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Trump’s War on the Intelligence Community Is All About Ego

And it won't end well—for him or for America.

DON EMMERT/Getty Images

Donald Trump has long resorted to Twitter as a forum for childish feuds. It was on Twitter that he famously taunted comedian Jon Stewart for having a stage name (which led Stewart to respond with a meme that Trump’s original name was Fuckface Von Clownstick, which set off even more angry Trump tweets). Despite now being president-elect, Trump has continued to use social media to attack his foes, which include not just foreign countries (as when he berated China for “one-sided trade” and not helping to contain North Korea) but the government agencies he’s going to have to work with in order to protect the American people.

On Friday, Trump is scheduled to meet with heads of the intelligence community, who will brief him on their findings about Russian interference in the election. But he has already made clear this week that he doesn’t really want to hear what they have to say.

What’s notable about these tweets isn’t just that Trump is, rather suspiciously, disputing a briefing he hasn’t yet heard. He’s also making a false claim: The briefing wasn’t delayed, having always been scheduled for Friday.

Still, that’s par for the course when it comes to Trump’s tweets. But now we’re learning that his feud with the intelligence community goes beyond Twitter. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that Trump believes the nation’s top spy agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, has become “bloated” and “politicized.” Trump and his advisors are “also working on a plan to restructure the Central Intelligence Agency, cutting back on staffing at its Virginia headquarters and pushing more people out into field posts around the world.” An anonymous source close to the Trump transition told the Journal, “The view from the Trump team is the intelligence world has become completely politicized. They all need to be slimmed down. The focus will be on restructuring the agencies and how they interact.”

As president, Trump would be perfectly within his rights to question findings by the intelligence community and restructure it to suit his needs. He also wouldn’t be the first president to feud with the intelligence community—at his own risk. “No president has ever taken on the CIA and come out looking good,” an unnamed White House official told the Journal. This is perhaps too sweeping a judgement, but there is definitely a troubled history.

John F. Kennedy, angered by the failure of the Bay of Pig invasion and inadequate information during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was preparing a wholesale revamping of the CIA in the months before his assassination. Jimmy Carter came to office during a time when the CIA was widely discredited by revelations of its involvement in overseas assassinations, and he pushed for the agency to do less covert operations and focus on providing analysis. Carter explicitly condemned the “CIA’s role in plotting murder and other crimes.” Carter would change his policies in the tail-end of his presidency, when he found that CIA covert actions were necessary to respond to the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Kennedy and Carter fought the CIA on policy grounds. But Trump’s feud has a much more personal cast—in part because it springs from questions about the legitimacy of his presidential victory, and in part because Trump tends to invest every dispute with narcissistic rage. In this way, Trump is closer to Richard Nixon, whose fight with the CIA was entangled with his wounded ego and insatiable pride.

Nixon used to refer to the CIA as “those clowns out at Langley.” As historian Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones wrote in the book The CIA and American Democracy,
“Neurotic personal feelings underlay that bias [against the CIA]. For example, he was unable to justify his assertion that the Agency conspired against him in the 1960 election. He also clung to a similar, largely irrational suspicion that the American social elite was pitted against him.” Resentful and fearful of the CIA, Nixon tried to ensnare the agency in his corruption, at one point trying to set it up to take the fall for the Watergate break-in. He wanted the CIA to tell the FBI to lay off the investigation because it had national security implications. CIA head Richard Helms refused to let the agency be a scapegoat.

Nixon is a revealing parallel to Trump. Both can be seen as maestros of resentment with a populist anger fuelled by a sense that snooty experts are looking down on them. Unappeasable in their rancor, both men adopted a stance of reflexive hostility toward the professionals who administer the state. This anti-professionalism is very different in spirit from attempts to reform the intelligence community as pursued by Kennedy or Carter. The goal of anti-professionalism is not just to get the bureaucracy to work better, but to subdue it, to bring in under the command of the president so that it lacks the independence to offer analysis that displeases the leader.

On CNN on Wednesday, former CIA official Philip Mudd said Trump “can question the intelligence. He cannot humiliate the people who have offered their lives to collect that intelligence.” The word “humiliate” is key. The president-elect, as always on Twitter, is playing a game of dominance, asserting his alpha-male right to rule. The problem is that a humiliated intelligence community will also be a hobbled one, much more likely to tell the president what he wants to hear and not offer the critical analysis that informs good decision-making. Such an intelligence community might also seek a more receptive audience, in the form of leaks to the press, and then Trump himself would be the humiliated one.