President Donald Trump bragged in his State of the Union address this week about his good relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and announced he would attend a second summit with him in Vietnam later this month to discuss denuclearization. As for the U.S.-Mexico border, he warned of “organized caravans on the march” and said “the lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security, and financial well‑being of all Americans.”
These assessments could not have been more different from what our nation’s intelligence chiefs have told Congress in the past 10 days about America’s national security threats. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, for instance, said North Korea is “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability.” Last week, he and others testified that Iran is still complying with the nuclear deal we abandoned, that there is no security crisis on our southern border, and that ISIS not only has not been defeated in Syria, but would regain territory when U.S. troops leave Syria.
These are just some examples of how Trump ignores his own intelligence agencies, their leaders and the information that should guide his policies — but doesn’t. On foreign policy and national security, he would rather step blindly into the fray than to consider any Intelligence Community (IC) assessment that challenges his agenda.
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After their testimony last week, Trump called out his IC leaders on Twitter as “passive and naive” and then said publicly that he did not have confidence in them. He later trotted out senior intelligence officials for a photo with him in the Oval Office — him behind his desk and them crowded around to brief him.
Trump claimed in the tweet that during the meeting, Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel assured him their assessments had been distorted by the media. It was an obvious lie and a shocking display of politicization. Anyone who watched the testimonies, which were televised live, could see the very significant daylight between Trump and the IC on our most important foreign policy challenges. But Trump had made his point: When it comes to his intelligence leaders, he wants them to back him up or be silent.
Facts are impediments, foreign policy something you ‘win’
It is noteworthy that Trump did all of this public shaming only after some media outlets cast the IC briefings as some kind of battle between Trump and his own intelligence team. It was not a correct characterization because IC leaders were simply conveying the analysis of the community as requested. Most presidents would not have spoken out in this way, even on issues where there was clear disagreement between the IC and the White House. Yet it demonstrated how Trump sees foreign policy as something you “win” and intelligence and facts, in general, as impediments.
Trump’s decision to not just ignore IC assessments, but to treat intelligence professionals as adversaries, means he is making decisions blindly and jumping into things as important as negotiations with real foreign adversaries by giving them the upper hand. No doubt the North Koreans, the Taliban and others have learned that what matters most to Trump are the public optics and being able to call any step (backwards or forwards) a win, not the reality. That makes Trump extremely vulnerable to manipulation by other countries.
Trump makes up crises and ignores real ones
Meanwhile, Trump remains fixated on ginning up a supposed crisis on the southern border or painting his other foreign policy priorities as successes. What about those other national security issues he is ignoring while he makes up crises, like cyber security in the wake of foreign government-sponsored hacking?
While Trump may deserve a few points for not cancelling his rare intelligence briefings altogether, it is natural to wonder how useful those briefings are, given that he is not receptive to the facts and analysis presented. As someone who used to write those briefings, I would always still prefer intelligence officers in the Oval than out of it, if only to make sure the intelligence community is prepared for whatever fallout there will be from the president’s disastrous policies.
But let’s not pretend these meetings lead to any kind of moderation on Trump’s part. Trump is choosing to ignore the experts in pursuit of a dangerous foreign policy agenda, and our country will pay for it.
Cindy Otis, a writer and consultant who worked for the CIA for 10 years, is the author of the forthcoming book HOW SPIES SPOT FAKE NEWS. Follow her on Twitter at: @CindyOtis_