NOTHING DESCRIBED in the intelligence community’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment presented to Congress on Tuesday should be surprising. The 42-page report declared that North Korea is “unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities.” Iran continues to make trouble in the Middle East but “is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities” needed to build a nuclear weapon. Russia and China are both challenging the liberal democratic model long advanced by the United States. The Islamic State commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and with eight branches and more than a dozen networks, will keep attacking. Climate hazards are intensifying. These are sober findings.
But there was one recipient of the report who was particularly unhappy. President Trump on Wednesday delivered a public tongue-lashing to his intelligence chiefs. On Twitter, the president declared the intelligence community assessment “extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran.” He insisted, “They are wrong!” He claimed that Iran’s behavior is “MUCH different” since he came into office and that he had caused that change. “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” he jibed.
On North Korea, Mr. Trump proclaimed, “North Korea relationship is best it has ever been with U.S.,” and that once again he had changed everything from the previous administration. “I look forward to seeing Kim Jong Un shortly,” he said. “Progress being made-big difference!” As for the Islamic State, Mr. Trump insisted, “When I became President, ISIS was out of control in Syria & running rampant. Since then tremendous progress made, especially over last 5 weeks. Caliphate will soon be destroyed, unthinkable two years ago.”
On the facts, there’s not much question: The intelligence community is right, and Mr. Trump is wrong. Iran’s behavior has not changed. As in the last year of the Obama administration, Iran continues to pursue hegemony over Syria and Lebanon by violent means, while — as U.N. inspectors have confirmed — keeping its nuclear program on ice. North Korea struck accords with both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations that went far beyond that so far reached between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, who has not stopped North Korea’s production of missiles and warheads. And so on.
Aside from Mr. Trump’s by-now familiar prevarications, it is breathtaking to see him so at odds with the intelligence community. Intelligence collection and analysis are at the critical intersection of ground truth and policy, the place where reality is presented for decisions, and the president is the most important decider. Plenty of lessons from recent history, from the Vietnam War to the Sept. 11 attacks, offer caution about the dangers — even in the best of times — of a disconnect or error in this process. Mr. Trump’s declarations suggest it is near breakdown.
Will overseas adversaries be emboldened by the sight of a president who feels compelled to publicly disparage his own intelligence community of 17 agencies and more than 100,000 people? Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, and Gina Haspel, the CIA director, deserve credit for not ducking the responsibility to brief Congress and the nation forthrightly on the threats they see, even though they must have known Mr. Trump was likely to disagree. They did leave one serious threat off their list: that of a president mired in his own delusions who refuses to hear the truth.