Donald Trump spent a lot of time trashing the United States intelligence community when he was candidate Trump. And with less than 40 days until he becomes the boss of every intelligence officer in the government, President-elect Trump is once again questioning the competence of America’s spies.
His public comments, most recently a statement on Friday, have left some intelligence officials stunned and worried about a contentious relationship between the White House and the intelligence services, at a time when the country is still tracking and killing suspected terrorists and working to improve its footing in the growing world of cyberwarfare.
Late Friday night, after a Washington Post report revealed a CIA finding that Russian-backed hackers actively worked to influence the course of the 2016 election in favor of Trump, the president-elect’s transition team sent out a scathing statement.
“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the statement read. “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”
Let’s start with a fact-check of that: Trump won 306 electoral votes in the election to Hillary Clinton’s 232. That margin ranks Trump’s win 46th out of 58 elections held since 1792, according to a group of scholars who have written an accounting of every election since George Washington was elected president.
The CIA was one of a number of intelligence agencies that pushed intelligence that the Iraqi regime had weapons of mass destruction ahead of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That intelligence was proven to be false.
When VICE News asked former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden about the Trump campaign statement Saturday, he pointed to comments he made before the Washington Post report about Trump’s existing dismissal of U.S. intelligence assessments that Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails as well as those of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. Until Friday night, it was not known that those assessments may have included the CIA’s view that the goal of the hacking was to help Trump win. (VICE News has not independently confirmed the Washington Post’s reporting.)
“To have the president-elect of the United States simply reject the fact-based narrative that the intelligence community puts together because it conflicts with his prior assumptions. Wow,” Hayden said Friday at an event in New York City.
Hayden said the initial public intelligence assessment of Russian involvement in the hacking, which included other agencies along with the CIA, was based on “high confidence” from U.S. intelligence officials.
“The data matters,” Hayden said, according to a CNN report on his remarks. “He continues to reject the Russians did it… and claims that it was politicized intelligence.”
When asked about the Trump transition statement, Hayden emailed VICE News a link to the CNN report and added, “Can’t say it any better than this.”
Trump has been critical of how his predecessor dealt with intelligence assessments.
“What I did learn is that our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow what our experts and our truly — when they call it intelligence, it’s there for a reason — what our experts said to do,” Trump told Matt Lauer in September after receiving his first intelligence briefings as the Republican nominee. “I was very, very surprised. In almost every instance. And I could tell you. I am pretty good with the body language. I could tell they were not happy. Our leaders did not follow what they were recommending.”
Trump has also been highly critical of the intelligence community. Prior to his first intelligence briefing as nominee, Trump was asked on Fox News if he has faith in American intelligence. “I won’t use some of the people that are short of your standards, you know, just use them, use them, use them,” Trump said. “Very easy to use them, but I won’t use them because they’ve made such bad decisions.”
For his national security adviser, Trump has selected former Gen. Michael Flynn, who was at one time in charge of the Defense Intelligence Agency but left the job after tussling with the Obama administration. Flynn has been both a member and, reportedly, a harsh critic of American civilian intelligence agencies.
The debate over the recently uncovered CIA assessment is just beginning. Republicans have been skeptical of the CIA claim that Russians wanted Trump to win, and on Saturday RNC spokesperson Sean Spicer told CNN there are more questions than answers in the CIA finding.
But Trump’s clash with the American intelligence community is not a debate. David Priess, an intelligence officer under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said it is “unprecedented that a President Elect would go against the intelligence community publicly.”
Priess delivered presidential daily briefings during his time in government and wrote a book about presidents and the intelligence community. It’s not uncommon for new presidents to have their doubts about intelligence agencies, he said, and that they’re often both “amazed” by what the American intelligence knows and “really disappointed” at what they don’t.
Trump will soon set the policy American intelligence officers serve in their work, a position that could change the focus of agencies like the CIA or NSA in regards to Russia.
Priess said intelligence officials are pretty good at dealing with uncertainty, even within an unpredictable relationship like the one Trump may have with the intelligence community.
“The nature of the work is to deal with contradiction and uncertainty,” Priess said. “You serve the president even if the president is making it difficult for you.”