Donald Trump, CIA improve working relationship
President Trump has left the tumultuous days of publicly combating his own intelligence community for a more workmanlike relationship coached by his team of loyalists, insiders say.
As interactions improve at the top, however, a former CIA officer says Mr. Trump is up against a determined, embedded bureaucracy that will leak to damage him.
Loyalists say the president has come to appreciate the daily flow of insights on, for example, North Korea and Iran, even if he doesn’t like everything he hears.
They credit key players such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, his first CIA director, and National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, a voracious intelligence consumer. Mr. Pompeo elevated Gina Haspel as his deputy at Langley, Virginia, and then recommended her to succeed him as CIA director.
“Pompeo worked very hard to show the president the value of intelligence in making decisions, and Pompeo was briefing him fairly frequently when he was CIA director,” said Fred Fleitz, Mr. Bolton’s former chief of staff at the National Security Council. “He brought some of the best CIA analysts to brief the president.
“The situation has greatly improved from the terrible situation in 2016 and early 2017 because of political activities by current and former intelligence officers saying they would refuse to brief Trump,” Mr. Fleitz told The Washington Times.
In January, Mr. Fleitz will assume leadership of the Center for Security Policy, a conservative pro-defense nonprofit founded by former Ronald Reagan adviser Frank Gaffney.
As the killing of Washington Post contributor and Saudi activist Jamal Khashoggi showed, Mr. Trump is not always on the same page as the CIA.
He contended that the agency made no definite conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directed the killing at his country’s consulate in Istanbul. Lawmakers briefed by Ms. Haspel said the president distorted what the CIA had said.
“Yes. The CIA concluded that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia was directly involved in the assassination of Khashoggi,” Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, told CNN.
No outgoing intelligence leadership turned on an incoming president as did President Obama’s national intelligence director, James R. Clapper, and CIA director, John O. Brennan.
Mr. Brennan has waged an unprecedented war for a former CIA director against a sitting president whom he likens to a Russian double agent in the White House. Mr. Brennan actively worked with the FBI to provide the names of any Russian connected to a Trump associate. He said in congressional testimony that he didn’t know what was said or the nature of any relationship.
Mr. Clapper said he doesn’t trust the commander in chief with the nuclear codes.
The Brennan-Clapper alliance is evidence of deeper opposition, Republicans say. They have long believed that anti-conservative cabals exist inside the CIA who willingly try to sabotage the Trump administration via leaks to the liberal press.
Now that Mr. Trump finds himself under investigation on many fronts, expect more trouble from Langley, said former CIA officer Kent Clizbe.
“Like their fellows in the media, the Democratic Party and establishment Republicans, the partisans burrowed into the intelligence community believe that they have Trump on the ropes,” Mr. Clizbe told The Times. “They believe that with the Democrats coming to power in the House, and the PC-progressive media in full-throated baying for Trump’s blood, their time will come again.”
A big part of the rub: Mr. Trump first rejected and then only grudgingly accepted the intelligence community’s assessment one backed by many Republicans that Russian President Vladimir Putin interfered in the 2016 election to help the president and damage Hillary Clinton.
‘This keeps them in business’
Mr. Trump has expressed exasperation that FBI counterintelligence agents would embrace an anti-Trump dossier financed by Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and written by a committed Trump adversary, Christopher Steele. Mr. Trump has learned along with the public that the FBI officials who vowed to stop his candidacy were the same who promoted the dossier in the ongoing 28-month-old Russia investigation.
At Trump Tower, FBI Director James B. Comey brought up the dossier in his first encounter with President-elect Trump, including its salacious parts, without telling him it was funded by Democrats. Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey in May 2017.
The meeting then was leaked to CNN at the same time Mr. Clapper was secretly talking to the network, according to the final report by the Republican majority of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Mr. Clapper, who later won a job at CNN as a Trump-bashing analyst, has denied he leaked the story.
Mr. Brennan landed a job at another anti-Trump network, MSNBC, where he accused Mr. Trump of being “drunk with power” after the president ordered his security clearance pulled.
Early on, so intense was the Washington liberal establishment’s animus toward the upstart presidential candidate that Harry Reid of Nevada, at the time the leader of Senate Democrats, urged the CIA to lie to Mr. Trump.
“I would hope they would give him fake intelligence briefings because they shouldn’t give him anything that means anything, because you can’t trust him,” Mr. Reid told reporters at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Relations are more tranquil today. Mr. Trump has traded in his anti-CIA comments for a daily, private relationship with his spooks. The sessions are built around the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), a highly classified, tightly controlled document that also makes the rounds with senior advisers such as Mr. Bolton and Mr. Fleitz.
“There was lots of stuff that was critical of the president’s policies,” Mr. Fleitz said. “There were assessments he probably may not have wanted to read because they suggest something he wanted to do isn’t working. They have not pulled their punches. ... He reads it every day. He meets with a briefer every day.”
Also helping is the fact that Mr. Bolton, with whom Mr. Fleitz has maintained professional links going back to the George W. Bush administration, loves intelligence.
“I can tell you that senior intelligence officers tell me that they see Bolton as one of their most important customers,” Mr. Fleitz said. “They appreciate someone who wants their stuff so badly.
“He’s a hard customer to keep happy because he reads so much material. The CIA is happy. This keeps them in business. Someone wants their stuff. Reads it. Gives feedback. Wants more material. If we didn’t have consumers like that, the intelligence agencies wouldn’t have a purpose. They would go away,” he said.
Leaks are the lifeblood of reporters. But “deep state” assaults have been a disruptive force for the White House as a flow of anti-Trump allegations some inaccurate exploded regularly in the press.
For example, The New York Times reported in February 2017 that the intelligence community owns substantial quantities of intercepted talks and phone records of Trump campaign people communicating with Russian intelligence. The story meant, in effect, that there was Russia election collusion. But the FBI has informed Congress that no such documents exist.
Arriving in April, Mr. Bolton decided from the start to plug persistent White House leaks by appealing to his staff’s professionalism.
Mr. Fleitz heard conservative calls to cleanse the place of Obama-era holdovers. But he said a scorched-earth campaign isn’t possible given the fact that 80 percent of staff are careerists and details from other bureaucracies.
“We treated them fairly and respected them,” he said. “Use them as part of the process, and they’re going to work hard and loyally. If we treated them like enemies, they would have been enemies. You notice since Bolton came in, there have been very few leaks, and that is because he treated people well. But we were very firm about speaking to the media.”