Trump remarks deepen distrust with intelligence community

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns Trump's doctor issues letter addressing 'speculation' about visit to Walter Reed MORE’s declaration that he would accept dirt on his 2020 opponents from foreign governments is threatening his already strained relationships with the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

Former law enforcement and intelligence officials said the president’s words could hamper efforts to combat foreign interference in next year’s elections and that they dampen morale.

“People in the intelligence community are going to be increasingly concerned that the president of the United States is not fulfilling the constitutional role of commander in chief and chief executive,” said Steven Cash, an ex-CIA officer and former chief counsel to Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinHillicon Valley: Commerce extends Huawei waiver | Senate Dems unveil privacy bill priorities | House funding measure extends surveillance program | Trump to tour Apple factory | GOP bill would restrict US data going to China Senate Democrats unveil priorities for federal privacy bill Political purity tests are for losers MORE (D-Calif.)

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The remarks come at a precarious time for an intelligence community that is already subject to an investigation launched by Trump into the origins of the Russia investigation.

Trump authorized the Justice Department to interview CIA officers as part of the probe — a decision that reportedly rankled career intelligence officials. And he granted Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrGOP rep predicts watchdog report on alleged FISA abuses will find 'problems' Barr defends Trump's use of executive authority, slams impeachment hearings GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse MORE the power to declassify information related to the investigation.

The investigation is part of a long pattern in which Trump has questioned whether the intelligence community can be trusted. He has repeatedly accused it of spying on him during the 2016 campaign.

Trump’s suspicions of the intelligence community also appear to be broad-based. This week, he pledged not to use CIA informants against North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong Un North Korea: We won't 'gift' Trump with summit before concessions Overnight Defense: Ex-Ukraine ambassador offers dramatic day of testimony | Talks of 'crisis' at State Department | Trump tweets criticism of envoy during hearing | Dems warn against 'witness intimidation' | Trump defends his 'freedom of speech' Biden responds to North Korea: 'I wear their insults as a badge of honor' MORE, a remark he later walked back.

Trump allies say his attitude about foreign interference is rooted in a deep sensitivity about the notion that he won in 2016 because of Russian interference and thus his victory was not legitimate.

“That’s what drives him,” said one source close to the White House, who requested anonymity to discuss Trump’s thinking. “It ties into this false idea, which he detests, that he was elected because of it. It seems like that’s what causes him to be defensive about the Russia stuff.”

Trump also does not like to admit fault, and saying he would call the FBI if offered damaging information on a rival would represent a tacit concession that his campaign should have done so when it received offers of dirt on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Centrists change tone of Democratic race In 2020, democracy will be decided at the margins Michelle Obama presents Lin-Manuel Miranda with National Portrait Award MORE from figures linked to the Russian government in 2016.

“This is what you get when you have a president who is unfiltered and giving you what he actually thinks,” the source close to the White House said.

In the bombshell interview with ABC News's George StephanopoulosGeorge Robert StephanopoulosLawmakers spar over upcoming Sondland testimony GOP rep on impeachment: 'I think the evidence is crumbling' Senate Republicans can acquit Trump — but they cannot defend his conduct MORE, the president sparked a firestorm by stating that accepting opposition research from a foreign government is “not an interference” and that “I think I’d take it.”

Trump declined to commit to contacting the FBI to report a foreign actor reaching out with information and said FBI Director Christopher Wray was “wrong” for saying in Senate testimony that campaigns should contact the bureau if a foreign government makes an offer “about influencing or interfering in our election.”

The FBI has declined to comment on Trump’s remarks to Stephanopoulos.

Democrats and Republicans alike have criticized Trump’s remarks. The chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) even issued a rare statement stating that it is “illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election.”

“This is not a novel concept,” said FEC chairwoman Ellen Weintraub.

Trump sought to do damage control in an interview Friday, telling “Fox & Friends” that he would “of course” go to the FBI or attorney general if a foreign government offered dirt on a political rival but that he would have to look at it first to “know it if it’s bad.”

While White House officials have defended Trump by insisting there was more nuance in his initial remarks, intelligence officials have argued it is important to be unequivocal because foreign adversaries can pick up on Trump’s rhetoric.  

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE’s report notes that WikiLeaks began releasing Democratic National Committee emails pilfered by Russian GRU hackers in July 2016, around the same time that Trump declared at a news conference, “Russia, if you're listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” The report also notes that the Trump campaign “welcomed” the potential damage to Clinton’s campaign inflicted by WikiLeaks’s releases.  

In his report, Mueller said that he considered charging Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpConway and Haley get into heated feud: 'You'll say anything to get the vice-presidential nomination' Conservative group cuts ties with Michelle Malkin Conservatives seek to stifle new 'alt-right' movement steeped in anti-Semitism MORE and other participants in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with campaign finance violations but ultimately decided against it because of the high burden of proving the participants intended to break the law.

Mueller also did not find sufficient evidence to charge members of the campaign with conspiring with Russia to meddle in the election — a result Trump has cheered as vindicating him of allegations of “collusion.”

National security experts have nonetheless found the findings troubling about Trump’s attitude toward foreign involvement in elections.

“The Mueller report showed pretty clearly that he has no problem accepting help from inappropriate and likely illegal places,” said John Sipher, a retired member of the CIA’s clandestine service. “At the end of the day, it is pretty sad that he sees his political opponents not as Americans on the same team but as enemies worth destroying by any means. It is unpatriotic at best and provides foreign actors that don't have our interests at heart tremendous leverage.”

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the FBI has made countering foreign election interference a top priority. The bureau even created a new task force in 2017 to “to identify and counteract malign foreign influence operations targeting the United States.”

The dust-up is the latest in a long history of disputes between the president and the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies, dating back to the 2016 campaign.

Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference, perhaps most memorably siding with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinFormer US envoy Samantha Power: Trump finding 'new ways to compensate Putin for election interference' Overnight Defense: Ex-Ukraine ambassador offers dramatic day of testimony | Talks of 'crisis' at State Department | Trump tweets criticism of envoy during hearing | Dems warn against 'witness intimidation' | Trump defends his 'freedom of speech' Highly irregular: Rudy, the president, and a venture in Ukraine MORE over intelligence officials at a summit in Helsinki last July. Trump later walked back his remarks.

Trump also engaged in sustained attacks against current and former FBI and Justice Department officials throughout Mueller’s investigation, asserting that his campaign was improperly “spied” on in 2016.

Those tensions have bled into routine policy debates. He denounced his own intelligence chiefs as “passive and naive” in January after they contradicted his assessment of Iran’s nuclear developments.

“Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” he wrote on Twitter.