Trump Pilgrimage to CIA Detours Into Denial of Months-Long Feud

  • President says spat with intelligence community was made up
  • Vows to back agency employees ‘1,000 percent’ as president

For months, Donald Trump fought a running public battle with the intelligence community, attacking it as ineffective and incompetent. After the election, Trump went so far as to suggest that the CIA was the source of leaks against him. "One last shot at me," Trump tweeted on Jan. 11. "Are we living in Nazi Germany?"

On his first full day as president, Trump made a pilgrimage to the CIA’s Virginia headquarters to demonstrate his support for the intelligence community. Instead, he spent much of his time delivering a rambling speech where he talked mostly about himself -- boasting about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, the number of times he’s been on the cover of Time magazine and how he feels like a 30-year-old, or perhaps a 39-year-old, physically.

When he did talk about the spy agencies several times during Saturday’s speech, it was to offer unqualified praise, saying he loves the intelligence community and that the news media invented the entire feud. 

“There’s nobody I respect more,” he said. “I am with you 1,000 percent.”

Standing in front of the CIA Memorial Wall, engraved with stars representing fallen employees, Trump went even further, saying he was sure most of the 400 people in the room had voted for him. “We’re all on the same wavelength,” he said. He blamed previous administrations for holding the intelligence community back from defeating Islamic State and finishing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

”Maybe sometimes you haven’t gotten the backing you wanted," he said. ”You’re going to get so much backing.”

‘Hallowed Ground’

It’s not clear whether Trump’s visit did much to repair the morale of an agency that strives to avoid any hints of partisanship and is unnerved by Trump’s repeated charges that it was trying to damage him.

Obama CIA chief John Brennan was “deeply saddened and angered at Trump’s despicable display of self-aggrandizement in front of CIA’s Memorial Wall of Agency heroes,” Brennan’s former spokesman Nick Shapiro said on Twitter. “Brennan says that Trump should be ashamed of himself."

“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,” Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “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.”

White House spokesman Sean Spicer rebutted that view of Trump’s performance, telling reporters Saturday that the president “delivered a powerful and emphatic message” and that CIA employees were “ecstatic” that Trump is the new commander-in-chief.

Trump’s criticism of the intelligence community first arose during the campaign against rival Hillary Clinton, who blamed Russia for hacking Democratic Party offices and officials and said President Vladimir Putin was trying to help Trump win.

Russian Role

“I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC,” Trump said in a September debate. “She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t -- maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”

Trump’s skepticism was unbowed after the intelligence community, in an Oct. 7 statement, backed up Clinton’s accusations, saying they were “confident that the Russian government directed” the hacking. During debates with Clinton after that report, Trump continued to question the findings, stepping up his criticism after winning the election.

"These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," Trump’s office said in a Dec. 9 statement.

About two weeks before his inauguration, Trump held firm to the idea that the intelligence agencies didn’t have enough evidence to back up their conclusions, despite a follow-up report saying they were even more confident of their findings. The report concluded that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized” the hacking, phrasing interpreted as pointing the finger at Putin. Russia has repeatedly rejected the accusations.

‘Build a Case’

“The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case,” Trump tweeted on Jan. 3. “Very strange!”

That briefing, led by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, eventually took place Jan. 6 and Trump softened his tone against the agencies, at least temporarily.

In the past week, though, Trump appeared to accuse Brennan of being behind the leak of an unverified dossier purporting to contain compromising information on Trump. In an angry tweet, Trump lashed out at comments Brennan made in a Fox News interview in his final week in office.

“What I do find outrageous is equating intelligence community with Nazi Germany,” Brennan, who served in the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, said in the interview. “I do take great umbrage at that, and there is no basis for Mr. Trump to point fingers at the intelligence community for leaking information that was already available publicly.”

Fake News

Trump quickly retorted, saying on Twitter: “Oh really, couldn’t do... much worse - just look at Syria (red line), Crimea, Ukraine and the build-up of Russian nukes. Not good! Was this the leaker of Fake News?,” a reference to the dossier.

David Priess, a former CIA officer and author of a book about presidential intelligence briefings, called the feud unprecedented.

“No president-elect has had a public spat with his intelligence agencies,” Priess said in an interview earlier this month. “There have been hiccups before, but never publicly."

Even some Republican lawmakers have been at a loss to understand Trump’s suspicions about the intelligence findings. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who has frequently clashed with Trump, said that “when it comes to Russia, he seems to have a blind spot.”

On Saturday at the CIA building, though, Trump claimed it was all a made-up controversy, fake news.

Accompanied by National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his nominee to lead the CIA, Mike Pompeo, Trump said the media “are among the most dishonest people on Earth,” Trump said. “And they sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community. The reason you’re the number one stop is exactly the opposite.”

— With assistance by Nafeesa Syeed, and Justin Sink

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.