The American intelligence community has never faced a problem quite like President Trump — a commander in chief who is suspected by a growing number of Republicans and Democrats of deferring to Russia’s views over the recommendations of his own intelligence agencies.
“There are almost two governments now,” worries John McLaughlin, a former acting CIA director. He discusses the Trump conundrum with the same vexation as a dozen other former intelligence officials I’ve spoken with since the president’s shockingly acquiescent performance onstage Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
How are current intelligence chiefs handling this unprecedented situation? They are operating carefully but correctly, trying to balance their obligations to the president with the oaths they have sworn to protect and defend the Constitution. The officials continue to serve the elected president, but they are also signaling that they work for the American people.
Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, admirably rebuffed Trump on Monday, a few hours after the president seemed to accept Putin’s denial of meddling in the 2016 election. Coats gave the White House a heads-up, but he didn’t clear his statement. He believed it was essential to defend the intelligence community immediately.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray made a similar show of independence here Wednesday at the Aspen Security Forum, saying the Russia investigation wasn’t a “witch hunt,” as Trump claims, and affirming, “Russia attempted to intervene with the last election, and . . . it continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.”
The brazen contempt that Putin has shown for the United States is an extraordinary feature of this ultimate spy story. In Helsinki, Putin publicly affirmed that he had supported Trump and evaded a question about whether he had compromising information on him; in their private meeting, he asked for Trump’s help in questioning a former U.S. ambassador, Michael McFaul, with Trump promising he would study the matter.
Putin, the ex-KGB officer, has described himself as a specialist in dealing with people, according to Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA station chief in Moscow. Putin’s tradecraft, Hoffman says, is summarized in a phrase popular among Russian intelligence operatives: “What makes a person breathe?”
Putin seems to have an uncanny sense for how Trump breathes. That has led some observers to speculate that perhaps Trump is a controlled Russian agent. This seems unlikely to me, partly because the Russians would never allow a true mole to take such crazy risks of exposure. “He’s not a controlled agent, because if he was, they’d tell him how to behave so as not to endanger himself,” observes a former head of CIA operations against Russia.
No, Trump is something different. The phrase “useful idiot,” attributed to Vladimir Lenin, is often used, but the technical Russian term for an often unwitting but helpful asset is a “confidential contact.” What Trump offers Russia isn’t the information he knows but his role as a human wrecking ball against America’s traditional allies and trading partners.
What will be different in the spy world in the aftermath of this jaw-dropping week? Probably not much. Intelligence agencies are resilient; they “get on with it,” as legendary CIA Director Richard Helms liked to say. The president remains the first customer, and most veterans of the spy world can’t imagine withholding information from him. Officials may be more cautious, briefing especially sensitive details first to the national security adviser, say, or cautioning the president that he doesn’t want to know how a piece of information was obtained.
What about the agents who are risking their lives in Moscow or Beijing to spy for America? Will they balk now? Again, probably not: Spies have deep reasons for working for America, positive and negative, and they know the risks they’re taking. Agents who have helped America because it represented something different from Putin’s authoritarianism may have second thoughts, however. That’s the hidden intelligence cost of Trump’s presidency: We’re a less admirable nation.
Will foreign spy services that share sensitive intelligence through what’s termed “liaison” reduce the flow? Once again, probably not. Their relationships with the CIA, FBI, NSA and other agencies go back so many decades that cooperation is almost hard-wired. If Trump continues to speak of the European Union as a “foe,” or to undermine British or German politicians he doesn’t like, that cooperation could eventually change. But our foreign partners need U.S. intelligence, however much they dislike Trump.
“At the end of the day, our work is what endures,” Wray said here. His commitment to the law and the facts offered a moment to appreciate that Trump is checked, not by some imaginary “deep state,” but by patriotic men and women doing their jobs.