War Stories

Intelligence Agencies Are Afraid of Contradicting Trump’s “Gut”

These agencies are supposed to be independent for a reason.

Joseph Maguire holds up his right hand, standing before the U.S. seal.
Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is sworn in prior to testifying before the House Select Committee on Intelligence in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on Sept. 26. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The heads of U.S. intelligence agencies are trying to wriggle out of their annual briefing to Congress on worldwide threats—at least the portion of the briefing that’s open to the public—so that they won’t have to appear on television disagreeing with President Donald Trump.

This effort, reported in Politico, marks the latest maneuver by Trump to impose total personal control over the executive branch—and it reflects a growing tendency, on the part of federal agencies, to bow to his will.

In their last public threat briefing to Congress, in January 2019, the intelligence chiefs testified that Iran was abiding by the nuclear deal signed by former President Barack Obama, that North Korea would never surrender all of its nuclear weapons, that ISIS continued to “stoke violence” in Iraq and Syria, and that Russian cyberoperations still posed a threat to America’s elections and infrastructure.

All these claims—based on analyses by all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies—contradicted assertions made by Trump, and he angrily struck back in a series of tweets, one of which lambasted “the Intelligence people” as “extremely passive and naive” and told them to “go back to school!”

Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and his deputy, Sue Gordon, were fired a few months later for their overall disloyalty—the most egregious sin in Trump’s eyes. Coats’ successor, Joseph Maguire, has not yet been officially nominated for the post; he remains acting director, which is the way Trump likes things. That means Maguire is still auditioning for the job and is therefore less likely to alienate his prospective boss—and he has sworn no obligation to Congress, which he would have done in the course of a confirmation process.

Intelligence agencies, of course, have been wrong in the past. And, in any case, a president has the right to dispute—or pursue policies that rub against—their assessments. But those agencies are supposed to be independent, and for a reason. If they gear their reports to what they think a president wants to hear, they’re bound to miss some real threats on the horizon—and to collude in the manufacturing of fake ones. In other words, they will endanger national security. (It is well known that, in the runup to the invasion of Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney pressured the CIA to cherry-pick raw intelligence to make Saddam Hussein seem like a bigger threat than he was.)

Trump is known to cite intelligence findings when they back him up—and to ignore or outright reject them when they don’t. In his 2018 summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, he said that, on the question of whether the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election, he took the Russian president’s word over that of a unanimous U.S. intelligence report. And several times, he has taken North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s assurances on “denuclearization” over the intelligence warnings that Kim intends no such thing.

It would be one thing if Trump’s disagreements stemmed from his own thorough study of the situation, but, by his own admission, they’re usually rooted in a “gut” feeling.

In their new book, A Very Stable Genius, Philip Rucker and Carol D. Leonnig, reporters for the Washington Post, note that, after Trump met Putin for the first time at a G-20 summit, he promptly declared himself a Russia expert, dismissing the insights of then–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had worked with Russian leaders since the 1990s as an executive with Exxon Mobil. “Tillerson’s years of negotiating with Putin and studying his moves on the chessboard were suddenly irrelevant,” the authors write. “ ‘I have had a two-hour meeting with Putin,’ Trump told Tillerson. ‘That’s all I need to know… I’ve sized it all up. I’ve got it.’ ”

The Politico story predicts that congressional committees will demand that the intelligence chiefs appear in a public session whether they want to or not, and that the chiefs, who depend on the Hill for funding, will comply. But this is far from a sure bet, given Trump’s recent pattern—seen most blatantly during the House impeachment inquiry—of blocking officials from testifying.

Meanwhile, all of Trump’s top Cabinet officers—including the confirmed ones—are firmly in his pocket. Look at Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s behavior after Trump told Fox News that Gen. Qassim Soleimani was about to attack four U.S. embassies before Trump ordered his killing. Asked about this on CBS’s Face the Nation, Esper replied that he personally saw no such intelligence, which means no such intelligence exists. But then he added, “I share the president’s view that probably—my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies.”

Two points for Esper in Trump’s book of who’s loyal and who’s not; 10 points against him in what might be a citizen’s ledger of who’s committed to national security and the truth.