WASHINGTON — Members of the national security community reacted with shock on Saturday after President Donald Trump’s inaugural visit to CIA headquarters in which he used a speech in front of the agency's memorial to attack the media and his critics.
“It was unsettling,” one US official said.
“While standing in front of the stars representing CIA personnel who lost their lives in the service of their country — hallowed ground — Trump gave little more than a perfunctory acknowledgment of their service and sacrifice,” Rep. Adam Schiff said. “He will need to do more than use the agency memorial as a backdrop if he wants to earn the respect of the men and women who provide the best intelligence in the world.”
Former CIA deputy chief of staff Nick Shapiro tweeted Saturday night that former CIA Director John Brennan — whose decades-long tenure at the agency ended at noon Friday — was “deeply saddened and angered” by Trump’s “despicable display of self-aggrandizement” in front of Langley’s memorial wall.
Trump’s appearance at CIA — during which he stood in front of a wall bearing 117 stars for each agent who has been killed in the line of duty and vowed: “I am so behind you” — was intended to be a show of solidarity by Trump, who has repeatedly criticized the intelligence community for what he suspected were intelligence leaks to his political enemies. But in his remarks Saturday, the president only further drew the CIA into the current divided political climate.
He criticized the media. He criticized the Senate for delaying the confirmation of the incoming CIA director. He criticized those who said crowd sizes at Friday’s inauguration were smaller than for previous presidents. He told agency attendees that he believed most of them, and the military, voted for him. He also re-litigated the Iraq War, saying that while he opposed the 2003 invasion (which he did not always do), the US “should have kept the oil. Maybe we’ll have another chance.”
Trump, not addressing the criticism of his appearance directly, called it a "win" in a tweet early Sunday, saying: "Had a great meeting at CIA Headquarters yesterday, packed house, paid great respect to Wall, long standing ovations, amazing people. WIN!"
Throughout Trump’s remarks, agency staff erupted into the kind of raucous applause usually heard at a rally, not an institution that is supposed to be apolitical. The cheers were loudest when Trump called the media “among the most dishonest human beings.” They were less enthusiastic when he criticized the US war on ISIS or proposed taking Iraqi oil.
The crowd may have had more of a political bent to it than that of typical gatherings of government employees who, collectively, are attuned to the need to remain neutral. Many of the roughly 400 attendees were agency staff who signed up to come in on a Saturday and watch the president speak, potentially drawing in more supporters than opponents. And notably, however loudly those staffers applauded, the agency leaders standing in the back had a more measured applause response, an attendee told BuzzFeed News.
“Don’t fall for Trump using a thin sliver of @CIA as media props,” tweeted Brian Katulis, a senior national security fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Rank & file deeply distrust Trump.”
There were also White House staffers in attendance.
Those tasked with making intelligence assessments are expected to give analysis regardless of what they think their bosses may or may not want to hear. If they don’t, it could lead to bad information — and ultimately misguided national security policy. The perception of politicization of intelligence by US Central Command led some to undersell the rising threat of ISIS in the months before the terror group claimed Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, in June 2014.
In August, a Republican task force, led by members of the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees and the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, concluded that CENTCOM had altered intelligence reports to make the fight against al-Qaeda sound more positive than the conclusions of lower-level analysts. CENTCOM’s final report came at a time when the Obama administration was touting that the war with the terror group was winding down. The Pentagon Inspector General has been investigating the allegations by CENTCOM analysts for months and has yet to release its conclusions.
That is to say, the politicization of the intelligence community predates Trump. But until Saturday, such divides were kept out of the public eye. Trump’s remarks, and the reaction of some in the crowd, displayed the fervent support Trump enjoys from some of the agency. For Trump’s incoming CIA director, Mike Pompeo, who is set to be approved by the Senate, it will be his job to protect the intelligence from the politics.
Trump opened his remarks by acknowledging the wall and those who serve in the intelligence community. “There is nobody that feels stronger about the intelligence community and the CIA than Donald Trump,” the president said to loud applause.
Then his remarks veered into various tangents. At one point, he said that “I am a pretty smart person.”
He said he had appeared on the cover of Time magazine more than 10 times, more than anyone else. But he was wrong. Richard Nixon holds that record at 55 covers.
Trump said he wanted to be at the CIA headquarters because the “dishonest” media had suggested there was a rift. He failed to mention his own repeated comments criticizing the agency, both in interviews and in tweets.
The media “made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community, alright, just want to let you know, there’s a reason you’re number-one stop, is exactly the opposite. Exactly. And they understand that, too,” Trump said.
In December, after reports emerged that the intelligence community had assessed that Russia had interfered with the election, the Trump transition team released a statement that read, in part: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
That statement was considered, at the time, an opening salvo on the intelligence community by the then president-elect.
Nancy Youssef is a national security correspondent with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Nancy A. Youssef at email@example.com.
Ali Watkins is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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