After a brutal start, the CIA is set to mend fences and win over “Customer Number One,” President Donald Trump, putting aside his awkward address to the agency on Saturday and doing what they do best: recruit him to their way of thinking.
“Congratulations, he’s already recruited. Where is first place he showed up? His main intelligence agency,” said one former senior CIA official whose job used to be cultivating foreign sources.
The CIA’s main job overseas is to get into the mind of foreign leaders, and to recruit foreign intelligence assets to help them do that, wooing and winning them into becoming useful to the CIA and the United States. Intelligence officials current and former say that’s what they’re now doing with Donald Trump, though slightly in reverse: studying what’s important to him to learn how best to get through to him, and how the intelligence agency can be a useful tool to his presidency.
There are also key policies various factions of the CIA would like to see addressed. Some want to shore up the agency’s role as key operator of drone strikes against overseas terrorist targets—which the Obama administration had hoped to transfer in large part to the military. Others would like to roll back some of the recent reorganization of the CIA into 10 geographic or mission specific new centers. (It’s something newly confirmed CIA director, conservative Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo has already said might need “tweaking.”)
Other changes would be far more controversial. In written answers to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Pompeo left the door open to resuming the harsh interrogation methods of the Bush era, saying that he’d ask officers if current tactics were getting them the intelligence they need. He made similar comments about collecting Americans’ data, saying he may recommend changes if he finds CIA officers hands are being tied by today’s regulations.
Those answers were meant to serve as signs that the Trump White House has the CIA’s back—fence-mending that continued Monday with White House spokesman Sean Spicer explaining that Trump’s beef was with the intelligence leadership of the Obama administration, not the rank and file.
“There’s a difference between having differences with the intelligence leaders, and… the men and women who toil every single day,” he said in his Monday press conference.
But it will be a while before the blot of Trump’s meandering speech at the agency headquarters Saturday fades—a rambling, stream of consciousness series of riffs that veered from blaming the media for making up a Trump-CIA feud (despite his previous comparisons of the agency to Nazis) to assessing his own intelligence, calling himself “smart.” Worse, to some agency staffers, he spoke in front of the CIA’s Memorial Wall to its fallen—without ever paying homage to those fallen. CIA officers said they were “appalled” and “horrified” that their new commander in chief was so tone deaf.
Former CIA Director John Brennan’s comment over the weekend—where he said he “is deeply saddened and angered at Trump’s despicable display of self-aggrandizement”—was not helpful in building a new relationship between CIA and Trump, some insiders feel. “He’s reminding them of all the people he put in top positions on the 7th floor (home to the agency’s senior executive suites), his followers and acolytes, and that they’re still in touch with him,” one said. “He should shut up.”
But the CIA officers were also eager to explain it away—that perhaps the newly assembled White House staff had failed to brief him, or perhaps Trump was simply displaying the inexperience of a successful businessman who has never had to send people into dangerous situations, and lose them.
“It’s emotional ground zero for the agency,” said former acting CIA director McLaughlin of the Memorial Wall. “The president hasn’t visited Dover yet, but he will, and then he will understand that.” Dover Air Force Base in Delaware is where fallen troops, and fallen CIA officers, make the last journey to the United States to be reunited with their loved ones.
CIA officers saw another flash of ignorance in Trump’s comment that many of them had probably voted for him.
“For democracy and intel to coexist, CIA must be objective and apolitical as possible. That’s why content of Trump speech so wrong,” tweeted former senior CIA official Carmen Medina. She pointed out that federal employees aren’t supposed to be partisan anyway, as per the Hatch Act of 1939, which bans federal employees from most partisan or political activities. (CBS News reported Monday that many of those cheering were actually Trump supporters, not agency emloyees, but CIA insiders pushed back saying many of those in the room were CIA professionals who jumped at the opportunity to meet the new commander in chief.)
That said, she and others are treating the odd speech as a roadmap to decoding Trump.
“There’s nothing unusual about analyzing a new president, their style, their cognitive dispositions to figure out how you can support them,” Medina said in an interview. “The first step is actually getting access to the president, getting him to pay attention to what you write.”
The key to Trump? “He likes to win. He has a nostalgia for a period in history when U.S. always won,” Medina said. So on climate change, for instance, rather than pointing out that there’s science behind it, or that the U.S. needs to set an example, an analyst could point out that the solar energy business is likely to be a “gazillion-dollar business and the U.S. wants to be the winner,” she said. “That’s not politicizing the intelligence, it’s talking to the consumer.”
If Trump’s style means talking to him rather than giving him a written report, that’s fine, said former Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin.
“When I briefed Ronald Reagan, I was told to have a joke ready. I did,” he said.
“It seems from his speeches… that he does not want to dive deeply into a topic and assess it exhaustively,” said former CIA briefer David Priess. “Instead, he is thinking about implications and its effect on him and how it related to things he has said and done.” Former commanders in chief have wanted to know what the foreign press or foreign publics say about them, something Priess details in The President’s Book of Secrets. “This is simply a different manifestation of that.”
A less flattering way to look at it? Multiple officers said: Flattering his ego will be key.
“He is extremely insecure like an adolescent boy,” one former analyst said. “If you are very secure with yourself, you don’t talk about yourself all the time. People who are loud and bragging and projecting confidence, they are overcompensating for their own personal insecurities through their behavior.”
That’s a vulnerability that can be exploited both inside and outside the U.S. government.
“He could get hoodwinked on the details,” if a foreign leader tells him what he wants to hear, but obscures key facts, another officer said.
Trouble ahead will come in the form of briefing the Trump White House on things that don’t match their understanding of events, like Russia’s attempts to influence U.S. voters by releasing hacked Democratic emails.
“You’re going to have to have your arguments really tight,” a third former senior official said. “When you say something they don’t think is true, you’re going to have to be standing on granite.”
The key will be getting a person into his inner circle whom he trusts as much as his National Security Adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn. Multiple Trump advisers and intelligence officials say Flynn has been playing the most prominent role in teaching Trump about intelligence. Flynn had a sometimes contentious relationship with the CIA when he was head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he sought to expand its clandestine spy service which the CIA saw as an unnecessary addition to its own.
“They have got to get somebody in there to establish a personal relationship with Flynn or have a strong enough relationship with the president so they can be a voice to add” to the debate, one of the senior former officers said. “That’s going to be extremely difficult.”
“We’ll get past this,” McLaughlin said, especially now that Trump’s pick Pompeo can get to work. “People there are mature enough to know that this is Trump. At the end of the day, they are dedicated to supporting a president. That’s in their DNA.”