Trump vs. spooks: ‘Sabotaging his own presidency’

    President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York

    President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York

    During yesterday’s choleric press conference, Donald Trump compared the intelligence community to the Nazis. Not a good idea.

    Actually, Trump has been trash-talking the intel communty for months, siding with a foreign adversary and dissing our spy agencies as bumblers, based on what they said about Iraq 14 years ago. Not a good idea.

    The most dangerous thing that this intemperate, unqualified man-child could possibly do is precisely what he continues to do — alienate the people whose job is to protect our national security, people whose pursuit of foreign secrets sometimes requires them to put their lives on the line. Something that this coddled rich boy would know nothing about.

    In the apt words of former National Security Council and State Department counter-terrorism official Daniel Benjamin, the incoming leader’s “wild, swinging attacks against the intelligence community have been so far off the charts of traditional behavior for a president-elect that it is hard to wrap one’s mind around it.” Trump, he says, is “sabotaging his own presidency before it even starts … In the end, there is simply no evading the scorecard that governing creates. No American president can succeed in foreign policy — and by extension his term as commander-in-chief — without a good relationship with the intelligence community.”

    Trump doesn’t know such things, but he has never governed anything. What he does know how to do is make things worse. He’s ticked off about the unsubstantiated dossier that says the Russians caught him doing kinky stuff — fine, he’s entitled to be ticked off. But then yesterday, he semi-coherently insisted that the intelligence community leaked the dossier to undermine him:

    “I think it was disgraceful — disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be false and fake out. I think it’s a disgrace, and I say that — and I say that, and that’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do.”

    It just so happens that the dossier dirt had been circulating in Washington since last summer. Media people knew about it (and largely ignored it), people on Capitol Hill knew about it, and indeed, the material was originally gathered by anti-Trump Republicans who were engaged in opposition research. No wonder it leaked. There isn’t a shred of evidence that the intel community was responsible. Indeed, last night, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed in a statement that the material was all over Capitol Hill “before the IC became aware of it … This document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product.”

    In other words, as former White House adviser David Gergen (who served presidents of both parties) pointed out yesterday, Trump “started shooting wildly at the wrong targets … Trump needlessly escalated his war against U.S. intelligence, widening a dangerous rift with the very men and women whose reports will be vital to his day-to-day decision making.”

    Let’s talk about those men and women for a moment. Peter Zimmerman, a former State Department and Senate Foreign Relations Committee arms control adviser, says it well: “Every day thousands of courageous Americans are involved in the extraction of the deepest secrets of foreign governments. If those serving in the field are caught, they face harassment, detention and assassination if they are diplomats. Those who don’t have a diplomatic shield may be imprisoned, tortured and executed. Serving in total anonymity alongside U.S. officers are foreign citizens who are likely betraying their own country and risking their lives in the service of freedom.”

    Trump can’t afford to alienate and demoraliz these people. Did the intel community misfire on Iraq 14 years ago? With Dick Cheney pushing hard for a WMD verdict, yeah. But as Zimmerman points out, the analysts who worked on Iraq “are not the same people responsible for concluding that the Russian government directed the hacking of the Democratic National Commttee and other American organizations…Most of those (Iraq) people have moved to other jobs or retired; some have died.” And Benjamin says: “Trump overlooks the 15 years since the invasion of Iraq, a period in which the IC raised its game, find Osama bin Laden and did the lion’s share of the work to destroy al Qaeda.”

    Just last week, for a millisecond or so, Trump declared that he’s “a big fan” of the intel community; then yesterday, they were Nazis. This is not smart. If spooks and spies don’t feel respected, if they perceive that this president’s mind is closed, “they will find it tougher to push their considered views against his surly blasts,” says Benjamin. “How many times will the briefers come back to warn Trump that his friend Vladimir Outin is indeed hacking U.S. government computers or massing troops on the borders of Estonia or Latvia when he refuses to heed it?”

    Michael Morell, former CIA deputy (and twice acting-) director, says that if Trump reflexively demeans the intelligence he receives, and the briefers who bring it, “how will (he) know whether the Iranians are living up to their commitment not to produce a nuclear weapon without good intelligence? How will he know how close North Korea is to mating a nuclear weapon to a long-range missile and detonating it over American soil? How will he know whether the Islamic State or Al Qaeda is plotting another 9/11-style attack? … And why would a foreign agent take extraordinary risks to spy for the United States if his or her information is not valued?”

    And he rightly warns: “If the president rejects out of hand the CIA’s work, or introduces uncertainty by praising it one day only to lambaste it on Twitter that afternoon, many officers will vote with their feet. These officers cannot be easily replaced. It takes years of training and, more important, on-the-job experience to create a highly capable case officer, analyst, scientist, engineer or support officer. It would take at least a decade to recover from a surge in resignations.”

    See, this is what I meant when I wrote, repeatedly for a year, that Trump was a clear and present danger to our national security. Thanks a lot, Trumpkin voters. Thanks to your cluelessness, we in the ’16 voting majority feel less like citizens and more like hostages.

    On that and other happy topics, I did an hour’s stint on WHYY’s “Radio Times” earlier today. Lots of good chatter. It’s on the SoundCloud.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.