Trump’s strain with intel chiefs spills into public

President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi eyes end of April to bring a fourth coronavirus relief bill to the floor NBA to contribute 1 million surgical masks to NY essential workers Private equity firm with ties to Kushner asks Trump administration to relax rules on loan program: report MORE's battered relationship with the U.S. intelligence community suffered another significant blow this week after he publicly criticized agency leaders for presenting assessments that didn’t align with his foreign policy rhetoric.

The marked differences between Trump's political agenda and the chiefs' findings, particularly on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), North Korea and Iran, were on full display during Tuesday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, which sparked disparaging tweets from the president the following day and a White House summoning the day after that.


While seemingly resolved by Thursday, the latest battle underscores the president's tense, almost deteriorating relationship with the intelligence community and leaders like CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsWe weren't ready for a pandemic — imagine a crippling cyberattack GOP presses for swift Ratcliffe confirmation to intel post Experts report recent increase in Chinese group's cyberattacks MORE.

And with the recent departures of White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE and Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisIs coronavirus the final Trump crisis? Pentagon seeks to reconsider parts of B cloud contract given to Microsoft over Amazon Democrats press FEC pick to recuse himself from Trump matters MORE, Coats is now viewed as as one of the few remaining Trump appointees who appears willing to publicly diverge from the president.

Lisa Monaco, former assistant to ex-President Obama for homeland security and counterterrorism, said the intelligence chiefs “gave their unvarnished assessment of the global threats we face” during the Senate hearing.

“And we are fortunate that they did,” Monaco said in an email to The Hill. “For the president to reject and belittle the views of his own intelligence leaders makes us less safe and does a profound disservice to the women and men who work everyday to keep us safe and speak truth to power."

The intelligence community’s latest threat assessment, released Tuesday as the intel chiefs testified before Congress, stood in contrast to the president’s foreign policy remarks. The assessment found that ISIS remains a threat, that North Korea is unlikely to denuclearize and that Iran is complying with the Obama-era nuclear deal Trump withdrew the U.S. from last year.


Experts and lawmakers say this isn’t the first time a president’s policy decisions haven’t been fully in line with intelligence findings, and that it would be out of character for the intel chiefs to publicly admonish Trump over policy decisions.

Jamil Jaffer, a former associate counsel to former President George W. Bush and the founder of the National Security Institute at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, said Coats may have felt more empowered to speak out forcefully when he was a senator, but not as a political appointee reporting to an elected official.

“As [director of national intelligence], he has been more cautious, and that's probably the way it ought to be because you have a boss to report to elected by the American people — you're not the elected leader,” Jaffer said. “It's not like he hasn't spoken out when he felt like he needed to, but as a general matter he’s been a good Cabinet secretary and sort of been careful.”

Trump appointed Coats and Haspel, who are widely respected in the intelligence community.

“He has put serious professional adults in those jobs,” Jaffer said. “And they will say what they think the real truth is and they’ll be upfront about it.” 

Trump disputed the intel assessment in a series of tweets that also mocked the agency officials, saying they “should go back to school.”

“I disagree with certain things that they said,” Trump told reporters Thursday. “I think I’m right.” 

But after meeting with Coats and Haspel in the Oval Office, Trump tweeted that the officials told him the media mischaracterized their testimony.

The CIA declined to comment on Trump’s remarks, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence has remained silent.

Regardless of the president’s take, lawmakers in both parties say they’re prepared to take on Trump when it comes to his foreign policy.

The GOP-controlled Senate admonished Trump two days after the testimony from Coats and Haspel, voting 68-23 to progress with an amendment that warns the president against his decision to pull troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerBiden calls on Trump to appoint coronavirus 'supply commander' Democrats press Trump, GOP for funding for mail-in ballots Schumer doubles down in call for Trump to name coronavirus supply czar MORE (D-N.Y.) also called for intel leaders “to stage an intervention" with Trump. He wrote in a letter to Coats that Trump “is putting you and your colleagues in an untenable position and hurting the national interest in the process.”

Trump has repeatedly butted heads with the intelligence community since taking office. His comments deriding the impact of Russia's election interference sparked backlash from intel leaders, who had determined that Moscow had successfully meddled in the 2016 election.

And his revocation of security clearances from former intel leaders like ex-CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanFormer intelligence chiefs slam Trump for removing officials Ex-CIA chief calls Trump intel shakeup a 'virtual decapitation' of the intelligence community DOJ attorney looking into whether CIA withheld info during start of Russia probe: NYT MORE — who has been highly critical of Trump — also drew ire from current and former intel professionals.

Kevin Brock, the former assistant director for intelligence at the FBI and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the decision to blame the differences on media coverage could be a strategy to smooth things over with the intelligence officials.

Brock, an opinions contributor for The Hill, said an administration’s policy decisions aren’t always exactly in line with an intelligence community assessment, and that the report is essentially information that the president has to weigh during his decision making.

As for the differences between the intel chiefs and Trump, Brock characterized it as a “healthy check-and-balance” within the administration.

“I’d rather see that than lockstep lemmings going over the cliff,” he said.