President Trump has questioned the findings of his own U.S. intelligence community before. But he broke new ground Wednesday — and in the process set quite a precedent for the dissemination of information about America’s threats.
Much of Trump’s feuding with the intel community has been indirect. He has sprinkled doubt upon its Russia findings, and he has mischaracterized what it said about Saudi Arabia’s role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. When Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats seemed to vent about Trump’s talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, White House advisers privately fumed, but a public clash was averted.
Apparently, Trump can’t hold back anymore.
In a series of tweets Wednesday, Trump suggested Coats and other top intelligence officials were flat-out incorrect in their assessments of the threats posed by Iran, North Korea and the Islamic State at a Tuesday hearing. Trump rather clearly viewed each of these assessments as an affront to his own leadership, given he canceled the Iran deal, has negotiated with Kim Jong Un and recently claimed victory over ISIS while announcing a withdrawal from Syria.
"Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” Trump said. He added the officials were "extremely passive and naive” in saying Iran was still in compliance with the nuclear deal President Barack Obama forged and Trump voided.
And that’s the common thread running through all of this. When the intelligence doesn’t serve Trump’s purposes — and especially when it runs afoul of his personal political interests — he will do what he can to undermine it. Previously, with Russia, that has been somewhat more subtle and veiled. Trump didn’t outright attack intelligence assessments, but he pretended they didn’t say what they said. In the case of Khashoggi, where its conclusions about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s culpability were not public but reported via anonymous sources, Trump pretended the intelligence said something it didn’t. And he got other members of his administration to mislead about those findings right along with him.
But in this case, it was all out in the open. Here were the officials flatly disputing Trump’s claims that the Islamic State has been defeated, that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat and that Iran had been flouting the nuclear deal. They couldn’t pretend otherwise or put a good spin on it, because Trump’s claims were so over-the-top.
What’s interesting is these assessments don’t all err in the same direction, according to Trump. He’s saying the intel chiefs are too harsh about the Islamic State and North Korea, but not harsh enough about Iran. There’s no consistent direction in their alleged failures, except away from Trump. That says a lot.
Similarly, Trump’s arguments are undercut by the fact that his own assessments on these issues have changed markedly in recent weeks. While he previously said the Islamic State was “defeated,” he said Wednesday the “Caliphate will soon be destroyed." While he previously said North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat,” he now says there is only a “Decent chance of Denuclearization.” So even as Trump says his intelligence chiefs are wrong, he has very publicly moved toward their assessments.
Those nuances, though, will be lost on his supporters. And just as he has successfully reduced Republican faith in law enforcement, he has increasingly targeting the intelligence community, too. The message in all of it seems to be twofold: 1) People in my administration better not say things I don’t like (or I’ll publicly shame them), 2) Expertise is overrated, and I am really the only one you can trust.
Whatever you think about a loss of faith in the legal process, undercutting the intelligence community is literally a life-or-death issue. The question from here is whether those officials tone it down, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis did on Khashoggi, or maybe get replaced by people who are more comfortable toeing the line.
Neither is a good recipe for truly understanding the dangers the United States faces.