President Trump took aim at the intelligence community last week, tweeting that its officials should “go back to school” after their threat assessments contradicted his rosy vision of international relations. It wasn’t the first time the president has dismissed the findings of the U.S. intelligence apparatus — last year he sided with Vladimir Putin in refusing to accept that Russia meddled in the 2016 election — and Republicans are finally starting to grow frustrated with the president’s fidelity to Fox News and foreign autocrats over the FBI and CIA.
“There’s an awful lot — there’s so much tradition, and history and complexity to some of these foreign policy issues, you have to rely on people who have been working these issues for decades,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said on Fox News Sunday. “It’s just imperative that you actually listen to, for example, the CIA chief, the director of national intelligence. These people have the real knowledge and you have to listen to them.”
Johnson also criticized the president’s plan to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, a move based on his false belief that ISIS has been defeated, which National Intelligence Director Dan Coats contradicted last week.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) talks to Chris about ISIS and the situation in the Middle East pic.twitter.com/I21GkGn1g4
— FoxNewsSunday (@FoxNewsSunday) February 3, 2019
Over on CNN, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) elaborated on why the president’s politicization of intelligence is so troubling. “These are professional people,” he said. “The president’s briefed every day on it. He’s not an intelligence officer. None of us are. But they, the people on the front lines, the people who analyze who gather and disseminate intelligence information to our higher-ups, we should respect them. Most of the time they’re pretty much on point.”
“It’s troubling to all of us but I think there’s got to be real good communication between the President and the Director of the CIA and the Director of National Intelligence … Most of the time, they’re pretty much on point,” @SenShelby says of Trump criticizing his intel chiefs pic.twitter.com/OFR5dk3u5P
— State of the Union (@CNNSotu) February 3, 2019
“It’s troubling to all of us,” said Shelby, “but I think there’s got to be real good communications between the president and the director of the CIA and the director of national intelligence.”
But fostering “good communication” between the president and his intelligence chiefs has so far been close to impossible. Trump has proven repeatedly that he lacks the attention span to grasp the “complexity,” as Johnson put it, of pertinent foreign policy issues, which the president seems to appraise exclusively through the lens of political convenience. On Saturday, Time published a terrifying look inside the president’s intelligence briefings, with several officials describing “futile attempts to keep [Trump’s] attention by using visual aids, confining some briefing points to two or three sentences, and repeating his name and title as frequently as possible.”
The report notes that the president is prone to have outbursts if material presented in the briefings contradicts his delusions, and that intelligence officials are often warned not to present Trump with findings that contradict views he has expressed in public. The president’s ire over such contradictions was on display last week after intelligence chiefs explained to Congress that North Korea has no plans to denuclearize, that ISIS is not defeated and that Iran is still complying with the nuclear deal the president tore up last year. Trump responded by calling the intelligence chiefs “naive,” “passive” and “wrong” before tweeting the next day that the press somehow “mischaracterized” the testimony.
The Time report features several other glimpses of Trump’s incompetence and, as one official described it, “willful ignorance” regarding intelligence that dates back to when he first took office. When Trump was briefed about a naval base in the Indian Ocean, for example, his primary concern was whether the “people” were “nice,” and if the base had good beaches. “Some of us wondered if he was thinking about our alliance with the Brits and the security issues in an important area where the Chinese have been increasingly active, or whether he was thinking like a real estate developer,” an official told Time.
According to @time, US intelligence briefers will do anything to get through to Trump. Once they put a Statue of Liberty scale replica inside a mock-up of N. Korean nuke site to emphasize its vast size. https://t.co/kMkcWlW7rU pic.twitter.com/KPLWKgzDIl
— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) February 4, 2019
The most glaring, and potentially dangerous, contradiction between Trump’s instincts and U.S. intelligence is the North Korean nuclear threat. Trump routinely cites his relationship with Kim Jong-un as one of the chief accomplishments of his first two years in office, downplaying the idea that North Korea’s nuclear program is still operational. The intelligence community has warned repeatedly that very little has changed and that the threat is very real. They’ve done it in private, as when they reportedly constructed a model of the Statue of Liberty to illustrate to the president how large North Korea’s test sites are; and in public, as when Coats laid out how dire the threat is last week. “We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival,” said the intelligence director in terms that are very difficult to “mischaracterize.”
Trump is expected to meet with Kim Jong-un for a second time later this month.