On Saturday, his first full day as president, Donald Trump spoke at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The visit was supposed to present him as a normal president with a healthy regard for national security. It did just the opposite. The speech exposed Trump as an incipient autocrat who would pervert the intelligence community and American foreign policy.
Intelligence work is supposed to be about service, not glory. It’s supposed to help the country, not a leader or party. And if we go to war, it’s supposed to be for a noble cause, not for plunder. Barack Obama reaffirmed these norms. So did George W. Bush. As Bush demonstrated, you can start a tragic war despite these norms. But without them, things can get much worse. You can end up as another Russia, ruled by a strongman and deliberately slaughtering civilians in places like Aleppo.
On the night before his inauguration in 2001, Bush spoke at a gala for veterans. He deflected praise to others, and he thanked those who “serve a cause greater than self.” Two months later, Bush went to Langley and stood in front of the Memorial Wall that honors fallen agents. He honored their “service and sacrifice.” He said the CIA’s mission was to advance “the cause of freedom.” In subsequent visits, Bush told the agency’s employees that they had the support of both parties and that their job was to serve the country, not him. “I’m proud to serve with you,” he told them. “I appreciate your serving along my side to make America secure.”
That ethic is incomprehensible to Trump. On Saturday, speaking in front of the CIA’s memorial wall, he boasted about his inaugural address before mentioning those who had died. He falsely claimed to have set a record for appearances on the cover of Time, and said that record would never be broken. The words invoked by Bush—duty, responsibility, service, sacrifice, character—never crossed Trump’s lips. Trump praised not the unheralded work of CIA employees, but the “superstars” of his administration. He said heaven had chosen to drench others, but not him. “God looked down and said, ‘We’re not going to let it rain on your speech,’ ” Trump joked of his inaugural address. “I walked off, and it poured after I left.”
Trump said he had gone to Langley to show his love for the intelligence community. But he seemed more interested in the show than the love. “The reason you’re my first stop is, as you know, I have a running war with the media,” he began. “They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth. And they sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community.” He spent the next five minutes detailing his beefs with the media, especially over the size of the crowd at his inaugural address. To him, this “feud” was just another media spat, and visiting Langley was a way to show up the press.
Trump behaved this way throughout his campaign and transition. He used veterans as a prop, claiming to raise money for them but not donating anything until months later, when the Washington Post began to investigate. Last week, Trump appeared with Martin Luther King III in the lobby of Trump Tower, shaking hands for the cameras. Since then, Trump’s aides have used that photo op as evidence that Trump has minority support and is healing the country.
At campaign rallies, Trump boasted that each venue was packed, with legions of fans waiting outside. As president, he treats CIA headquarters no differently. Standing in front of the memorial wall, he said “thousands of other people” wanted to get into the room but couldn’t. Afterward, Trump’s aides bragged on TV that “we had over 1,000 requests to attend” the speech, that hundreds of people had been turned away, and that agency employees were “on their feet” applauding him. Sources who were in the room, and who were familiar with the RSVP list, told CBS News all three claims were false.
Trump appealed to his audience not as patriots, but as partisan allies. “The military gave us tremendous percentage of votes. We were unbelievably successful getting the vote of the military. And probably almost everybody in this room voted for me,” he asserted. The reason, he explained in a knowing tone, was that “we’re all on the same wavelength.” Not we the people, not we the public servants, not we the protectors of America, but we the supporters of Donald Trump.
Trump spoke not of protecting freedom but of war and victory. “When I was young,” he fondly recalled, “We were always winning things in this country. We’d win with trade. We’d win with wars.” Turning to Vice President Pence, he went on:
We don’t win anymore. The old expression, “to the victor belonged the spoils.” You remember, I always used to say, “Keep the oil.” … Now, I said it for economic reasons. But if you think about it, Mike, if we kept the oil, you probably wouldn’t have ISIS, ’cause that’s where they made money … [We] should have kept the oil. I believe that this group [CIA] is going to be one of the most important groups in this country toward making us safe, toward making us winners again, toward ending all of the problems.
To Trump, the strategic rationale for keeping Iraq’s oil, to strangle ISIS, was an afterthought. The real reason was “economic.” We were the victors, and Iraq’s wealth was our spoils. Trump has been warned many times that this kind of theft is a war crime. He doesn’t care.
CIA leaders didn’t applaud Trump’s political remarks, and they didn’t appreciate his politicking in front of the wall. The next day, after Trump had thanked those in the room who voted for him, his aides went on TV to insinuate—as Trump has often done—that hostile elements in the intelligence community had leaked dirt on him and should get out. It’s “time for him to put in his own security and intelligence community,” said Trump’s senior counselor, Kellyanne Conway.
This is what Trump would do to the CIA. He would make it a servant of himself, not of the country. He would use it as a weapon against the media. He would advance a foreign policy that treats the world’s wealth as ours to take. He’s not threatening to put the KGB before the CIA. He’s threatening to make them identical.