President-elect Donald Trump is continuing to question the credibility of the U.S. intelligence community following Friday’s revelation that the CIA reportedly believes Russia intervened in the U.S. election to help the businessman win. In addition, Trump is also now scoffing at the frequency and redundancy of his intelligence briefings, confirming earlier reports that he hasn’t been attending most of his daily intel sessions, as well as indicating that he will likely continue to skip the briefings after he becomes president.
On Friday night, following leaks of the CIA assessment, the Trump team released a statement discounting the credibility of the report by suggesting the CIA could not be trusted because of the agency’s failures in the run-up to the Iraq War more than a decade ago. Though Trump would later assure a reporter at a football game on Saturday that he trusted the U.S. intelligence community, he more-than-implied the opposite in a Fox News interview that aired Sunday morning.
Of course, disparaging the intelligence community isn’t new ground for Trump, as he repeatedly did so during his campaign for president, including on the very day he began receiving customary intelligence briefings as a candidate, claiming he didn’t trust U.S. intelligence officials and “won’t use them because they’ve made such bad decisions.”
Now, as president-elect, Trump is following through on that statement. Regarding daily intelligence briefings, which American presidents and president-elects traditionally take advantage of, Trump said on Fox News Sunday that he will skip most of the briefings since the information provided in them is too repetitive. Insisted Trump, who apparently attends no more than one briefing a week, “You know, I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.” Instead, Trump told his advisors, “If something should change from this point, immediately call me. I’m available on one minute’s notice.” Trump also said that “my generals,” as well as Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, were being briefed in his absence.
“If [intelligence officials are] going to come in and tell me the exact same thing that they told me, you know, that doesn’t change necessarily,” Trump added. “There might be times where it might change. I mean, there will be some very fluid situations. I’ll be there not every day but more than that.”
If skipping most intel briefings seems irresponsible for a president to regularly do, Donald Trump once agreed with you — at least before he was the one who had to sit through them:
(The accusation against Obama was false, by the way.)
Also on Fox News Sunday, Trump said the reported CIA assessment that Russian-sponsored hackers worked to sway the election on his behalf was “ridiculous.” He additionally suggested, without evidence, that Democrats may have made the entire CIA-assessment story up on account of their embarrassment over losing the White House. Of course, Trump should probably know whether or not the CIA assessment was made up, but that information might be the kind of thing that gets covered in a daily intelligence briefing. Instead, said Trump, “if you read the stories … certain [intelligence] groups don’t necessarily agree” what the hacking evidence means. “They don’t know and I don’t know,” he added, emphasizing once again that he personally doesn’t believe Russia was behind the cyberattacks.
Intelligence officials, however, do seem to know — at least when it comes to the source of the hacking. Even if Trump only gets his intelligence briefings from the press, he would know that, although the FBI and CIA reportedly don’t agree as to the specific or primary intent of the cyberattack, they do agree that Russia was the one doing the meddling.
The disagreement between the agencies about motive, according to the Washington Post, is partly because of how fragmented the information about the hacking has been and partly due to cultural differences between the two agencies: The FBI looks for hard evidence that it can take to the Court and the CIA is more willing to draw conclusions based on overall behavior. Unless hackers are caught in the act, which they rarely are, hard evidence is always going to be difficult to come by. In this case, the CIA reportedly believes, based on what they have found and observed, that Russia was trying to get Trump elected, while the FBI isn’t willing to conclude, based on a lack of hard evidence, that supporting Trump was Russia’s primary, or only, goal. This ambiguity means that it will always be possible to cast doubt on any conclusion about the source of the hacks, which Trump and his surrogates have repeatedly sought to do, but it doesn’t mean the conclusions of intelligence professionals are without merit.
President-elect Trump, for whatever reason, refuses to accept the intelligence community’s consensus view that Russia is behind the hacks, though he says he agrees it should be looked into, just that Russia shouldn’t be singled out as the sole possible perpetrator. Key members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, however, took a tougher stance on Sunday. Republican senator John McCain, who chairs the committee, joined fellow Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrats Chuck Schumer and Jack Reed in a joint statement calling for a full congressional investigation into the election cyberattacks.
“Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American,” the statement read. “Democrats and Republicans must work together, and across the jurisdictional lines of the Congress, to examine these recent incidents thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyber-attacks.” Other senior Republicans have not made similar calls.
Meanwhile, Trump’s repeated attacks on the credibility of U.S. intelligence haven’t gone unnoticed in the intel community. As Politico reported Saturday, many within the spy world are growing more and more alarmed about what Trump’s presidency might mean for their profession:
Some fear that Trump’s highly public rebukes of the U.S. intelligence apparatus will undermine morale in the spy agencies, politicize their work, and damage their standing in a world filled with adversaries. After all, if the U.S. president doesn’t believe his own intelligence officials, why should anyone else?
Others are worried that Trump is simply disinterested in getting up to speed on world events or would just prefer to get his information from cable news and Twitter; though, Trump advisors insist the president-elect has paid full attention to security matters in the context of talking to world leaders and making cabinet decisions. An even-darker concern, as explored by The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman, is that the Trump administration will retaliate against those in the intelligence community who either helped reach the conclusions about Russia’s election interference, or, moving forward, anyone who puts forward facts Trump and his inner circle don’t agree with or like.
Regarding Trump’s aversion to intel briefings, it has definitely caused some anxiety among intel professionals, though not universally, since every president takes their intel diet a different way — whether written or verbal — and intelligence officials are used to catering to those demands. More concerning to many is the general idea that their work will be misused for political purposes, a fear that Trump’s cabinet picks — like nominating the hyperpartisan Mike Pompeo to head the CIA or picking the conspiracy-minded Michael Flynn to be a national-security advisor — have done little to dissuade, especially if they’ll be whom Trump delegates his intelligence briefings to. Then again, Trump paying less attention to American secrets could have an upside as well:
Some sources affiliated with the intelligence community also are quietly voicing concerns about Trump’s ability to keep classified information secret, given his habit of going off-script. He uses Twitter to post his unvarnished opinions regularly. And as president, he’ll be dealing with enormous amounts of information, some of it top secret, some of it not, a regular basis. It’s difficult for anyone to compartmentalize all of that data.
It’s entirely possible that, if they haven’t already, foreign countries will analyze Trump’s tweets and public statements and compare them to his calendar to try to see if there are patterns that could offer hints about U.S. national security.
In other words, while the U.S. intelligence community flinches at the implications of Trump’s impending presidency, the foreign-intelligence community may be facing an entirely different problem keeping up with Trump’s early morning tweets, contradictory statements, inner-circle leaks, and ongoing destruction of diplomatic and political norms.