President Trump’s visit to the CIA on his first day in office shocked some agency veterans because of its combative, political tone. But several said they were glad that Trump seemed to have stopped demonizing the intelligence community and was presenting himself as its best friend.
The CIA likes to think of itself as apolitical, serving the president regardless of party. So Trump’s ingratiating message was welcome after months of attacks, including an outrageous comparison of intelligence community leaders to Nazis. But CIA veterans said his private tour of CIA headquarters went better than his recorded public comments in front of the wall of stars commemorating fallen officers.
“I am so behind you,” Trump proclaimed. “And I know maybe sometimes you haven’t gotten the backing that you’ve wanted. And you’re going to get so much backing.” He blamed reports of his antagonism toward the agency on the “dishonest” media, evidently hoping that the audience had amnesia about Trump’s own critical tweets.
Trump seems to understand that he will need a confident and supportive intelligence community if he hopes to be successful with his ambitious and disruptive global agenda. The trickiest issue will be gaining the agency’s trust for his rapprochement with Russia. This is a workforce whose identity remains bound up with the Cold War and whose deepest secrets involve intelligence collection from inside the Kremlin.
“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.”
Trump lauded his “great transition,” his “amazing team,” his personal vigor (“I think I’m young”) and his intelligence (“I’m like a smart person”). This rambling braggadocio is part of Trump’s style, and the country (including the CIA) will have to get used to it. 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.
“You know, the military and the law enforcement generally speaking … gave us tremendous percentages of votes. We were unbelievably successful in the election with getting the vote of the military. Probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did. But I would guarantee a big portion. Because we’re all on the same wavelength, folks.”
A former division chief said: “It was good that he came, but it came across as very political. He didn’t understand his audience, which is the most apolitical crowd in Washington.” This former official’s first reaction was that “it was so inappropriate, what he said and where he said it.” But later, after surveying a range of colleagues, he said that the reaction overall was “a mix of cautious gratitude and bemused acceptance, along with disappointment and worse.”
A veteran paramilitary officer said Trump and his chosen CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), were seen as a welcome change by many CIA operations officers who have chafed under the leadership of John Brennan. The visit was “well-received by the worker bees,” he said, adding that “the videotaped part was not reflective of the visit. Many were pleasantly surprised by how he is in person.”
But, mused one former station chief in the Middle East, “What was he thinking? What did he intend to accomplish?” He noted the odd discordance of a boastful, sometimes misleading presentation “to an audience whose focus in life is to see through lies and deception.” But for a CIA that is tired of having a “kick me” sign on its backside, it was obviously nice to be massaged.