President Trump’s plan to nominate a political ally as director of national intelligence was seen by current and former officials as a move to subdue spy agencies that he has long regarded as disloyal, and silence one of the few pockets of occasional dissent in his administration.
Trump began attacking U.S. spy agencies almost from the moment he declared his candidacy, and since taking office he has routinely rejected analysts’ conclusions on issues including Russian election interference, the murder of a Saudi journalist and more.
Now, with the choice of Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) to serve as the nation’s next spy chief — and Attorney General William P. Barr already entrenched at the Justice Department — Trump is poised to seize greater control over the two pillars of government that he perceives as most hostile to his presidency.
Intelligence community officials said that the moves raised fears about the politicization of their work, and that the official who often represents their views in meetings at the Oval Office may be less inclined to deliver unvarnished — and sometimes unwelcome — assessments to the president.
Former officials described Trump’s plan to install Ratcliffe as a threat to the independence of the nation’s spy agencies.
“This is clearly an effort to bring together the powers he needs in the hands of loyalists,” said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former high-ranking CIA official who served in Republican and Democratic administrations
Trump’s antagonism toward the intelligence community often is traced to his anger over assessments that Russia interfered in 2016 to help elect him, a conclusion that he appears to believe undercuts his electoral accomplishment and legitimacy.
When that finding was made public, weeks before Trump’s inauguration, he lashed out on Twitter, accusing the CIA of waging a smear campaign against him. “One last shot at me,” he said. “Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
Since then, Trump has remained determined to discredit the Russia assessment, frequently accusing the CIA and FBI of taking part in an anti-Trump conspiracy. In Ratcliffe and Barr, Trump would have staunch allies overseeing both those agencies — and who have backed his dark but unsubstantiated suspicions.
Ratcliffe seemed to endorse this view in a Fox television interview Sunday, saying that the Russia investigation led by Robert S. Mueller III had been led by lawyers “close to the Clinton Foundation” and alleging that “there were crimes committed during the Obama administration” that should now be investigated.
Those statements are certain to add to the sense of foreboding among analysts and agents who are already subjects of an internal probe ordered by Barr into the origins of the Mueller investigation.
The outgoing director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, was widely seen as a second-tier player in the administration, with little influence at the White House. But he was willing at times to publicly challenge Trump when the president’s assertions were at odds with intelligence community findings.
Coats repeatedly insisted that Russian interference in 2016 was real and that Moscow was continuing to intervene in U.S. political affairs, even as Trump said he was convinced by the ardent denials of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Coats also spoke in congressional testimony and other settings about Iran’s compliance with a nuclear accord, and said that North Korea was unlikely to abandon its development of nuclear weapons — positions that undercut the public pronouncements of the president.
In January, Trump became so enraged by Coats’s testimony on Iran that he lashed out on Twitter, saying U.S. intelligence professionals should “go back to school” and were “extremely passive and naive when it comes to the danger of Iran. They are wrong!”
Such clashes led to months of speculation about Coats’s security in a position that Trump at times toyed with eliminating entirely. The job was created in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to help coordinate the activities of and set priorities for a constellation of 16 separate spy agencies.
Lee Hamilton, who as co-chair of the commission that investigated the attacks was among the architects of the DNI job, said that he has watched with concern as its authority has eroded in the Trump presidency.
Coats’s record “was one of some turbulence with Trump,” Hamilton said in an interview. “But he told it like he and his intelligence colleagues saw it.”
Ratcliffe has provided little indication that he would be inclined to do so, a prospect that Hamilton described as worrisome given Trump’s tendency to reject or ignore intelligence community findings.
“It scares me,” Hamilton said of Trump’s approach to intelligence. “I would acknowledge that it has not so far been calamitous, disastrous, catastrophic. But it’s a matter of risks. You elevate the risks when you have a president who seems to put more faith in Putin than in the CIA or Dan Coats. It raises the risk of a catastrophic mistake.”
Trump arrived in office largely unfamiliar with the structure, capabilities or apolitical traditions of U.S. spy agencies. Senior officials at the time expressed hope that his antagonistic views would soften as he spent time with agency leaders and received daily doses of highly classified secrets.
Instead, officials said, the relationship remains wary, marred by distrust and dysfunction. Rather than being persuaded by briefers bearing classified evidence, Trump continues to trust his instincts and the assurances of foreign leaders he favors.
Last year, after the CIA concluded with high confidence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, Trump dismissed the consensus views of the CIA’s Middle East experts as mere “feelings.”
Asked about Mohammed’s complicity, Trump said, “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.”
CIA Director Gina Haspel subsequently delivered a detailed briefing on the Khashoggi killing to members of Congress, who emerged saying they could no longer see any room to doubt Mohammed’s role in the assassination.
The intelligence community’s influence in the Trump administration has been eroded further by the departure of other senior officials who were seen as receptive to the work of the CIA and other agencies. Among them were former secretary of defense Jim Mattis and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson.
Tillerson was replaced by Mike Pompeo, who had risen to favor with Trump while serving as CIA director and tailoring intelligence judgments in ways that pleased the president. In one of his early public appearances, Pompeo said that the intelligence community had concluded that “the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.”
His statement mischaracterized the findings of spy agencies that had explicitly noted in their January 2017 report that they had not reached any judgment about the impact of Russia’s interference. The CIA was forced to clarify Pompeo’s statement the next day, saying that “the intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed.”