It is the US President’s disdain for his intelligence services which has brought about the current existential crisis in the White Houseby Jay Elwes / May 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
In February, I spent several weeks interviewing spies. Some of them were serving, others were retired, some were British and others American—and they all wanted to talk about Donald Trump. The problem, it seemed to me back then, was that the US’s intelligence and security agencies, and their allies, thought Trump didn’t understand their role, or the significance and delicacy of their product. They were worried, in short, that he might screw it all up.
Trump has done little to alter that view. His post-election turn at CIA head-quarters, when he stood in front of the commemorative wall dedicated to fallen CIA officers and bragged about the size of his inauguration crowd, was greeted with horror by agency staff. Greg Treverton, the Chairman of the US National Intelligence Council told me shortly afterwards that, “There is a very large set of professionals in the intelligence agencies and they’re prepared to do anything for a president that’s legal. And so to set out to offend them, to diss them, that seems to me to be really kind of worse than stupid.”
The clash between the studied, lawyerly upper echelons of the intelligence and security world—which have come to be embodied in the towering, ramrod-straight figure of former FBI Director James Comey—and the fast and loose NYC property developing spiv, was inevitable. Trump has thrown his considerable weight around and come up against something he has almost certainly never experienced in his days spent building absurd, sardanapalian monuments to his own ego: men and women who spend their lives in the slow procedural accumulation and sifting of evidence, in the tortuous process of developing sources and of piecing together the logical components that go to make up intelligence reports. These are not Trump people. These are so not Trump people that when he first arrived at the White House he made it clear that he wasn’t interested in having the Presidential Daily briefing, the most important intelligence source at his disposal. “I’m, like, a smart person,” Trump said. “I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day.”
So great was Trump’s failure to grasp the role of the intelligence agencies that I speculated earlier this year that he might even commit the greatest intelligence sin of them all—he might blab. In a piece published back in February, “Spooked: Trump’s war against US intelligence,” I spoke to Karin von Hippel, the former Chief of Staff to General John Allen, the special presidential envoy under Barack Obama for the global coalition to counter Islamic State. I asked her whether Trump’s indiscreet nature might make the agencies hesitant about telling him secrets, worried that he might reveal them.
“Absolutely,” she replied. “It’s a very good point, especially if he’s revealing secret information.” Then she added, “I don’t know if that’s actually grounds to impeach a President… You should ask a lawyer that.” And now that Trump has allegedly revealed secret intelligence to the Russian foreign minister, lawyers are asking themselves precisely that question.
Trump’s administration—if that word applies—has been beset by problems, a remarkable number of which have originated in the intelligence and security agencies. Among these have been: the allegations made in a dossier by the former MI6 agent Christopher Steele that the Russians had lurid compromising material on Trump; the sacking of Trump’s National Security Advisor for his links to Russia; the revelation that various Trump campaign staff had links to Russian businesses; the revelation that Trump’s campaign was actively aided by Russian hackers; the suggestion, made in these pages by the former head of MI6, that Trump had large outstanding debts of Russian origin; the allegation that Trump asked the Director of the FBI, James Comey, to shut down the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russian links; the subsequent firing of James Comey; and the appointment of former Director of the FBI Robert Mueller as the special prosecutor to look into the whole sorry mess…
The Hustler ran slap bang into the Proceduralists. The man who has got into the White House and who has sought to govern using little more than his own intuition and prejudices has been repeatedly floored by those technically-minded people who scan the behavior of the men and women in American public life and who, unlike the supine Republican Party, once they see something suspicious cannot unsee it. And in their way, these two combatants—Trump and the spies—constitute the two poles of governmental character: the intuitive and the procedural. One likes to run on gut instinct, the other more on calculation—Blair and Brown, Cameron and May.
A bit of instinct is fine, so long as it’s mixed in with some cold-eyed calculation. But Trump is way, way out on the far end of the gut instinct spectrum, further out even than his pal Nigel. Trump’s political instincts, such as they are, seem little more than the sum of his intuitive urges. His decision to bomb Syria, when it came, was not the result of strategic calculation, but a reaction to harrowing TV reports. His immigration ban, repeatedly struck down by the courts, seemed to be based on almost nothing other than an urge to do something, anything. And then there’s his use of Twitter, a mode of communication perfectly designed for Trump, one that allows him to give vent to pretty much anything he feels like, whether it’s querying Obama’s birth certificate, mocking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on the Apprentice, attacking the mainstream media, or shouting about the war against IS. It’s all on instinct, all of it, just like those loopy, nonsensical campaign rants. All off the cuff. Made up on the spot. Let’s see what happens. Consequences? Pah!
Democratic leaders cannot rule by gut instinct alone, and abandon the conventions of their office. That, really, was what the spies were telling me earlier this year. Trump has to deal with the facts as they are and the world as it is, or the result would be weakness, disorder and a heightened risk of security breaches. They were correct. It is fair to assume that that other spy, the one currently residing in the Kremlin, had come to similar conclusions.
Democracy is the rule of law—Donald Trump, who has built himself up as a breaker of rules, seems not to have learned that one simple fact. It is now for Mueller, who will investigate Trump’s Russian links, to see that he learns it.