stop officially.

KELLY: His first full day in office, after weeks of mocking intelligence officials, the president's motorcade rolled out to CIA headquarters. He told staffers there he was now with them, quote, "a thousand percent."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Maybe sometimes you haven't gotten the backing that you've wanted. And you're going to get so much backing. Maybe you're going to say please don't give us so much backing.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: So far, so good. But at some point, standing in what the CIA considers sacred space, before a wall of stars representing officers who've died in the line of duty, he started saying things that were provably untrue, things like falsely inflating the size of the crowd at his inauguration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: But we had a massive field of people. You saw that - packed. I get up this morning. I turn on one of the networks, and they show an empty field.

KELLY: This digression about his crowd size went on for a while. Ask a CIA official to name a low point in relations with this White House, and this is one of two many will point to. Here's the other.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) Distinguished Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen...

KELLY: Helsinki, 2018, the summit with Putin and the moment when all the bad blood between Trump and his spy chiefs was distilled to a single question from AP reporter Jonathan Lemire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONATHAN LEMIRE: Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. My first question for you, sir, is - who do you believe?

KELLY: I was there, along with journalists from all over the world packed into Finland's Presidential Palace, waiting to hear what Trump would say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: They said they think it's Russia. I have - President Putin, he just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be.

PANETTA: I think that that is one of the most tragic moments in the history of the relationship between the United States president and the intelligence community.

KELLY: Again, Leon Panetta, who used to run the CIA. Panetta told me his specific beef is the message Trump's words sent to the rest of the world.

PANETTA: That we were dealing with a president who has no sense of the importance of intelligence and the important role our intelligence people play in protecting the security of our country.

KELLY: To fully set the stage for where we find ourselves now, let's visit one more event.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD BURR: I'd like to call this hearing to order. I'd like to welcome our witnesses today.

KELLY: Room 216 of the Senate Hart Office Building. We're now up to January of this year, and the current director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, is testifying about Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GINA HASPEL: So at the moment, technically they're in compliance. But we do see them debating amongst themselves as they fail to...

KELLY: So typical dry congressional testimony. What was significant was Haspel and other officials stating quietly but firmly - Iran, at that point, was in compliance with the nuclear deal. And not only Iran but also on Russia and North Korea, the testimony by Trump's spy chiefs was jarringly at odds with Trump's own rhetoric - so much so that the next day Trump hit back on Twitter, calling, quote, "the intelligence people" passive and naive and adding, perhaps intelligence should go back to school.

Well, I thought back to that moment - the disrespect towards Haspel and her colleagues on full display as the impeachment inquiry has blown up.

JOHN RIZZO: When I heard by the news reports that this whistleblower is apparently a CIA employee, I just thought - my God, this is all she needs now.

KELLY: John Rizzo, he spent 34 years as a CIA lawyer.

Do you see an irony in the fact that - given that Trump and the relationship with his intelligence leaders has played out as it has since Day 1 - that it's not a CIA whistleblower that appears to be bringing the country to the brink of impeachment?

RIZZO: Well, I guess ironic is one way to put it, Mary Louise. Yes. You know, honestly, I almost wish that the whistleblower had been from somewhere else in the government, not from the CIA, because, as I say, this brings the whole relationship between President Trump and the intelligence community full circle and possibly irretrievable.

KELLY: In the sense of the relationship being damaged to a point from which it can't recover?

RIZZO: Yeah, yeah. I mean, this is - this is the apotheosis of what could possibly go wrong to even further fracture the relationship. I mean, there's no - obviously no criticism of the whistleblower. But that is the reality, I fear.

KELLY: Complicating things further, the inspector general of the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, has judged the whistleblower complaint both urgent and credible. But in a letter dated August 26, he also writes that the whistleblower has, quote, "arguable political bias in favor of a rival candidate." Now, that prompts an obvious question, which I put to General Clapper.

Is there a danger that the president will see that as confirmation of a deep state that is out to get him?

CLAPPER: Oh, I'm sure it does. I'm sure of that.

KELLY: So what's the risk there? If the president is suspicious that the intelligence community is out to get him, what's the risk to national security?

CLAPPER: Well, one risk is, you know, deeper skepticism about accepting anything the intelligence community says, which is profoundly dangerous to the country. You know, I've thought about a situation where we had something of the magnitude of a 9/11 attack, God forbid, where he would be highly dependent on what the intelligence community can tell him. And whether he accepts that, whether he's skeptical about it, I think that would pose real risk.

KELLY: Today I circled back to Jim Clapper, who served both Republican and Democratic presidents going back to John F. Kennedy. I was curious how he would respond to the news of Baghdadi's death and to President Trump's praise for the intelligence officers who helped make it happen. Here's what Clapper wrote back: (Reading) If the intelligence community generates intelligence that the president likes, he praises them. If it generates intelligence he doesn't like, he shoots the messengers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.