January 22, 2017–Inauguration Day has come and gone. Donald J. Trump is now–for real– the President of the United States. His administration started off with a bang. Mr. Trump used the CIA for a political stump speech, as he sent spin doctor Sean Spicer out to deal False News in support of a Trumpian assertion that inauguration crowds were larger than they were. That, in turn, was a gambit to divert attention from the Women’s March on Washington–and in more than 630 other places all over the world (eight people rallied in Irbil, Iraq; twenty-seven in Hanoi, Vietnam)–in all totaling ten times or more the number of people attending the Trump inaugural. These events, plus Trump’s accession to the presidency, cry out for fresh commentary.
Trump’s rise has been interpreted here as heralding a purge within the intelligence community. At the CIA yesterday, as protesters took over Washington, the president took pains to declare the opposite: “I am so behind you. You’re gonna get so much backing. Maybe you’re gonna say, please, don’t give us so much backing. . . .” Trump blamed his favorite enemies of the moment–the media–for the notion there is anything wrong between the president and the community of American spies.
Everything this man says requires interpretation. Never forget that. Just since the New Year Mr. Trump has accused the CIA of being Nazis, enclosed references to U.S. intelligence and intelligence agencies within quotation marks (as in”intelligence”), and said outgoing agency director John Brennan is a leaker. Last year–as covered in this space more than once–Trump leveled more charges at the spies, including lambasting them for decade-old mistakes and insinuating they are the same old re-treads. These are things Mr. Trump wrote, explicitly, in his tweets, or said in public, in speeches or elsewhere. Yesterday all of that did not exist–in Trump’s eye the media had made it up.
Artiste Andy Warhol once famously observed that everyone seeks fifteen minutes of fame. To Trump’s mind that equates to fifteen minutes of friendship. You’re only a friend while you say the right thing–or until Trump himself changes tack, recasting you as enemy. Just look at what happened to New Jersey Chris Christie–once chairman of Trump’s transition team and expecting to be appointed Attorney General, on Friday Christie was not even on the inaugural platform (at least in the picture published in the New York Times). As for the CIA–wait for it!!!–Donald Trump’s visit lasted exactly fifteen minutes. He did not even take off his overcoat for the festivity. Either Trump wore an armored vest under the greatcoat, visiting the CIA’s den of vipers; or he intended the whistlestop from the outset, which brings us back to the political nature of this event, in my opinion futilely designed to distract from the Women’s March.
Declaiming in front of the agency’s hallowed wall of stars–known and still-clandestine officers who have given their lives in United States service–Trump spoke only briefly before he veered off on tangents–even more extravagant falsities about his crowds at the inauguration, and self-congratulatory puffery on his “intelligence.” But while he was actually still on point, the president hinted at several of his intentions for CIA. Returning to waterboarding and torture was one, stronger action against the islamists of ISIS was another–this time taking their oil. (Why seizing Syrian oil on behalf of an oil-rich U.S. would be necessary, and how that might be feasible without pipelines and in the face of Syrian national sovereignty, plus how those intentions would complicate the problem for CIA officers trying to recruit Syrian militants, are all questions that speak to the new president’s intelligence.)
Bottom line: President Trump intends actions that will require greater CIA efforts. He needs the CIA. But at the same time he distrusts the agency and its intelligence–witness Trump’s steadfast rejection of the Russian hack. The role of the hack, and of FBI Director James Comey’s eleventh-hour reinvestigation of Hillary Clinton, in Trump’s election requires getting rid of those who can tell the tale. That need, in addition to Mr. Trump’s ephemeral but constant course changes, will ensure the purge goes on. The deputy to the Director of National Intelligence, and the chief of staff to the CIA director have already sent in their resignations. No doubt a stream of other mid-ranking and senior officials will follow. A little bit down the line, the result will be that a corps of junior officers faces the president’s demands for extreme, even extra-legal action. Not only will there be more stars on the CIA wall, there will be more agency officers in the soup. And where will President Trump be then? My guess is not “backing” the CIA any more than he is backing Paul Manafort or Roger Stone in the Russian influence peddling scandal. Those gentlemen are now non-persons in the Trumpian universe.