What’s Behind Trump’s Private War With the Intelligence Community?

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
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When you are at war with the truth, you attack the truth tellers. When you are a threat to U.S. national security, you attack those who seek to defend it. When you are conscious of your own guilt, you target those who can confirm your crimes.

These are the reasons that Donald Trump has been engaged in a one-man war against the U.S. intelligence since even before he became president. These are the reasons we must see Trump’s theft of vital national secrets as more than just a story about documents.

The seizure of documents at Mar-a-Lago—and what we have learned about the former president’s apparent violation of federal laws by keeping them, mishandling them, and obstructing the efforts to return them—must not be seen as an isolated incident. Trump’s disregard for U.S. national security and in particular his contempt for and struggle with the U.S. intelligence community, has been a theme since he first publicly sought the support of an American enemy to help him win the 2016 presidential campaign.

It’s Over: Trump Will Be Indicted

We now know that Trump and his closest advisers were told many times, even before they left office, that the law required them to return all documents to the U.S. government. We know they were informed repeatedly about their legal obligations with regards to the treatment of classified material. We know they ignored that guidance and removed documents illegally. We know they then were asked to return them. Multiple times.

We know they did not comply. We know that when they were forced to comply, they returned some but not all the documents, and that among these were highly sensitive documents—the mistreatment of which could threaten U.S. national security. We know that these documents were stored at Mar-a-Lago, which had been targeted for years—and penetrated—by foreign intelligence organizations. And we know that even after all this, Trump’s lawyers misrepresented that all documents had been returned.

Subsequently, we know that when all efforts to retrieve the remaining documents failed, the Department of Justice sought a subpoena to reclaim them—and that among what they found were more highly classified documents. Since then, we have also heard Trump claim he declassified the documents, the documents were his, the search was illegal, and that he was the victim. We also heard members of his party support him, despite the fact that Trump’s disregard for the law and his recklessness could well have put the lives of members of the U.S. intelligence community and their sources at risk.

I spoke to several national security veterans about Trump’s latest—and one of his most pernicious—abuses of power.

Former CIA Director General Michael Hayden said of the Mar-a-Lago revelations, “Literally, it’s unbelievable.” He described the kind of secrets that appeared to be in Trump’s possession as the core elements—essential to protect. “It’s the bread and butter of intelligence,” Hayden said.

Former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) General James Clapper observed, “The FBI search of Mar-a-Lago—an obvious target of adversary foreign intelligence—is stunning, but not surprising; it seems entirely consistent with the former president’s apparent disdain for the intelligence community and its rules for protection of sensitive information.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>(L-R) National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and CIA Director John Brennan testify during a hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee March 12, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Alex Wong/Getty</div>

Clapper knows that the views toward the intelligence community of Trump (and those closest to him) have been contemptuous and irresponsible since before the former president took office. He knows that because he was tasked as DNI with briefing then President-elect Trump on key intelligence issues in January 2017. (Which he did despite the apprehensions some in the intelligence community had about even briefing Trump, whom they considered a potential security risk.)

As I report in my upcoming book, American Resistance, Clapper said that prior to that briefing, “I certainly harbored what turned out to be the naïve illusion that somehow President Trump would change, that he would grow into the job, would rise to the occasion. And I believed that up to the last minute, even though the transition was pretty ragged, and regrettably the incoming team, which kept turning over, blew us off, basically. They didn’t want to hear anything. They thought, it seemed, that we were all incompetent and didn’t know anything.

“So, when I briefed him in early January, I tried to appeal to his higher values, if you will, and tell him what a national treasure he was inheriting in the form of the national intelligence community (IC) and the men and women standing by to serve him. He kind of blew it off. He was being transactional since what he really wanted from me was a public rebuttal of the [Steele] dossier, which of course I couldn’t and wouldn’t do.”

Clapper’s hopes that Trump would evolve once in office were again quickly shattered when, the day after being sworn in, the 45th president made a trip to speak at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

“I thought, well, maybe I got through to him, maybe he got the message. And now he’s going to kiss and make up with the intelligence community at least. And then came that disastrous speech he delivered. He was OK for a minute or two, but standing [in the lobby] in front of that wall with all the stars on it,” Clapper said, referring to the memorial to former CIA employees who had fallen in the line of duty, “I think it was 119 stars at the time—it is more now—was a desecration in the minds of intelligence professionals. Not just CIA employees… it was an affront to me and the whole community. And that’s when I knew it was going to be a challenge for the country.”

Olivia Troye, a former adviser to Vice President Mike Pence on homeland security, and who had served previously in key national security roles dating back to her time working in the office of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, said, “From day one, Trump told us what he thought of us. He villainized us, consistently telling the American people that we in the intelligence and law enforcement communities are the enemy—a talking point repeated by many MAGA Republicans especially in the past few days since the search at Mar-a-Lago. A talking point that should be a reminder to the American people of Trump and these people being not only unfit for office, but unworthy of being trusted with our most sensitive of state secrets given their complete disregard for the seriousness of what this all means.”

