Trump's Morphed From Spy Agency Critic to Fan, CIA's Pompeo Says

  • ‘Don’t laugh,’ Pompeo says, acknowledging Trump’s past barbs
  • Strike on Syria may have brought closer bonds with agencies

Not long ago Donald Trump was describing U.S. “intelligence” agencies in mocking quote marks and comparing them to Nazi Germany for damaging leaks about him. As a presidential candidate, word was he barely wanted to sit still for top-secret briefings.

Not anymore, according to Trump’s CIA director.

Mike Pompeo paints a picture of his boss as an enthusiastic consumer of intelligence briefings, including top-secret assessments of threats posed by Syria, Russia and North Korea.

In his first public speech since becoming head of the Central Intelligence Agency, the former Republican House member called the Trump administration’s relationship with the intelligence community “fantastic.” That produced enough surprised titters that he told his audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, “Don’t laugh. I mean that.”

“They are voracious consumers of the product we develop,” Pompeo, who backed Trump’s presidential campaign last year, said of the president and his top advisers. “We get lots of hard questions about the product and how we developed it and how we sourced it and are we sure.”

Almost every day, Pompeo or his deputy provides Trump with an intelligence briefing, the CIA chief said. Vice President Mike Pence is usually there too.

Read about twists in the Trump-Russia saga -- a QuickTake Q&A

Trump initially rejected the intelligence agencies’ findings that Russia hacked into Democratic emails and leaked them last year to harm Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign and help him win. He continues to dismiss as “fake news” questions about whether anyone close to him collaborated with Russia, and he continues to assert without evidence that former President Barack Obama had Trump Tower under surveillance and leaked damaging information.

But Trump’s decision last week to bomb a government airbase in Syria may have brought Trump closer to the intelligence community that now reports to him.

The CIA and the other U.S. intelligence agencies came up with some “hypotheses” about who was responsible for a deadly chemical attack on civilians and, “in relatively short order,” gave Trump “a high-confidence assessment” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was to blame, Pompeo said.

“We were good and fast,” Pompeo said. But “I can assure you that we were challenged by the president and his team,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that we had it right and there’s not much like when the president looks at you and says, ‘Pompeo, are you sure?”’

‘Faith and Confidence’

The Syria operation is the type of decision that builds bonds of trust between a president and the intelligence agencies he must depend on, said Juan Zarate, a former adviser in the Bush and Obama administrations, who was on Trump’s transition team for the Office of Director of National Intelligence.

“All of that requires some faith and confidence in the intelligence being presented to him and the leadership that’s representing those views,” Zarate said in an interview. “There have been moments of maturation -- that was a really important one. We’ll see what the trajectory brings, but we’ll look back and say that was an important episode.”

Former intelligence officials say Pompeo has helped ease some of the friction in the CIA over Trump’s past criticism.

“He seems to have been very well-received,” Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, said in an interview. “I hear within CIA that they like him, he’s settled in, that he’s hard-working. We’ll see -- it’s only been three months.”

Pompeo is among the many top Trump administration officials who vehemently reject the president’s past pronouncements that Russian President Vladimir Putin is an admirably strong leader with whom the U.S. can make deals.

“This is a man for whom veracity doesn’t translate into English,” Pompeo said of Putin. Russia is “on their six or seventh story now” about what they allege happened in the Syrian chemical attack, “none of which have an ounce of truth to them,” he said.

North Korea

Now, Pompeo said, U.S. intelligence agencies shoulder a heavy responsibility in helping Trump judge the growing threat from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s determination to develop nuclear weapons and missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland.

With each test North Korea carries out, “it both reduces the option set to prevent it and makes more likely that we get a bad decision on a tough day from the leader of North Korea,” Pompeo said.

“It’s fallen to us,” he said. “We’re in this time where they’re close and President Trump has said clearly, we have an obligation to prevent that from occurring.”

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