The comments are the latest evidence of Trump’s long-running hostility and distrust of his own intelligence community and are raising concerns that the President may be trying to bring US officers to heel by politicizing agencies that are meant to stand apart from partisanship or politicking.
“The President’s comments are certainly alarming, overt and direct, even for him,” a former intelligence official who served during the Trump administration told CNN.
“If Ratcliffe goes into the DNI position and tries to undertake some kind of action to ‘rein in’ the intel community or engages in overt politicization, it won’t be well received within the intelligence community and would undermine his ability to do that job,” they said.
Ned Price, a former CIA official and Trump critic, who is now with the think tank National Security Action, told CNN that “President Trump is attacking the intelligence community because he wishes to attack objective facts.”
“The intelligence community has a habit — and for President Trump, it’s an unwelcome habit — of speaking truth to power. So we’ve seen President Trump try to undermine everything top intelligence officials say that contradicts his policies and statements,” he added.
‘Confusion more than conflict’
Trump’s dislike of the intelligence community, often expressed publicly in angry tweets, made Coats’ job arguably one of the most politically fraught in Washington. His departure is just the latest in the churn among the President’s most senior officials.
While Trump denied Tuesday any conflict with Coats, he did acknowledge that some of the public statements made by his outgoing DNI “were a little confused.”
“I like Dan. He’s a friend of mine. I think he’s a terrific person. I like him a lot. And there really wasn’t conflict. I think it was confusion more than conflict. Dan made statements, and they were a little confused. But that was not conflict,” Trump said.
The President did not specify which statements he was referring to but Coats has appeared to publicly split with Trump on several occasions. While testifying before Congress in January, Coats publicly contradicted Trump’s optimistic forecast about the chances North Korea will agree to give up its nuclear weapons.
With Coats on his way out, Trump has nominated Ratcliffe, a Republican congressman from Texas, who has acted as a loyal Trump supporter — most notably during combative questioning of former special counsel Robert Mueller last week.
Ratcliffe has been criticized for his relative lack of experience in intelligence and several lawmakers have raised concerns that he is too political for the DNI role.
Yet, Trump’s comments about reining in the intelligence community and Coats’ “confused” public comments Tuesday strongly suggest that he wants a political ally in the job.
Trump said Tuesday that he hadn’t yet identified an acting director of national intelligence but a senior administration official and a source familiar with the issue told CNN that there’s an active search right now for candidates and it’s unlikely that Deputy Director Sue Gordon, a well-regarded career intelligence official, will be picked.
Two sources have told CNN that Gordon is viewed by some in the administration as someone who is not going to be the type of political loyalist Trump wants in that role.
Should Trump skip over Gordon, it could further the criticism that he is politicizing the intelligence community at the expense of long-serving career professionals.
Trump’s distrust of intelligence community
Trump’s apparent distrust of the intelligence community can be traced back to the 2016 presidential campaign when he first cast doubt on Russia’s efforts to interfere in US elections despite stark warnings from top national security officials.
Since taking office, Trump has repeatedly clashed with intelligence officials, including Coats, over their public comments acknowledging Russia not only interfered in 2016, but also poses a threat to future elections — an assessment that was reaffirmed by Mueller’s investigation, which the President has characterized as a “political witch hunt.”
Trump has also publicly disagreed with his own intelligence officials on a myriad of other issues including, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the threat posed by the Islamic State, the situation in Afghanistan, whether the Saudi crown prince ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and whether Iran was in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal signed by President Obama.
The reality is “that modern day intelligence assessments must adhere to strict analytic standards. All assessments must be objective, based on every available source of intelligence and independent of political considerations,” he wrote at the time.
“It is one thing for policy makers to cherry pick intelligence that fits their world views and another thing for the head of the intelligence community to skew intelligence when conveying it to the President,” a former intelligence official told CNN.
But Trump has continued to blur those lines, as evident by his recent order directing the intelligence community to fully comply with Attorney General William Barr’s look at “surveillance activities” during the 2016 election — a review Trump allies see as a check on government overreach, but critics see as an effort to convey the idea of a scandal.
Former officials have called the move “unprecedented,” saying it grants the attorney general sweeping powers over the nation’s secrets, subverts the intelligence community and raises troubling legal questions.
At the time, Coats said that Barr would get “all the appropriate information” for the review of intelligence into Russia’s election attacks, but he also warned the attorney general against being too public with what he declassifies.
Yet with Coats’ departure, it appears Trump is seizing the opportunity to nominate a new intelligence chief who is not “confused” about what to say publicly and is willing to “rein in” an intelligence community he has long deemed to be running “amok.”
According to Price, Trump is “laying the groundwork with preemptive attacks to weaken those messages, to weaken them in favor of his policy preferences which fly in the face of the objective facts they put forward.”
The attacks have longer-term risks, Price said, as the President tries to politicize a culture that for national security reasons is meant to stand apart from partisanship or politicking. The danger is that US national security policies will end up being based on the intelligence Trump wants, as opposed to the intelligence as it is.