In dismissing the Central Intelligence Agency’s report that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman almost certainly ordered dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, President Donald Trump last week pulled one more block out of the shaky Jenga tower that is his relationship with his own intelligence community.
Over the Thanksgiving holidays, the president said the CIA’s report was really based on “feelings,” not facts, concluding that perhaps “the world should be held accountable, because the world is a vicious place.”
ThinkProgress reached out to the CIA asking for an on-the-record response to Trump’s comments, as well as other intelligence-related issues, but did not receive one as of publication time.
Some within the agency are unfazed by what the president says, seeing nuances that might be missed by the public. Former CIA chief Daniel Hoffman pointed some of these out in an op-ed he wrote for Fox News.
“CIA delivers analytical judgments with low, medium, and high levels of confidence. At the very best, the CIA might produce an assessment with ‘near certainty,'” wrote Hoffman. “It is always the president’s responsibility and prerogative to incorporate intelligence in his policy deliberation and decision-making.”
But not all former CIA chiefs feel the same. James Clapper and John Brennan have criticized President Trump (the former calling Trump a “show-me-the-money” president, the latter calling the president’s behavior “treasonous“), and in return, the president has threatened to revoke their security clearances.
“Intelligence work is not about getting the smoking gun…there’s going to be gaps in the understanding. And I don’t think a guy like Trump understands this concept at all. It’s all very black and white to him.”
Former CIA analyst John Nixon told ThinkProgress that while all presidents — especially after Sept. 11 — have had issues with intelligence assessments, President Trump’s disdain is magnified on social media.
“A lot of presidents and politicians in general don’t understand intelligence,” said Nixon, adding the Trump is no exception and it is problematic as it “creates a schism between the policymaker and the intel community.”
“Intelligence work is not about getting the smoking gun…there’s going to be gaps in the understanding. And I don’t think a guy like Trump understands this concept at all. It’s all very black and white to him,” he said.
Nixon has written about his experiences in briefing former president George W. Bush and times when those briefings were not well received. For instance, he once told President Bush that Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was likely going to have a long career in Iraq.
“Bush just looked at me like I’d accused his father of being a child molester,” Nixon told ThinkProgress (al-Sadr’s party took the lead in Iraq’s parliamentary elections in May).
Choosing to believe the Saudi crown prince over the CIA’s report is only the president’s latest broadside against his own intelligence agencies. Since taking to office, President Trump has railed against any report that runs counter to his world view or interests.
He ignored an FBI report in May 2017 that sounded an alarm on the rise of white supremacists in the United States, and didn’t stray from his position even after Heather Heyer was killed protesting against the nationalist Unite the Right rally in August of that year. Indeed, President Trump strayed from this mission during a press conference on infrastructure to make a point that there were “very fine people” on both sides of that protest — including the side with people waving torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”
Trump also ignored the CIA’s intelligence stating that Iran had not violated the 2015 nuclear deal. This conclusion was grudgingly held up by then-CIA director (now Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo, but was brushed aside by the president, who violated the 2015 agreement by pulling out of it in May, potentially upending global trade and regional security.
For Trump, FBI is ‘crawling with Democrats’
It seems as though President Trump has a persistently contentious relationship with the agencies, and, in the case of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (which operates under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice), those who head them.
And we are privy to just how the president feels owing to his prolific tweeting habit and his tendency to speak off the cuff at press conferences. For instance, take the following from his July 16 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, when he made it clear that he believed Putin’s word over the FBI’s intelligence on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election (about which he had been warned, but which he chose to ignore):