President Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community has long been rocky, and it’s not likely to get much better in 2019 as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation draws to a close.
While President Trump has not resorted to comparing his intelligence officers to Nazis as he did in the months prior to taking office, his public statements this past year have still riled some of the country’s longtime spies.
At a joint press conference between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July, the conflict between Trump and his intelligence community escalated dramatically. Trump, alongside Putin, expressed doubt about his officials’ unanimous assessment that Russia had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, hinting that there could still be other explanations and adding that Putin had adamantly denied the allegations.
The press conference sparked blowback from former intelligence officials, diplomats and world leaders, even forcing Trump’s own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, to publish a statement expressing the community’s commitment to its analysis despite Trump’s wavering.
And when Trump decided to invite Putin for a visit to Washington afterward, the news took Coats off-guard while he was onstage at a conference. “That will be special,” he said in a skeptical tone.
And as the year ends, the gruesome killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi Arabian officials has exposed the chasm between President Trump and the people who provide him with intelligence. While the CIA has given him strong evidence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, was instrumental in the killing of Khashoggi (highly classified information that was leaked to several major news organizations), Trump continues to stonewall or refuse to make moves to punish the Saudis, citing close business and defense relationships between the United Stations and the Gulf kingdom.
One of President Trump’s most bitter relationships in his first two years in office has been with the FBI, including former Director James Comey, whom he fired, citing his lack of loyalty and involvement in investigating his 2016 campaign. Trump ramped up his tweets, attacking the FBI, the Justice Department and Mueller, and it remains to be seen whether he will try to further interfere with the special counsel’s probe in 2019.
There are some signs that relations are improving, or at least stabilizing. In the past year, the intelligence community gained new leaders: Gen. Paul Nakasone, the new chief of the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command, whose entrance has been embraced as a way to bolster morale, as well as Gina Haspel, a 30-plus-year veteran of the CIA and the first woman to lead the spy agency. The pair have worked to take their agencies back into the shadows, protecting them from the political fray in most day-to-day interactions.
Yet as 2019 begins and the 2020 presidential election grows closer, President Trump is sure to be confronted with facts from the intelligence community he may not like, including North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s refusal to denuclearize his country and potential ongoing attempts by Russia to meddle in U.S. or European elections.