The former acting head of the CIA, Michael Morell, decided last year that it was time to get political. Concerned about the possibility that Donald Trump would become commander in chief, Morell wrote an August 2016 New York Times op-ed endorsing Hillary Clinton and calling Trump a “threat to our national security.”
It sounds like he regrets it — at least somewhat.
In a very worthwhile Q&A with Politico's Susan Glasser, Morell reflects upon the decisions made by himself and other previously nonpolitical top intelligence officials to weigh in against Trump. And he suggests that it was counterproductive in one key way.
Below is a lengthy excerpt, but it's all worth reading:
GLASSER: Okay, so, flash-forward a year [after the op-ed]. Was that a mistake?
MORELL: So, I don’t think it was a mistake. I think there were downsides to it that I didn’t think about at the time. I was concerned about what is the impact it would have on the agency, right? Very concerned about that, thought that through. But I don’t think I fully thought through the implications.
And one of the ways I’ve thought about that, Susan, is — okay, how did Donald Trump see this? Right? And from — it’s very important — one of the things we do as intelligence analysts is make sure that our guy — the president — understands the other guy. Right?
So let’s put ourselves here in Donald Trump’s shoes. So, what does he see? Right? He sees a former director of CIA and a former director of NSA, Mike Hayden, who I have the greatest respect for, criticizing him and his policies. Right? And he could rightfully have said, “Huh, what’s going on with these intelligence guys?” Right?
GLASSER: It embroiders his narrative.
MORELL: Exactly. And then he sees a former acting director and deputy director of CIA criticizing him and endorsing his opponent. And then he gets his first intelligence briefing, after becoming the Republican nominee, and within 24 to 48 hours, there are leaks out of that that are critical of him and his then-national security adviser, Mike Flynn.
And so this stuff starts to build, right? And he must have said to himself, “What is it with these intelligence guys? Are they political?” The current director at the time, John Brennan, during the campaign occasionally would push back on things that Donald Trump had said.
So, when Trump talked about the Iran nuclear deal being the worst deal in the history of American diplomacy, and he was going to tear it up on the first day — John Brennan came out publicly and said, “That would be an act of folly.” So, he sees current sitting director pushing back on him. Right?
Then he becomes president, and he’s supposed to be getting a daily brief from the moment he becomes the president-elect. Right? And he doesn’t. And within a few days, there’s leaks about how he’s not taking his briefing. So, he must have thought — right? — that, “Who are these guys? Are these guys out to get me? Is this a political organization? Can I think about them as a political organization when I become president?”
So, I think there was a significant downside to those of us who became political in that moment. So, if I could have thought of that, would I have ended up in a different place? I don’t know. But it’s something I didn’t think about.
To some extent, this is the bargain you make with any political endorsement. If the other candidate wins, you have effectively made an enemy out of someone who just found themselves in a position of power. And in Morell's telling, the decisions by top former intelligence officials like himself, Hayden and Brennan to all speak out against Trump — combined with leaks that cast Trump in a dim light — created a kind of us-vs.-them situation, which may have led Trump to distrust the intelligence community. Since then, Trump has cast doubt upon many of the community's conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 election and installed a loyalist as CIA director, Mike Pompeo, who has erred in Trump's direction on some key political issues. (Pompeo is supposed to be Trump's next pick for secretary of state, with another loyalist, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), set to take his place.)
That said, the idea that Trump would be more warm and fuzzy with the intelligence community were it not for the leaks and for decisions like Morell's to criticize him is a little far-fetched. Trump has shown he'll attack anything and anyone who stands in his way, and allegations of Russian interference can't help but call into question — at least somewhat — whether he would have won the presidency without it. Trump is clearly hugely sensitive to the idea that his presidency isn't legitimate, and he has demonstrated no qualms about attacking the institutions of American government. In that way, he was always bound to clash with the intelligence community.
But Morell's comments are well worth considering, including for the media and others who hold important, nonpolitical jobs. When that's part of the job description, retaining faith in your impartiality is paramount. Certain folks may decide candidates and presidents like Trump warrant an unusual approach — trust me, I've heard from them, and they have a point to an extent — but that unusual approach may have larger ramifications than you realize, and perhaps less of an upside.
Did Morell actually move any votes by endorsing Clinton? It's impossible to say. But he sure seems to see with clarity what the downside was now that Trump is president.