Dems seize on Trump feud with intelligence leaders

Democrats are seizing on President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats' CNN town halls exposed an extreme agenda Buttigieg says he doubts Sanders can win general election Post-Mueller, Trump has a good story to tell for 2020 MORE’s latest feud with his intelligence chiefs to cast themselves as the party that is taking national security more seriously.

Trump called his intelligence leaders “passive and naive” on Friday after reading media reports about their testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats contradicted or at least differed with Trump on a number of issues, including the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Iran’s nuclear activities and Russia.

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Trump later made up with the officials, who he said had told him they had been misquoted by the media.

The episode, which wasn’t the first time Trump has clashed with intelligence officials, buttressed Democratic arguments that they should be a check on Trump’s use of foreign policy now that they have the majority in the House.

“What I worry about is if the president is going to so obviously and plainly and publicly disavow his own intelligence agencies, then if there is a real crisis who is going to believe the president?” said Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOn The Money: Treasury misses second Dem deadline on Trump tax returns | Waters renews calls for impeachment | Dem wants Fed pick to apologize for calling Ohio cities 'armpits of America' | Stocks reach record high after long recovery On The Money: Cain withdraws from Fed consideration | Says he didn't want 'pay cut' | Trump sues to block subpoena for financial records | Dems plot next move in Trump tax-return battle Pelosi downplays impeachment post-Mueller report MORE (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

“He has so impeached his own credibility that few Americans have confidence in what he does or what he says,” Schiff said.

After Trump’s comments, Democrats are talking about funding areas of security that they think should be priorities — and that match up with the remarks from the intelligence officials.

As an example, Democrats have pounced on the fact that Coats expressed doubts about North Korea’s willingness to give up its nuclear arsenal while warning of the continued threat from ISIS. Trump has pronounced ISIS as having been destroyed and is bullish on his ability to denuclearize North Korea through talks with that country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

“We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival,” Coats said in his testimony. 

Not mentioned? The crisis at the border, which Trump has repeatedly painted as a huge national security crisis.

“We can fund where the threats really are, not where he tells us the threats are,” Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellJulián Castro: Trump should be impeached for trying to obstruct justice 'in very concrete ways' Swalwell on impeachment: 'We're on that road' after Mueller report The Hill's Morning Report - Dem candidates sell policy as smart politics MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Hill.

Swalwell specifically pointed at what he dubbed the “scare-avans” — a reference to the caravans of immigrants who have traveled through Central American to the Mexican border to ask for asylum in the United States.

Other Democrats are floating the idea of examining Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community.

“I think we need to get a better understanding of the tension there is between the president and the intelligence agencies and whether that is affecting national security and planning,” said Rep. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroDems charge ahead on immigration MJ Hegar announces Texas Senate bid Dems attack Barr's credibility after report of White House briefings on Mueller findings MORE (D-Texas).

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Another big factor in the maneuvering is the 2020 presidential race.

Democrats in Congress have an interest in painting the picture of a president who needs to be replaced, and their arguments are likely to be pounced upon by Democrats running for president. Swalwell himself is considering a run, and Castro’s brother is already in the race.

Republicans also believe Democrats are seeking a political edge on the issue but express confidence the effort will fail.

“I'm certain the Democrats will take any perceived or actual disagreement between the White House and the [intelligence community] and exploit it for political advantage,” said Rep. Chris StewartChristopher (Chris) Douglas StewartBarr testimony opens new partisan fight over FBI spying on Trump Hill-HarrisX poll: 76 percent oppose Trump pardoning former campaign aides Dems fear Trump is looking at presidential pardons MORE (R-Utah), also a member of the Intelligence panel.

Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeGrand jury material becomes key battle-line in Mueller report fight Dems escalate Mueller demands with subpoena Congress should take action to stop unfair taxation of the digital economy MORE (R-Texas) dismissed the idea that Democrats are more national security minded than Republicans, pointing to the border to illustrate his point.

“Democrats who endorse open borders, want to abolish ICE and provide sanctuary to violent criminals in this country illegally forfeit the right to claim they are serious about America’s national security,” said Ratcliffe, who was recently tapped to serve on the House Intelligence panel.

A number of Democrats have called for the abolishment of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a part of the Department of Homeland Security focused on internal immigration enforcement.

Stewart noted that previous administrations have also head butted with their intelligence teams at times and that Trump’s disagreements with his intelligence community are “not unusual.”

At the same time, Stewart is among the Republicans who say the president could have handled his disagreements in a more private fashion.

“I do think this president would be better served if you kept those disagreements less public, but the fact they exist is not unusual,” Stewart told The Hill.

Democrats say Trump’s public criticisms give adversaries an upper hand.

“It is one more card that our antagonists have: that our president doesn’t trust his $80 billion a year intelligence operation. That is a huge card in a poker game for our opponents,” said Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesHouse Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Dem lawmaker: There isn't a crime Trump could commit that would cause GOP to turn on him Pro-business Dem group sees boost in fundraising MORE (D-Conn.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “That is a terribly dangerous thing.”

Alex Bolton contributed reporting.