Throughout his time in office Trump regularly revealed his disregard for U.S. national security and his contempt for those charged with defending it (or was it his fear of them?). He hired Mike Flynn as his national security adviser despite the advice of many including former President Barack Obama that he not do so. Flynn, of course, later resigned in disgrace, admitted he lied to the FBI… and was then pardoned by Trump.

Trump encountered resistance from intelligence professionals to giving clearances to his daughter and son-in-law, but overruled it thus providing access to sensitive national secrets to others who might be seen as security risks.

The day after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for, among other things, continuing investigations into Trump’s suspected collusion with Russia, he welcomed Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to the Oval Office and there, he shared with them classified intelligence provided to the U.S. by a foreign ally. Later he would also irresponsibly release classified information via a tweet.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin arrive for a meeting at Finland’s Presidential Palace on July 16, 2018, in Helsinki.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty</div>

President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin arrive for a meeting at Finland’s Presidential Palace on July 16, 2018, in Helsinki.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

Infamously, in 2018, during meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki (which took place behind closed doors and without other observers other than note-takers), Trump threw the U.S. intelligence community under the bus by suggesting he took Putin’s word about Russian interference in the 2016 elections over that of the intelligence professionals who worked for the U.S. government.

Later, continuing his pattern, Trump forced out senior intelligence officials who he felt were insufficiently loyal to him and replaced them with unqualified political hacks he felt he could manipulate—and who he felt would protect him from IC revelations that he saw as threatening. He used the classification process to keep politically damaging information (like notes from his call pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to dig up dirt on Joe Biden) from becoming public.

In other words, the revelations about stealing classified documents are not an isolated incident. They are part of a deeply disturbing pattern. It is one that leaves us with many questions.

We know, for example, that he stole and improperly handled a massive number of highly classified documents. We just know that doing what he did was not simply an act of ignoring the law, it directly put U.S intelligence assets and national security at risk. We know we have never seen such behavior from a senior US government official, much less a president.

But, we still don't know how many classified documents were stolen or who may have had access to them. We don’t know what was in them. And we still don't know why he did it.

We still can only speculate about why he was so threatened by the intelligence community for so many years. Why did he feel they knew things about him that could be damaging? Was it just consciousness of guilt due to his active solicitation of the support of a hostile foreign entity during the 2016 election? Was it more than that? What secrets went missing before this point?

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Jared Kushner at the White House on Aug. 1, 2018, in Washington, D.C.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Oliver Contreras/Pool/Getty</div>

Jared Kushner at the White House on Aug. 1, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Oliver Contreras/Pool/Getty

What were the consequences of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, having an apparently voracious appetite for state secrets? Why was he so actively interested in them? What were Trump's motives in taking secrets and obstructing the government’s efforts to have them returned?

What happened to the documents while they were in Trump's custody? Do we have all the documents back? Were there documents stored at places other than Mar-a-Lago? What did he get his lackeys to do when they ran the IC? What were his plans for them and these agencies were he re-elected?

These are not “political” questions. These are questions that must be answered to understand the extent of the damage Trump and his inner circle may have done to our intelligence community, our intelligence assets worldwide, their safety, and our security. They are questions we need to answer in order to understand what they might do should they regain power.

Yes, as important as it is to see the revelations about the documents at Mar-a-Lago in the context of the past, it is also vitally important to see them in the context of the future, of a potential second Trump presidency or should any of his allies and defenders win the White House. It is important to see them in the context of the people at the center of these abuses because they remain active forces in America’s political life.

As former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence, Frank Figliuzzi, said to me, “Trump’s dangerous disdain for revered agencies and institutions is bigger than just his ire about being investigated. It’s about his need to be viewed as the only one who can fix things, the only one who can be trusted, the only one who has America’s interests at heart. That’s a hallmark of a cult leader who fears his followers will find the truth elsewhere.”

Trump’s In La-La Land When It Comes to Executive Privilege

Olivia Troye adds, “The selfishness of Trump and anyone in his circle who deliberately mishandled the most sensitive classified information that if compromised could lead to the killing of intelligence officers, their sources and their families as well as derail potentially decades of intelligence operations is not only criminal, it's treasonous and the most unpatriotic behavior one could possibly exhibit. We’ve seen Trump and those around him profit off of disinformation and lying—and this is just another scenario that raises serious questions about what they might do in the future given Trump and his defenders’ ongoing contentious relationship with the national security community.”

In the end, despite the lingering questions, what we do know is this: that the same man who was engaged in a multi-year battle with the U.S. intelligence community also led an attempted coup against the U.S. government, attacked our allies, sought to gut NATO, and worked to aid and empower our enemies.

This is not hyperbole. It is not speculation. This is the reality of the Trump presidency. It must be seen for what it was and the man at the center of it must be seen for who he was and is—one of the greatest, most deleterious, pernicious threats to U.S. national security we have ever seen. And those who would defend his indefensible actions must be viewed in precisely the same light.

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