We’re not yet three months removed from Election Day and already it looks like the hallmark of the Trump/intelligence dynamic will be a sense of gaslighting by both sides. Perfect example: The Wall Street Journal had a splashy report out last night claiming that Mike Flynn, America’s new national security advisor, has been investigated by U.S. counterintelligence for his communications with Russian officials. We can’t trust him! Except that if you read further in the story, it turns out that it’s not clear if the investigation is still open or even whether it found anything incriminating — which makes it smell like a hit piece pushed to discredit Flynn on thin evidence. We can’t trust Trump’s political enemies in the IC! Or we can’t trust either. Where does that leave us?
That’s high-stakes gaslighting. This, describing Trump’s weird stump-style speech at CIA headquarters this past weekend in front of the memorial wall, is low stakes. But the theme is consistent:
An official said the visit “made relations with the intelligence community worse” and described the visit as “uncomfortable.”
Authorities are also pushing back against the perception that the CIA workforce was cheering for the president. They say the first three rows in front of the president were largely made up of supporters of Mr. Trump’s campaign.
An official with knowledge of the make-up of the crowd says that there were about 40 people who’d been invited by the Trump, Mike Pence and Rep. Mike Pompeo teams. The Trump team expected Rep. Pompeo, R-Kansas, to be sworn in during the event as the next CIA director, but the vote to confirm him was delayed on Friday by Senate Democrats. Also sitting in the first several rows in front of the president was the CIA’s senior leadership, which was not cheering the remarks.
Sean Spicer was asked about that at today’s presser and said he thought no more than 10 people had come along as part of Trump’s retinue. Is it likely that the applause heard during the speech came exclusively from the political advisors who accompanied him to the site? Of course not. That’s stupid. There are plenty of Trump voters at the CIA, I’m sure, just as there are in any large organization. Is it possible that most of the loudest cheering came from Trump’s own advisors, for effect? Well, sure. Trump isn’t above manufacturing applause to shape public perceptions. This is a guy whose campaign hired actors to cheer him at his presidential announcement speech, remember. So, which side is gaslighting more aggressively here? Who knows?
A related question: How representative of the overall intelligence community are the officers and former officers who went running to the media this weekend to complain about Trump’s speech? It could be that they’re the same axe-grinders who leaked damaging intel assessments about Russia during the transition period to undercut Trump’s skepticism about Putin’s role in the DNC and Podesta hackings. Or, it could be that the IC writ large really was disgusted with Trump whining about the media and cooing about the size of his crowds during a speech that was supposed to honor the agency. We can safely disregard the annoyance of John Brennan, Obama’s CIA chief, as politically driven, but what about people like this?
“He said some of the right things, but it still had a bizarre quality to it,” said one former top CIA official. Trump’s comments included “way too much campaign-related things” and “attacks on the media [that] did not fit and were wrong.”
It was Trump’s ebullient self-promotion that most troubled this former official and others I contacted. “Overall, the self-obsession and campaign-style language was not appropriate in that place,” he said. “It should not be all about you, at a place that memorializes people for whom it was about others and about mission.”…
The more disturbing part of his address was the attempt to treat agency employees, whose mission is supposed to transcend elections, as political soul mates, along with military and law enforcement.
Yeah, the president declaring that he’s in a “running war with the media” in front of a roomful of spies who are charged with, er, helping him win wars is not terrific, as the man himself might say. But how much can we trust the opinion of a “former top CIA official” like the one quoted in the excerpt, knowing that that probably (but not definitely) means he worked for Obama? How about the former official who told NBC that Trump’s speech was a “free-wheeling, narcissistic diatribe”? There’s so much bad blood between Trump and the IC that a reporter can probably find someone in his rolodex with a CIA pedigree willing to give him a negative quote with minimal effort.
This is kind of funny, though. Note that the source for this claim is on the record:
While President Donald Trump brags about how hundreds of CIA employees gave him standing ovations during his Saturday visit, it should not have come as a surprise.
He never told them to sit…
“You know that the CIA will not sit down until the president tells them to,” said Yael Eisenstat, who spent more than half of her 13-year career in counterterrorism and intelligence work at the agency.
There’a a sneak preview of tomorrow’s press-briefing controversy with Spicer, I assume. Did the president know that the CIA had no choice but to give him a standing ovation? Trump being Trump, once he finds out that audiences of government workers are duty bound to stand for him until he gives the order to the contrary, he may never utter the word “sit” again.
For what it’s worth, the NYT claims that he was off-message in the CIA speech, choosing to disregard the script he came with for reasons known only to him. “[H]e had been coached to demonstrate support of the agency,” the Times reports, “and criticize Senate Democrats for delaying confirmation of his nominee to lead it, Mike Pompeo.” Why he didn’t stick to that is unclear — probably he thought that just being himself and winging it could only result in the CIA being won over by his charm — but it’s interesting that people in the know are whispering to the paper that they’re not to blame for his performance.