Donald Trump’s relations with his own intelligence services have never been so fraught: the US president doesn’t listen to his spy chiefs, doesn’t seem to rank his sources and makes snap decisions without giving them any warning.
The two sides have clashed repeatedly, including in May when, as part of efforts to defend himself against collusion accusations, Trump agreed that files on the investigation into Russian election meddling in 2016 could be declassified.
A few weeks later, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats announced he would step down as head of the 17 agencies that make up the intelligence community.
Trump proposed as Coats’s replacement John Ratcliffe, a member of Congress known for repeating conspiracy theories on Fox News.
Under withering criticism, Ratcliffe withdrew his nomination.
But the president passed over Coats’s deputy Sue Gordon, who was in line to serve as acting director.
Gordon, who spent a quarter-century in the CIA, told the Women’s Foreign Policy Group this month that Trump was the first president “in my experience that had no foundation or framework to understand what the limits of intelligence are, what the purpose of it was and the way that we discuss it.”
She said Trump’s typical response in briefings was, “I don’t think that’s true.”
Her experience was borne out by a former CIA analyst who now works at a prestigious institution in Washington.
– ‘Fox and Friends’ briefings –
“When I was in the CIA, the big thing to do was to get an article in the presidential daily brief. It was always a big thing. That was gold, professionally speaking,” he said.
The former analyst, who served under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, added that “I knew that both of them took that thing extremely seriously.
“Now, I really get the impression that whatever is presented to (Trump), he doesn’t care about it, and really he’s getting his briefing from ‘Fox and Friends’,” one of his favorite TV shows.
Still, Mike Pompeo, the current Secretary of State, was Trump’s first CIA director. He became a central figure in the administration and regularly visited the White House for briefings, which Trump appreciated.
But the president counts the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which opened the Russia inquiry into 2016 electoral interference, among his adversaries.
Last week, Trump suggested the FBI director whom he appointed, Christopher Wray, “will never be able to fix” the “badly broken” agency.
The disdain has its effect.
At the end of 2018, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned over Trump’s plan to pull troops from Syria.
While Trump called the battle-hardened ex-Marine general Mattis the “world’s most overrated general,” it was the entire intelligence and military services that felt insulted.
“People are exceptionally frustrated,” said Brian Perkins, a former Navy signals analyst who is now with the Jamestown Foundation think tank.
“They are putting forward what they think their bigger concerns are, and how to go about things, and they’re being completely ignored,” he said.
Many members of the intelligence community have left, he said, alarmed particularly by the frustrations that Mattis confronted on Syria and Afghanistan.
– ‘Open mind’ needed –
“Intelligence is meant to be objective, but if things are not going to be actually consumed and listened to with an open mind, what is the point?” said Perkins.
In January, the president branded his intelligence services “naive” about the danger posed by Iran.
“Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” he tweeted, but later assured that he was in agreement with them on the major issues.
More recently, Trump abruptly decided in October to pull US forces from the Turkish-Syrian border, leaving Washington’s Kurdish allies to face a Turkish offensive.
The result was total disorder. Aside from torpedoing a major alliance, US disengagement reinforced the regional position of Washington’s strategic rival Russia.
Kurds played a crucial role in fighting the Islamic State group and tracking down its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In the fight against terrorism, information-sharing between powers is of vital importance. But Trump’s outbursts are taking their toll.
“It’s harder politically to cooperate with the United States,” said Daniel Byman, an anti-terrorism expert at Georgetown University in Washington.
“And Trump is helping make the case that the West is at war with Islam,” he said. “So those are just some of the ways I think… that ignoring advisors is dangerous.”
As a deeply polarized United States moves into an election year, concerns are rising. Yet the intelligence community remains bound by its code of professionalism and a sense of duty to the nation.
“Intelligence can still influence senior policymakers. The president has never been the only consumer of intelligence,” said Seth Jones, who served in Afghanistan and is now a counter-terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“It’s still important to collect and analyze intelligence, and the US is still involved in lots of operations that don’t require presidential authority,” he noted.