Editor’s note: This column was first published on Dec. 17, 2018.
New reports to the Senate Intelligence Committee conclude that Russians posted millions of messages on social media in 2016 aimed at helping the Republican Party “and specifically, Donald Trump,” and are still trying to manipulate U.S. politics. Will that change Trump’s continued resistance to what his own Intelligence Community has been saying for years?
Not if his tweets are any indication. And that poses a growing challenge to U.S. intelligence agencies in the age of Trump.
Presidents have received the President’s Daily Brief from the Intelligence Community in some form since 1946. The PDB is the IC’s premiere product, designed to inform and update the president and key officials on the most important issues affecting national security each day.
It is not easy to condense the world’s problems into short, useful chunks the president can easily digest. Some presidents come in with extensive foreign policy experience, while others come in with none. Most arrive with even less intelligence experience and therefore have unrealistic expectations of what the IC can do. Trump came in with neither, and after receiving a message he did not want to hear about Russia working covertly to help get him elected.
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His relationship with the IC was off to a rocky start before he ever entered the Oval Office. In December 2016, his transition team dismissed the IC’s analysis on Russia this way: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” Trump also refused daily intelligence briefings, explaining, “I don’t have to be told — 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.”
A recent Washington Post article noted the gap between President Trump and the IC has widened, particularly on key policy issues like North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a lack of interest from Trump on intelligence analysis, generally. His PDBs, the article says, have been cut down to the bare bones — a few bullet points, pictures and graphics — and often emphasize economic issues to try to play to his interests.
The PDB must carefully balance the need to inform and warn the president, while at the same time outlining opportunities for the United States in a way that is not policy prescriptive. But the trickiest message to deliver is when the president’s own actions, or those of his administration, are the reason for that national security threat, souring of bilateral relations or global economic downturn.Analysts have had to navigate this in every administration, but they are certainly perfecting the skill under Trump.
The intelligence community will still do its job
No doubt analysts warned Trump of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s manipulative tactics ahead of his bilateral meeting in Helsinki and then watched in horror as Trump gave Putin everything he wanted in a disastrous press conference afterward. Analysts who have warned Trump on North Korea probably bang their heads against the nearest wall each time Trump falsely claims they have ceased nuclear weapon production efforts. Those who drafted the IC’s assessment on Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death must cringe each time Trump downplays the role of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or falsely claims the IC has not made its mind up yet.
Yet analysts will continue to identify new opportunities for the president to consider, warn him about how foreign leaders are reacting to his foreign policy and how they perceive him as a leader, and note when authoritarian leaders in places like Russia, North Korea and Saudi Arabia feel emboldened by a perceived lack of consequences from Washington. They will continue to warn of potential threats. They will do this even if they know their analysis will be just another page in the book the president never actually reads.
In part that’s because it is important to have assessments on the record in case there is a question from Congress or others in oversight capacities that want to make sure IC agencies did not miss something important. In addition, the president is not the only customer the IC serves and not all parts of government are so blindly ignoring its analysis. But the other part is simply that this is the IC’s job.
Trump not driven by facts, logic or US interests
Trump is certainly not the first president to disregard IC analysis on major foreign policy issues, to disparage the CIA publicly, or to try to shoehorn the IC’s words into a policy priority. Lyndon B. Johnson disagreed vehemently with CIA’s analysis that the only way out of the Vietnam War was a negotiated peace deal. Richard Nixon often railed against the CIA for underestimating the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. He famously said, “What the hell do those clowns do out there in Langley?” In a letter made public, Jimmy Carter said he was dissatisfied with “the quality of our political intelligence” on Iran. One of the biggest presidential champions of the IC, George W. Bush, seized on questionable intelligence reporting to make a case for the war in Iraq.
The difference between past administrations and now, however, is that there was always an underlying belief that even if the president did not agree with the IC’s analysis, his own views were still primarily driven by facts, logic and a desire to act in a way that would advance America’s interests. Not so with Trump. There is also the assumption that even if the president was not listening to the IC, he would listen to an adviser who, at the very least, would keep him from making grave mistakes. And if he did make mistakes, that he could learn from them. Again, not so with Trump, who goes with his unpredictable gut.
The IC can only do so much to arm the president. It is up to him and his administration to act or not. This president has certainly made his choice — not.
Cindy Otis is a former CIA military analyst, branch chief and intelligence briefer, specializing primarily in Europe and the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @CindyOtis_