Trump remarks deepen distrust with intelligence community

President TrumpDonald John TrumpOklahoma City Thunder players kneel during anthem despite threat from GOP state lawmaker Microsoft moving forward with talks to buy TikTok after conversation with Trump Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled 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 FeinsteinMini-exodus of Trump officials from Commerce to lobby on semiconductors Doug Collins questions Loeffler's trustworthiness in first TV ad Comedian Joel McHale: Reach out and help local restaurants, wear masks with your favorite message; Frontline Foods's Ryan Sarver says we are in inning 3 of the COVID-19 ballgame 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 BarrBill BarrTrump prizes loyalty over competence — we are seeing the results Rep. Raúl Grijalva tests positive for COVID-19 'Unmasking' Steele dossier source: Was confidentiality ever part of the deal? 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 UnKim: North Korea's nuclear weapons will prevent war The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Angie Craig says we need an equitable distribution plan for an eventual vaccine that reaches all communities; Moderna vaccine enters phase 3 trial in US today North Korea declares state of emergency due to a suspected COVID-19 case 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 ClintonState polling problematic — again 4 reasons why Trump can't be written off — yet 'Unmasking' Steele dossier source: Was confidentiality ever part of the deal? 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 StephanopoulosMeadows defends US COVID-19 testing amid criticism Meadows says White House is 'hopeful' it can announce new coronavirus therapies 'in the coming days' Mary Trump's book sells 950,000 copies in preorders alone 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) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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.Don John TrumpTwitter limits Donald Trump Jr.'s account after sharing coronavirus disinformation South Dakota governor flew with Trump on Air Force One after being exposed to coronavirus: report Gianforte halts in-person campaigning after wife, running mate attend event with Guilfoyle 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 PutinClyburn: Trump doesn't plan to leave the White House Russia planning mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign for October CNN chyron says 'nah' to Trump claim about Russia 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.