Even before his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki’s presidential palace, Donald Trump had predicted that talks would be much easier than those with NATO and Theresa May. This he did in remarkably sympathetic tones, taking to Twitter hours before to proclaim that America’s “relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of US foolishness and stupidity”. “We agree,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry replied.
Those wanting a robust response to Russian foreign policy in Europe and the Middle East were worried. But the worst was yet to come: in an extraordinary 46-minute joint news conference after the two men met, Trump refused to support the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia had intervened in the 2016 US presidential election.
In his answers to reporters’ questions, Trump derided Special Council Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election as a “disaster for our country” and a “witch hunt” claiming Washington was just as much to blame as Moscow for a determination in relations. Despite “great confidence” in America’s spies, Trump castigated the community-wide belief that Russia had interfered in the 2016 campaign.
“They said they think it’s Russia,” he said. “I have [asked] President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia.” Trump went on: “I don’t see any reason why it would be … I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Trump’s assessment came just days after the Grand Jury for the District of Columbia charged 12 Russian intelligence officers with conspiring to “gain unauthorised access … into the computers of US persons and entities involved in the 2016 US presidential election”, targeting “over 300 individuals” affiliated with the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. It also came the same day that the FBI charged Russian national Maria Butina, a pro-gun activist who infiltrated the National Rifle Association, with trying to influence Republican Party politics, having set up “back channels” to Russian officials. Prosecutors said that Butina was “developing relationships with US persons and infiltrating organisations … for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation”.
Trump’s defence of Russia was a startling conclusion to draw, especially in public, and it was met with criticism from across the US political spectrum.
Trump dissident and leading Republican John McCain tweeted that the press conference was “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”. In a later statement, he added that “the damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate”.
Former intelligence officials were also quick to denounce the president. John Brennan, former CIA director, tweeted that Trump’s performance “raises to and exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’. It was nothing short of treasonous.” Trump was “wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you?”. Interviewed on CNN, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called the conference “unbelievable”: “On the world’s stage, in front of the entire globe, the president of the United States essentially capitulated and seems intimidated by Vladimir Putin. So it was amazing and very, very disturbing.”
Trump has faced criticism from former officials before. In 2017, Clapper claimed American democracy was “under assault” and, following Trump’s apparent support for a far-right rally in Charlottesville, his “ability to be – his fitness to be – in this office, and I also am beginning to wonder about his motivation for it” provoking a backlash from the president.
Trump had previously cast doubt on intelligence community’s unanimous assessments of Russian hacking. In October 2016, the director of national intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security confirmed the US intelligence community was “confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organisations”. In January 2017, another joint report by the FBI, CIA and NSA concluded that Russia’s president had ordered an “influence campaign” aimed at undermining Clinton in favour of Trump – who was, they concluded, the Kremlin’s “clear preference” for the White House.
Trump’s team responded that “these are the same people who said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction”. Trump himself poured fuel on the fire, openly questioning the CIA’s – and wider intelligence community’s – judgement on Fox News: “I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it. I don’t know why … Every week, it’s another excuse.”
So things were already going from bad to worse. But Trump’s latest slap in the face to America’s spies will only speed up the disintegration of the intelligence-policy relationship.
While presidents and intelligence officials haven’t always got on, Trump’s relationship with intelligence officials goes from bad to worse. Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs, this isn’t a healthy place to be right now. An intelligence community cut out of presidential decision making can become easily frustrated, leading to leaks and private briefings to journalists.
For a president to ignore US intelligence community assessments could be disastrous, but Trump has been dismissive of the implications from the off. “I don’t have to be told – you know, I’m like a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day … I don’t need that,” he told Fox News after his first briefings. In office, Trump has preferred an oral (not written or digital) Presidential Daily Brief – a daily intelligence update described as the “holy grail” of the community, openly criticised intelligence and pressed officials to bend intelligence to suit White House policy.
Trump’s nativity as an intelligence consumer does not bode well for the US intelligence community. By criticising US assessments next to Putin, the sacking of FBI Director James Comey and dismissing reports of Russian interference in American democracy, Trump is destroying the relationship between the intelligence community and the government. While it’s foolhardy to predict the future at the best of times, never mind under the Trump administration, it’s certain that America’s spies and President Trump face a stormy future.