On his first full day in office, President Trump visited the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters to express his gratitude for the intelligence community, which he had repeatedly railed against and recently likened to Nazis.
What Trump delivered Saturday was a campaign-style, stream-of-consciousness airing of grievances — at the Senate for delaying confirmation of his nominees; at critics for questioning whether he is smart and vigorous; and at journalists, whom he called “the most dishonest human beings on earth” and accused of lying about the size of his inauguration crowd.
Trump claimed falsely that the crowd for his swearing-in stretched down the National Mall to the Washington Monument and totaled more than 1 million people. It did not. Trump accused television networks of showing “an empty field” and reporting that he drew just 250,000 people to witness Friday’s ceremony.
“It looked like a million, a million and a half people,” Trump said, falsely claiming that his crowd “went all the way back to the Washington Monument.”
During his 2009 inaugural address, President Obama’s crowd extended that far, and photos from that day show a crowd clearly much larger than the one that showed up for Trump.
“It’s a lie,” Trump said of the crowd estimates for Friday’s event. “We caught [the media]. We caught them in a beauty.”
Trump also misrepresented what happened to the weather during his swearing in. He said he felt a few drops of rain as he started delivering his address, but then, “God looked down and, and he said we’re not going to let it rain on your speech.. . .The truth is it stopped immediately.”
Light rain continued to fall through the first few minutes of the speech — and VIP’s at the dais took out ponchos, including former president George W. Bush — and then quit. Trump said there was a downpour right after he finished, which did not occur.
Speaking from the lobby of CIA headquarters in Langley, before a wall of stars honoring intelligence officers who died in service, Trump declared, “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth, right?”
Trump spoke before 300 to 400 agency employees who signed up to come into to the agency on Saturday afternoon to see the new commander in chief, an audience that likely was dominated by Trump supporters.
But aspects of his appearance are likely to be unsettling to the broader workforce, including his suggestion that the agency has been losing in the battle against the Islamic State and other terror groups, and his decision to score political points unrelated to the CIA’s mission in front of its most sacred setting — a wall emblazoned with more than 100 carved stars to mark the deaths of agency operatives killed in the line of duty.
“That was one of the more disconcerting speeches I’ve seen,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official who was not present for the Trump speech but watched it by video. “He could have kept it very simple and said, ‘I’m here to build some bridges.’ But he spent 10 seconds on that and the rest was on the crowd size,” the official said, referring to Trump’s repeated complaints that the media had undercounted the turnout for his inauguration.
Referring to Trump’s use of the CIA memorial wall as a backdrop, the official said, “People are going to think that was offensive.”
Trump on Saturday insisted that he valued the agency.
“They sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community,” Trump said. “I just want to let you know, the reason you’re the number one stop is it is exactly the opposite.”
In fact, Trump repeatedly vilified the intelligence community throughout much of his transition in an attempt to push back against what he saw as politically charged conclusions by the CIA and other agencies about Russia’s hacking of Democratic Party emails to interfere with the 2016 election.
Trump has taken particular issue with the CIA’s determination that Moscow intervened not only to disrupt this country’s election, but to help Trump defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
At a Jan. 11 news conference, Trump accused U.S. intelligence officials of being behind a Nazi-like smear campaign against him. He has put quotation marks around the word “intelligence” in referring to such officials. And last weekend, for instance, Trump attacked CIA Director John Brennan — who resigned Friday at the conclusion of President Obama’s term — in a pair of tweets, suggesting he was “the leaker of Fake News.”
Trump journeyed to Langley on Saturday — his first in what aides said would be a series of visits to federal departments and agencies — to show his solidarity with career intelligence officials.
“There is nobody that feels stronger about the intelligence community and the CIA than Donald Trump,” Trump said. “There is nobody.”
He added, “I am so behind you. I know maybe sometimes you haven’t gotten the backing that you’ve wanted and you’re going to get so much backing. Maybe you’re going to say, ‘Please, don’t give us so much backing. Mr. President, please, we don’t need so much backing.’”
Trump vowed to lead the fight against the Islamic State, a rallying cry for intelligence officers: “We’ve been fighting these wars for longer than any wars we’ve ever fought. We have not used the real abilities that we have. We’ve been restrained. We have to get rid of ISIS.”
He added, “Radical Islamic terrorism – and I said it yesterday – has to be eradicated, just off the face of the earth. This is evil.”
Trump delved into the Iraq war, saying: “I wasn’t a fan of Iraq. I didn’t want to go into Iraq.” His statement was at odds with comments he made during a 2002 interview with radio shock jock Howard Stern.
Trump also asserted his oft-stated belief that the United States bungled its exit from the country by not taking Iraq’s oil. “If we kept the oil, we wouldn’t have had ISIS in the first place,” Trump reasoned, saying that was how the Islamic State terrorist group made its money.
“The old expression, to the victor belong the spoils,” Trump said. He added, “We should’ve kept the oil. But, okay, maybe we’ll have another chance.”
Trump praised his nominee for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), who has yet to be confirmed by the Senate, a process that was delayed Friday by objections from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
“You will be getting a total star,” Trump said of Pompeo. “This is a gem.”
He also asked CIA officers to applaud his national security adviser, former lieutenant general Michael Flynn, who is a controversial figure within the intelligence community.
From there, Trump delved into a series of personal grievances. He claimed to “know a lot about West Point” and said his uncle was a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I’m a person that very strongly believes in academics,” Trump said. “They say, ‘Is Donald Trump an intellectual?’ Trust me. I’m, like, a smart person.”
Trump, who at 70 is the oldest man sworn-in for his first term as president, went on to say that he feels like a young man: “I feel like I’m 30, -35, 39. Somebody said, ‘Are you young?’ I said, ‘I think I’m young.’”