White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday rejected reports that President Trump’s visit to CIA headquarters during the weekend hurt his already troubled relationship with the U.S. intelligence community.
On Saturday, Trump gave a freewheeling speech at the CIA while standing before a wall memorializing fallen officers. Among other comments, he ripped the media for downplaying the size of the crowd at his inauguration and boasted that most of the people in the room had voted for him. Former CIA Director John Brennan called the appearance shameful, and CBS reported that the visit was “uncomfortable” and not welcomed enthusiastically by CIA officials there.
Government sources told the outlet that Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan. (the president’s nominee for CIA director), brought about 40 Trump supporters to sit in the first three rows and cheer on the president. But rather than showing excitement, the sources said, many of the CIA employees were shocked and offended that his speech meandered into campaign rhetoric, as the agency considers itself above partisan politics.
At a press conference Monday afternoon, Spicer dismissed the report as not “accurate at all” and compelled people to listen to audio from Trump’s visit to hear the “excitement that exists there.” He was pressed as to whether the people seated in the front rows were CIA employees.
“Honestly, I don’t have a seating chart,” he said. “I think we had a very small footprint going over. I don’t know exactly who went over. I don’t know, maybe 10 people at most.”
He double-checked with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, deputy White House press secretary, who said 10 people traveled over with them.
“I’m not really sure why this matters. Ten people did not yell that loud,” he said.
Earlier, a journalist asked Spicer if he thinks the media invented the feud between Trump and the intelligence community.
Rather than answer the question directly, Spicer suggested that there was no feud. He claimed that CIA employees in Langley, Va., welcomed Trump with a “five-minute standing ovation” of “hooting and hollering.” Raw video released by the White House of the president’s speech contains no such footage.
CNN’s Jim Sciutto said no one who was there agreed with Spicer’s version of the event.
No one who was there described a "five-minute standing ovation" for Trump as CIA as @PressSec just described
— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) January 23, 2017
Nevertheless, Spicer was pressed again as to whether the feud was a media creation. Trump repeatedly criticized U.S. intelligence agencies in the weeks after the election after they concluded that Russia had meddled in it. Among other criticisms, Trump brought up the intelligence failures leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
After BuzzFeed published a salacious, unverified dossier on Jan. 10, Trump tweeted: “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” Brennan took exception to the remark, prompting Trump to suggest that the then-CIA director had leaked the dossier.
But Spicer insisted Monday that Trump was criticizing only the intelligence brass, not rank-and-file officers.
“There’s a difference between having differences with intelligence leaders and leaders of that community who he has strong differences with than the people and the men and women who toil every single day in our intelligence community. And it was reflected at the CIA,” Spicer said.
He encouraged others to listen to the audio of Trump’s appearance to get a sense of what CIA employees think of him. Spicer said that a thousand people applied to hear him speak in a theater with slightly more than 300 seats, and that about 400 people were accepted.
“That doesn’t sound like a huge feud. They were excited. They were clapping. They were cheering when he walked in. And to see reports saying there was some kind of fence-mending that needed to happen — it sure didn’t look that way when you walked in,” he said.
Spicer tried to move past the controversy — “I’m going to move on” — and fielded additional questions on other topics, but the White House press corps returned to it later in the press conference.
The White House has been under fire in recent days for its sometimes tenuous relationship with the truth. On Saturday, Spicer held an official event to denounce the press for tweets that supposedly downplayed Trump’s inauguration crowd size the day before. But in doing so, he made a number of false statements.
Notably, he incorrectly claimed more people attended Trump’s swearing-in ceremony in person than any other in history. The following day, Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Spicer was using “alternative facts.”
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