Early one Saturday morning, March 4, President Trump took to his favourite bully pulpit to issue his most infamous tweet — that President Obama had wiretapped his Trump Towers residence during the 2016 election — using various trigger words, including “McCarthyism.”
Since then he has doubled-down on this preposterous claim at every opportunity, going so far as to joke that he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had both been spied on by US agencies, as well as abetting a claim made by a Fox News commentator that the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ was behind the affair. Fox News subsequently issued a statement that they knew of no evidence to support that claim. Angela Merkel, a survivor of the East German STASI, looked bemused by the president’s “joke,” as well she might. The British were furious.
The latest development came on March 20, when FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Select Committee on Intelligence that neither the FBI nor the Department of Justice had any evidence to support the president’s tweet. By any standard, this extraordinary rebuke is within spitting distance of saying that the president was lying. National Security Agency Director Admiral Rogers told the committee that he could not imagine GCHQ having been engaged in such surveillance, as it would break one of the central tenets of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership — namely that they do not spy on each other. GCHQ itself came out with an immediate (highly unusual) denial, calling it “utterly ridiculous.” Admiral Rogers, when pressed, had to agree with his British counterparts that the claim was indeed ridiculous. It will be interesting to count his remaining days in office.
The speculation about the tendentious sources that Trump relied on for his claim and his unwillingness to backtrack has produced some pretty obvious, if still unsettling, answers — namely that the president draws from a narrow, conspiratorially flavoured media well, full of the “fake news” that he loves to decry. And he doesn’t like to admit mistakes.
The tweet also draws our attention to the president’s own outlook on intelligence, moving the story into ever-darker territory. From pre-inauguration indications that the president-elect took little interest in intelligence briefings about key threats facing the US, we now have a situation where he clearly believes that elements of the US intelligence community, the so-called “deep state,” are working to undermine him. He has even gone so far as to call his own spies “Nazis.” Such language has not been heard in US politics since the early days of the Cold War when Republicans worried that Democrats in the White House were building a potential American “Gestapo” in launching the CIA.
Few modern day presidents come into office with much understanding of the intelligence world. The biggest exceptions being General Eisenhower, whose knowledge was deeply rooted in his military experience, and George Bush senior, who was briefly head of the CIA.
Some presidents (Johnson) have chafed at intelligence as messengers of bad news (the Vietnam War). Some (Truman) moved from mistrust to reforming and ultimately growing US intelligence. Some (Kennedy) used intelligence to navigate threats (the Cuban Missile Crisis). Some (Nixon) have marked US intelligence as a foe to their own desires and decisions. Some (Clinton) just didn’t have much time for it. Some (Bush) misused it (the Iraq war). Some (Reagan) viewed intelligence as a potent secret weapon but wanted to leave it in the hands of trusted lieutenants (rabid anti-communist William Casey). With Obama, it’s just too soon to know. Wait for the political memoirs.
In short, when it comes to relationships between Commanders in Chief and their spies, there are few reliable models, and few saints. In this light, Trump would appear not to be breaking, but merely repeating ingrained patterns.
Yet Trump’s war on intelligence is markedly different in two particular ways. First is his determination to feud in public, through a campaign of indiscriminate, all-hours tweet bombs. Nixon may have been fond of referring to the CIA as “those clowns in Langley,” but not in public. Second, Trump seems to have no past-presidential rival in treating intelligence as fodder for political spectacle, trying to score points with the imagined “collective mind” of his base and to deflect attention from other issues.
The harm in all this is obvious. The man with access to the world’s largest, best-resourced intelligence system is building his own intellectual wall that just might rise high enough to brick himself and his advisers in. He indulges paranoid spy fantasies with potentially profound, long-term consequences for the legitimacy of the US intelligence community. He encourages the Republican Party to take a childish “with me or against me” path. He encourages his own intelligence services to distrust him rather than serve him. He may even be stoking their investigation into Russian election meddling and ties between the Trump campaign and Russian agents, an on-going scrutiny now confirmed by the FBI director.
Trump has even managed to rattle the Five Eyes allies, including Canada, all of whom have to start to wonder about the weakening of ties that permitted their free circulation of sensitive threat information.
When pressed about the damage to allied intelligence relationships, the NSA chief had this exchange with Democrat Adam Schiff during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on March 20:
SCHIFF: So our relationships with the British and the Germans, you hope, are strong enough to withstand any damage done by these comments?
ROGERS: By anything in general, sir. We have foundational interest with each other, we need to keep working together.
How far Trump’s tweet war on intelligence will go and how much long-term damage it will do remains to be seen. Admiral Rogers may be right in thinking that a relationship that spans six decades and a dozen presidents might save the Five Eyes. But the history of relationships between presidents and US intelligence suggests that no foundation can withstand relentless tweet bombing before it cracks.