Media reports often like to describe news as “unprecedented,” when in fact, on closer inspection, we find that similar events occurred in the past. It is tempting to suppose that the remarkable public distrust shown between US President-Elect, Donald Trump, and the US intelligence community, is not too different from times past, when US spy agencies also attracted the scorn of presidents. Perhaps all that is new today is that a president-elect’s suspicion about intelligence is now playing publicly, on Twitter, for all to see, rather than behind closed doors.
However, even for those who are historically minded, inclined to see today’s world through a lens of the past, Donald Trump’s relationship with US intelligence already seems historically bad. Even before taking office, Trump has won the race to the bottom in an inglorious line of poor relations between the White House and its intelligence agencies. Indeed, relations are now so poor that US intelligence agencies may soon come to have a better relationship with their UK counterparts than with Trump.
Never before has a president-elect publicly criticised the US intelligence community, which he will soon preside over politically and militarily as commander in chief, while at the same time praising the leader of a foreign country, Vladimir Putin, assessed by US intelligence as hostile. On Thursday last week, the outgoing US Director of National Intelligence (DNI), James Clapper, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on foreign cyberthreats that Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential campaign by hacking and spreading propaganda. The next day, some of America’s top intelligence officials briefed the president-elect on their findings. Afterwards, the DNI’s Office released a declassified report on Russian interference. It describes Russia as a “full-scope cyber actor” and states that Putin launched an “influence campaign” to damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and aid Trump.
It now appears that, during their confidential meeting with Trump on Friday last week, US intelligence officials also briefed the president-elect on reports circulating that Russian intelligence had compromising personal material on him. The underlying reports themselves, apparently obtained by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele—who, having been outed,…