Somehow, in the midst of all the inaugural celebrating, President Trump got the message. Perhaps his inner circle had a moment of clarity, and somebody asked to see the boss about it. Maybe his newly confirmed secretary of defense pulled him aside for a quiet word. Almost certainly, his nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Pompeo, would have been making strong entreaties to the new commander in chief.
Their message was this: It’s time to try to make up with the CIA.
Let’s review the bidding on the new president’s comments regarding the nation’s largest intelligence agency. From most offensive to least offensive, Trump has compared the CIA to Nazi Germany; indicated his distrust of the agency’s capabilities and professionalism by invoking the 14-year-old “they missed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq” argument; and characterized as “ridiculous” the CIA’s agreement with the findings of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia attempted to influence the election that Trump won. Directly rebutting CIA officers whose job it is to know Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, Trump said, “We just don’t know.” It could be an overweight guy in his basement, right? Did you guys in Langley think of that?
The day after the inauguration, though, something changed. Perhaps it was the gravity of being sworn in, the realization that the decisions he would have to make in the very near future were more weighty than even the richest multimillion-dollar real estate or brand-licensing deal. Perhaps he finally came to understand, as have virtually all of his predecessors, that having good intelligence is critical to a successful presidency. Perhaps it was at that point he realized that it would be a good idea to try to mend fences with the CIA. Not with the outgoing director, John Brennan, of course — he was part of the cabal that supported the theory that Russia influenced the election — but at least with the rank and file.
So Trump headed over to CIA headquarters on a Saturday morning to address a group of officers assembled in the main lobby. Trump did the best he could to assure the group he loved them — at least for a little over two minutes of his speech. He attempted a colloquial tone, peppering his comments with accolades. The new president noted intelligence officers’ sacrifice and character, and how humbling it was to appear before them. He thanked the officers, pointing out the importance of the fact that the CIA was his first stop after his inauguration. And then his speech tacked toward topics more familiar from the campaign and the transition: the disreputable nature of the media, how young Trump felt, what a gem their future boss was. After about 15 minutes, the speech was over. Mission accomplished.
The problem is that two and a half minutes of praise wrapped in an ad hoc stump speech is not enough to repair the damage caused by months of lambasting the CIA while praising Putin. It will take much more than that, and it will be difficult for Trump.
Having worked there for 30 years, I can attest that CIA officers are not an emotionally fragile workforce whose feelings need to be taken into account at every turn, and who need to be sweet-talked back into the fold. These are people who volunteer to serve in the most difficult places in the world, places where their safety and sometimes that of their families is put at risk. People who work ungodly hours and get up in the middle of the night so that the chief executive can have the President’s Daily Brief before he has his breakfast, if he wants. CIA officers who have been around a few years have served under Republican and Democratic administrations, each with their particular biases and foibles, each hoping that the intelligence will support their worldview. The CIA as an institution is extremely resilient: Officers rarely succumb to either the pressures of the job or the pressures of the politicians. The CIA and its officers have been called liars, fabricators, incompetent and politicized many times in the past. They know it comes with the territory.
Even so, the incoming president’s comments during the campaign and after his election were uniquely damaging to his future relationship with the CIA. It’s one thing to be accused of getting it wrong — the CIA has made mistakes in the past, and the organization has admitted as much. It’s quite another to be compared to Nazis. It’s one thing to have somebody legitimately question an intelligence assessment; in fact, the agency encourages and even enjoys spirited discussion of the intelligence it has produced, which shows officers that they’re getting through to their consumer. But it’s quite another to have an intelligence community assessment on one of this nation’s most dangerous adversaries, Russia, be called “ridiculous.” And another still to see that followed up with a virtual high-five to Putin. “I always knew he was very smart,” Trump tweeted after Russia declined to retaliate for the U.S. measures designed to punish its interference with the presidential campaign.
Trump’s campaign rhetoric will have struck CIA officers on a more human level, too. Diversity is more than just filling quotas at the agency. Without Muslim Americans in the CIA’s workforce, U.S. counterterrorism efforts would be measurably weakened. Without their language skills and cultural understanding, The CIA would not have thwarted as many attacks on the homeland as they have. And yet these CIA employees have heard their new president talk about drawing up lists of Muslims (perhaps including their family members) for scrutiny and “extreme vetting.” Women make up a significant portion of the CIA workforce, some in very senior positions. How will a senior female manager answer a question from a more junior woman about making professional and personal sacrifices for a president who has made on-the-record degrading remarks about women? How will Hispanic managers at the agency answer similar questions to those Hispanic officers they mentor? The CIA’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender officers, who serve with distinction, must have heard about Vice President Pence’s opposition to same-sex marriage (any new ban of which would result in significant difficulties for gay couples being posted abroad) and the discriminatory drumbeat of Trump adherents that the president has done nothing to dispel. 180 seconds aimed at galvanizing the workforce on a Saturday morning in the lobby will not overcome these concerns.
The CIA is a professional espionage organization whose employees understand that they work for policymakers who are also politicians. The CIA understands both the rule of law and the chain of command. It is unlikely there will be a popular revolt, a series of mass resignations or anything of that nature. CIA officers are too dedicated, and the job is too important and rewarding to simply walk away. Nor will there be any manipulation of intelligence to undermine the president, which appeared to be what Trump and his transition team believed was going on when the intelligence community assessed that Russia influenced the election.
But what will be going through that Arabic translator’s mind the next time his or her supervisor says they have to stay late into the night on a priority tasking? What will a case officer be thinking when he or she is asked to move with their family to a part of the world where Americans are reviled and viewed as enemies of the state? Will a promising young gay officer decide not to take that critical overseas assignment because their partner could not accompany them as a legitimate family member? And what will a rising young analyst think before considering doing shift work on the production staff for the presidential daily brief that Trump has made clear he doesn’t value?
There are a few measures Trump can take that could help the relationship down the road. First, he should apologize for his offensive remarks. Not many people in the agency’s workforce would believe that Trump was excoriating only CIA leadership with the Nazi comparison. The president should tell CIA officers that he understands the political pressures exerted on the organization during the lead-up to the war in Iraq, and that he knows the agency has undertaken significant measures to tighten up both collection and analysis to avoid intelligence failures down the road. Trump should make clear he understands that the diversity of the CIA workforce is what gives it strength.
He may have more trouble making amends with the highly specialized and dedicated group of Russia experts at the CIA. Trump’s vociferous denials of any Russian attempt to influence the elections, coupled with lingering questions regarding his team’s contacts with the Russian government, will make CIA Russia-followers wary. But he should attempt to convince the organization that even when he gets bad news — when he is briefed on intelligence that is threatening to him personally or his administration — he will not shirk his duty as president and as an American.
Trump also needs to try to set up the new director, Mike Pompeo, for success, and this, too, will be difficult, given the tightrope he will have to walk between the White House and Langley. CIA officers at all levels want to like and respect their director, but this is based on the hope and expectation the director will stick up for his agency and its difficult mission — even when it may not be politically expedient to do so. This will put Pompeo on a razor’s edge between losing the trust of his workforce and losing the trust of his president.
If Trump fails to repair his relationship with the CIA, the results of the damage he has already done will not be immediate or obvious. CIA officers will still respect the presidency and understand the need to supply critical, apolitical intelligence to senior policymakers. But eventually, erosion will occur. People will question whether the sacrifices are worth it. Minorities in the organization will work looking over their shoulders, or worse, with a chip on them. Slowly, inexorably, the agency will become less effective as a result. Especially now, the United States cannot afford that.