Trump's Russia remarks put intel chiefs in tough spot

Trump's Russia remarks put intel chiefs in tough spot
© Greg Nash

U.S. intelligence chiefs found themselves in a precarious position twice this week — first when President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Dems demand Barr cancel 'inappropriate' press conference on Mueller report DOJ plans to release 'lightly redacted' version of Mueller report Thursday: WaPo Nadler accuses Barr of 'unprecedented steps' to 'spin' Mueller report MORE sided with Russia over the intel community’s conclusion about election meddling and then when he cast doubt on their findings during clarifying remarks.

The initial comments, made alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at a joint press conference in Helsinki, prompted Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsJordan, Meadows press intelligence chief on House Intel Russia probe transcripts Overnight Energy: John Kerry hits Trump over climate change at hearing | Defends Ocasio-Cortez from GOP attacks | Dems grill EPA chief over auto emissions rollback plan Kerry goes after Trump over climate on Capitol Hill MORE, Trump’s handpicked director of national intelligence, to issue a stern defense of the intelligence community’s “fact-based” conclusions.

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That led to intense speculation that Coats and possibly other top intelligence officials might decide to resign.

“I think this president crossed a line that no president in my lifetime has ever crossed, which is to stand up next to an adversary of the United States and say that he trusts the Russians more than he trusts our own intelligence and law enforcement agencies,” former CIA Director Leon Panetta told The Hill on Tuesday.

“If the president of the United States rejects the intelligence they have provided and says that the adversary — Russia’s — version is the one that is stronger, there isn’t an intelligence officer out there who doesn’t feel undermined by the president of the United States,” said Panetta, who served as CIA chief from 2009-2011.

Trump sparked bipartisan outcry when he appeared to accept Putin’s denials of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

“I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said. “I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

The backlash was so fierce that Trump walked back his comments Tuesday afternoon, professing his “full faith” in U.S. intelligence agencies and saying he accepted their conclusions.

But he also cast doubt on Russia’s involvement.

“It could be other people also,” Trump said. “There's a lot of people out there.”

While the overall reversal took some pressure off intel officials who may have been considering resignation, the damage had been done.

Trump’s comments generated widespread questions of whether politically appointed intelligence officials would — or should — continue to serve in their positions.

“Somebody like Dan Coats … he’s just got to ask the question, ‘Can I still stay around and be a guardrail or is my staying around simply being an enabler or a legitimizer for things that shouldn’t be happening?’ And they have to make that choice,” Michael Hayden, CIA director from 2006-2009, said on Tuesday. “I don’t envy this kind of choice.”

In a brief statement Monday, Coats defended the intelligence community as being “clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy."

“We will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” he added.

A source with knowledge of the situation told The Hill the statement was meant to emphasize that the U.S. intelligence community is not a political body.

“The reason — and I think it speaks for itself — was to explain the role of the intelligence community,” the source said Tuesday, so that it wouldn’t “get lost” in the discussion about Trump’s comments.

The source called it “pure speculation at this point that he would resign.”

Former U.S. intelligence officials described the Putin press conference as damaging to the intel community as a whole. The remarks, they said, are inevitably destructive to morale throughout the ranks of the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency (NSA).

“I think everyone is still in a degree of shock,” John Schindler, a former NSA analyst who keeps in touch with his former colleagues inside the agency, said on Tuesday. “Morale is in the toilet.”

Trump’s remarks reverberated on Capitol Hill, where Republicans were widely critical of his amicable stance toward Putin.

“I can speak for the CIA, I’m sure people were disappointed and upset, but it is not going to change the job that they do,” said Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdFreshman House Dems surge past GOP in money race DCCC opens Texas office to protect House pickups, target vulnerable GOP seats Dems ramp up subpoena threats MORE (R-Texas), a House Intelligence Committee member and former CIA analyst. “They are professionals, and regardless of what is going on in Washington, D.C., they are putting themselves in harms way in order to keep our country safe and they are going to do that regardless.”

Trump has a history of questioning the Obama-era assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Those comments are often accompanied by critical remarks about special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation into whether there was collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

Meanwhile, top Trump officials — Coats among them — have backed up the intel community’s conclusion that Russia aimed to undermine American democracy, damage Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcAuliffe says he won't run for president in 2020 Chuck Todd slams reports that DOJ briefed Trump on Mueller findings: 'This is actual collusion' Crowdfund campaign to aid historically black churches hit by fires raises over M MORE and help Trump win the White House. The Senate Intelligence Committee has also found the conclusion to be sound.

Trump’s remarks, however, put his intelligence chiefs in a bind, even though he tends to distinguish between his administration and former President Obama’s when disparaging the intelligence community.

Ron Hosko, a former assistant director of the FBI’s criminal investigative division, said Trump also has a history of attacking officials who hold different views than his own, as well as those who make decisions that threaten his interests, like Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinHouse Dems demand Barr cancel 'inappropriate' press conference on Mueller report Mueller won't attend Barr press conference on report Schumer slams Justice Dept over 'pre-damage control' on Mueller report MORE.

Hosko said on Tuesday he hopes those officials “are willing to stand up and just do what is right and say what is right.”

“Does that make their continued appointment more precarious?” he said. “I think it does because we’ve heard those negative comments that frequently come from the president.”