After slamming his intelligence chiefs as “passive and naive” and telling them to “go back to school,” President Donald Trump tried to paper over his Twitter tantrum last Wednesday.
Facing sharp criticism for such a public attack – unprecedented for a U.S. president – Trump now claims “the media” distorted the testimony of top U.S. intelligence chiefs before the Senate Intelligence Committee — where they sharply diverged from Trump on the ranking and nature of the most urgent security threats.
There are, of course, gaping holes in this self-serving revision. For one, if Trump ever listened to his daily intelligence briefing he would have known in advance what the chiefs would be saying. For another, any differences Trump holds should be discussed in private, not aired on Twitter. Such a public Trump war with his intelligence community is manna for America’s enemies and undermines the agencies that try to keep America safe.
But most glaring, there can be no doubt about what the chiefs said in their annual assessment of threats to U.S. security — because the testimony was broadcast live. I listened to it. It does, indeed, differ from the claims of Donald Trump.
So let us count the ways in which they differ.
1. There’s almost no mention of the supposed emergency on the southern border.
In National Intelligence Director Dan Coats’ prepared remarks, the border gets only a brief mention – on Page 18, in regard to drugs – after the statement deals with China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, the Middle East, cyberwarfare, etc. In his testimony, Coats made a one-sentence reference to “U.S.-bound migrants” near the very end.
2. The top rank goes to the growing danger of cyberwar.
This threat shadowed the entire testimony, including the possibility of future attacks on critical infrastructure such as the electricity grid. Coats also stressed that America’s adversaries viewed the 2020 elections as “an opportunity to advance their interests.” He emphasized that Russia relies on disinformation wars to destabilize Western democracies and undermine America’s standing abroad — a topic anathema to Trump.
The intelligence chiefs and senators from both parties also spent much time focusing on the security challenges posed by new technologies, which, in Coats’ words, “will continue to drive the world in ways we do not (yet) understand.” Their discussion only underlines the risk posed by Trump’s failure to organize an all-of-government response to cyberwarfare led from the White House.
3. North Korea gets a needed dose of realism.
The intelligence agencies assessed that “North Korea will seek to retain its weapons of mass destruction capability and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons. ...” Coats said the North’s “leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.”
As the president prepares for a second summit with Kim Jong Un, this is an important counterweight to the president’s early proclamation that the North Korean nuclear threat has ended. There has been virtually no progress so far in getting Pyongyang to end its nuclear program or give up its existing weapons.
4. Iran is not now working on a bomb.
This topic drew the president’s initial ire because the intelligence community assessed Iran is not now “undertaking activities necessary to produce” a bomb; Tehran continues to comply with terms of the nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew. That behavior could change, Coats said, if sanctions continue. He also detailed the continuing threat of Iranian misbehavior in the Middle East. All in all, a sober assessment, far from the naivete the president denounced.
Indeed, Coats’ whole testimony, and the intelligence community’s report, reeked of sobriety, not politics. On Afghanistan, he assessed that the Taliban and the Afghan government were at a standoff, so long as the current level of U.S. troops there remains the same. However, that could change due to U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations. Hanging over his remarks was the real possibility that if Trump pulls those troops out, the Taliban could seize control.
Similarly, that realism permeated Coats’ assessment that terrorism will increase in 2019, and ISIS will return to guerrilla warfare intent on reemerging as a transnational threat. This stands in stark contrast to the president’s insistence that ISIS is defeated, full stop.
There have been sharp conflicts between presidents and the intelligence community in the past – notably when Vice President Dick Cheney pushed the CIA to produce analyses that fit his certainty that Saddam Hussein was making weapons of mass destruction. We know how that one turned out.
This latest battle between Trump and his intelligence chiefs — a battle he now insists doesn’t exist — is even worse than the Cheney debacle. Trump appears eager to sideline the intelligence agencies from policymaking, while promoting the theory that they are operating on a partisan basis. The president is confident that he knows best, and doesn’t need intelligence briefers, or the facts they bring.
The threat of willful presidential blindness didn’t appear in Coats’ threats assessment. But it may be the most dangerous one of all.