The accusation was over the top—even by Donald Trump’s standards.
“Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public,” the president-elect spewed on Twitter, Wednesday morning. “One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
As it turns out, spy agencies around the world and at least half of Washington appear to have been familiar with the contents of a 35-page report on the former reality-TV star’s ties to the Russian government. Prepared by a private firm run by a former British intelligence agent, the investigation lays out a whole raft of disturbing, disgusting—and unsubstantiated—allegations about what it calls an “extensive conspiracy” between Trump and the Kremlin to help elect him as president and change the course of American foreign policy. The dossier talks about money, blackmail over “perverted sexual acts,” and advances the theory that Vladimir Putin’s regime has been “cultivating, supporting and assisting” the New York billionaire for at least five years.
A number of media outlets had been sitting on the document for months as they tried to independently verify its contents, before it was finally published by the website BuzzFeed Tuesday night. Mother Jones magazine reported on its existence on Halloween, the day after then-Democratic Senate minority leader Harry Reid sent a letter to the FBI accusing the bureau of possessing “explosive information about close ties and coordination” between Trump and Russia. Republican Sen. John McCain personally passed on a copy to FBI director James Comey in early December. President Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden had been briefed on its contents. And so, it seems, had Trump during a meeting with U.S. intelligence chiefs last week to discuss the evidence of how Russia had interfered in November’s election, seeking to tilt the results in his favour.
That the details of the report—commissioned and paid for by Trump’s political opponents (first Republicans, and later Democrats)—have finally leaked out shouldn’t come as a surprise to PEOTUS or anyone around him. But the real shock is how Trump and company have chosen to respond: by effectively declaring war on America’s intelligence services. At that press conference Wednesday morning, the incoming president doubled down, again accusing U.S. spooks of being the source of “that nonsense.” The leak will be remembered, he vowed, as “a tremendous blot” on their record. “Because a thing like that should have never been written, it should never have been had, and it should certainly never been released.”
To those familiar with the way the relationship between the U.S. president and his spy masters actually works, Trump’s attacks seem both unnecessary and ill-timed. In a little over a week, he will be sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office and able to shape, or suppress, the story in ways he can only dream of from the outside.
“It’s not that difficult to discipline an agency like the CIA,” says journalist Thomas Powers, who has written extensively over the past four decades about the interplay between the intelligence community and the White House. “These are professional intelligence officers who can’t even fill in the blank spaces on their CVs. Where are they going to get another job?”
If anything, says Powers, the spooks are overly focused on trying to please an incoming president, rather than offend him. “The first thing they try to do is figure out what he likes and what he doesn’t. Does he want short paragraphs, or long ones? One-page memos, or three-page ones? Does he like long, careful briefings, or quick ones? They’re very eager to hold open the door and do whatever they can.”
Some presidents were hungry for classified information. In addition to his daily briefings, Lyndon Johnson held a weekly White House lunch with his top advisers and spy chiefs. Others, like Bill Clinton, were largely indifferent. Only one was openly hostile—the paranoid and twitchy Richard Nixon—who demanded that all intelligence information be routed through his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. Melvin Goodman, a former Soviet analyst for the CIA, and now senior fellow with Washington’s Center for International Policy, recalls when close Nixon aide James Schlesinger was elevated to CIA director at the beginning of 1973. “He called all us Soviet people to a meeting and said, ‘You’re going to stop f–king Richard Nixon!'”
Still, Goodman calls Trump’s open and ongoing battle with U.S. intelligence services “unprecedented.” “He couldn’t be starting off on a worse foot,” he says. “I don’t think he understands how the intelligence community works at all.”
Over the years, there has frequently been tension between the spies and the president, notes Goodman. Nixon and his surrogates pushed relentlessly for information to justify their wars in Vietnam and surrounding nations. In the Ronald Reagan years, it was all about painting the Russians in the worst possible light. “He needed a Soviet Union that was 10 feet tall in order to justify increased defence spending to Congress,” says Goodman. Then came George W. Bush and his demands for evidence of Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. But there was always at least a little push-back, and the ideal of an intelligence service that passes on objective information to help a president make informed choices.
Trump, however, seems to be demanding that he is only ever told exactly what he wants to hear (when he can be bothered to make time for the briefings). Post-election, as evidence of Russian involvement in hacking attacks mounted, the president-elect openly disputed the conclusions of the spooks, suggesting it “could be China,” or “some guy in his home in New Jersey,” and claimed to have his own, more-reliable sources of secret information. His picks for national security adviser and CIA director, former Gen. Michael Flynn and Sen. Mike Pompeo, are outspoken critics of the intelligence services. (The Washington Post reports that Flynn has been in direct contact with the Russian government over the past couple of weeks, calling the Russian ambassador “several times” on the day the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian officials over the hacking of the election.) And Trump continues to publicly spin what he is being told in confidence. “James Clapper called me yesterday to denounce the false and fictitious report that was illegally circulated. Made up, phony facts. Too bad!” the president-elect tweeted Thursday about a conversation with the director of national intelligence. Clapper, who will step down with the change of administrations, insists that no such conclusions have been about made the dossier.
Of course, American intelligence gets plenty of stuff wrong. In his new book Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, former CIA officer John Nixon details the many mistakes and false assumptions that he and others made about the former Iraqi dictator. And it wasn’t just about the WMDs. In his face-to-face questioning of Hussein, Nixon came to understand that he was hardly even running the country at the time of the 2003 American invasion, rather spending most of his time working on a novel. And that he was even more frightened of al-Qaeda and the threat of Islamic radicals than the United States. “We had this idea that he was a master manipulator, always two or three steps ahead of us,” Nixon tells Maclean’s from his Virginia home. “Nothing could have been further from the truth.”
To hear Nixon tell it, the spy business is mostly frustration, bureaucracy and bungling. Politicians and policy-makers demand detailed information about goings-on inside countries where the U.S. has lacked any sort of official presence for decades. Then the reports are stripped of anything remotely controversial or off-putting as they filter up through the chain of command. “The CIA courts popularity like you have no idea,” says Nixon. “For an intelligence agency to get shut out [by the White House] is the worst thing.”
Nixon actually holds hopes that Trump and his appointees will bring much-needed reform to the intelligence services. But as the transition of power gets uglier, and the war of words with the spooks intensifies, the opportunity is fading. “Our enemies will look to exploit any division. And it can be very dangerous, because the president needs the intelligence community,” says Nixon.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Goodman. Judging by past American history, Trump will want to justify military action at some point during his presidency. If the information needed to sway votes in Congress and public opinion isn’t coming from the spies, Goodman asks, where will Trump get it?
Before the sun was up Friday morning, Trump was back on Twitter lashing out at the intelligence community for “FAKE NEWS” and vowing that “my people” will produce “a full report on hacking within 90 days.” A completed investigation may cross his desk even sooner than that. It has been reported that a special task force of six police and intelligence agencies, including the CIA and the FBI, have been probing Trump’s Kremlin ties since last spring, and that a secret court granted them a warrant to intercept the electronic communications of two Russian banks in October.
The new Cold War could be about to make the White House a very hot place.