‘I’m with you a thousand per cent’: US President Donald Trump seeks to quell feud with CIA
The CIA has concluded with “high confidence” that Russia intervened in the 2016 election, provoking intensive and public pushback from Trump
US President Donald Trump has told the CIA he is “with you a thousand per cent”, apparently pivoting away from an unprecedented feud with the agency that he blamed on the media.
For his first official act in office, Trump trekked to the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia to deliver an often self-referential address that pledged support for an intelligence service he has frequently attacked since winning the election and has even likened to “Nazi Germany”.
With the agency’s memorial wall honouring operatives killed in the course of their duties behind him, Trump boasted of the size of his campaign and inauguration crowds – incorrectly asserting they were larger than Barack Obama’s inauguration audience – attacked the press, and suggested he would issue an effective blank check for intelligence operations.
“Probably everyone in this room voted for me,” Trump said, before adding: “I love honesty.”
Watch: Trump’s entire CIA speech
Yet there are officials within the CIA who consider Trump disturbingly close to their traditional Moscow adversaries, an assessment likely to provide the backdrop for his early dealings with the intelligence services.
As Trump pushes ahead with what he described at Langley as a decisive clash with Islamic State, US law enforcement and intelligence agencies have ongoing counter-intelligence investigations into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia.
The CIA, which has personnel involved in those inquiries, concluded with “high confidence” that Russia intervened in the 2016 election for Trump’s benefit, a finding that provoked intensive and public pushback from Trump.
Beginning in December, Trump rejected the CIA assessment, claiming it was produced by “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction”.
In January, ahead of meeting with the outgoing intelligence leadership, he told The New York Times the focus on Russian intrusions in the election was a “political witch-hunt”.
While Trump struck a conciliatory tone after the meeting, he subsequently and wrongly accused the agency of leaking an incendiary and unverified dossier filled with rumoured ties to Russia that multiple news organisations had long possessed. Trump went so far as to liken the agency to Nazi Germany, a statement that astonished intelligence veterans.
Barack Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, told the Wall Street Journal Trump’s comparison was “very repugnant” and crossed “the line”.
Yet at Langley, Trump said nothing at all about the Russia assessment and insisted the “dishonest” media had invented a dispute with the intelligence community that he persistently and publicly waged. The CIA crowd applauded Trump’s derisive comments about the press.
“They made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence agencies. It is exactly the opposite,” Trump said. “I love you, I respect you, there is nobody I respect more.”
Trump claimed “sometimes you haven’t always gotten the backing” from the White House, suggesting Obama had “restrained” the agency, and said to a laughing and applauding room: “You’re going to say ‘please don’t give us so much backing’.”
The restraint reference appeared to be a reference to Obama ending to the CIA’s post-9/11 torture programme, something Trump has repeatedly endorsed restarting and about which his pick to run the CIA has offered mixed messages.
Mike Pompeo, whose nomination vote Democrats in the Senate delayed until Monday, had testified on January 10 he would “absolutely not” return the CIA to torture, frequently pledging to follow laws that prohibit interrogation techniques not approved by the army’s interrogations field manual.
But in written questions subsequently provided to the Senate intelligence committee on January 18, Pompeo said he will in office “consult with experts at the Agency and at other organisations in the US government on whether the Army Field Manual uniform application is an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country or whether any rewrite of the Army Field Manual is needed”.
Pompeo pledged to inform the committee of any changes to the law he would seek, and continued: “If experts believed current law was an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country, I would want to understand such impediments and whether any recommendations were appropriate for changing current law.”
At Langley, Trump said Pompeo was a “total star, a total gem”. He revealed Pompeo was the only candidate he vetted for the CIA directorship, one of the most powerful positions in the US government. After meeting with Pompeo, Trump said, he cancelled interviews with eight unnamed alternative candidates.
Suggesting he would allow the CIA greater latitude than Obama, Trump said it would be “one of the most important groups” in combating Isis and what he called “radical Islamic terrorism”.
Trump also reiterated a campaign utterance about stealing Iraq’s oil and mused: “Maybe we’ll have another chance.”
He went on to discuss the crowds attending his events, said he felt “35 or 39” again, and boasted of being on more Time magazinecoversthan Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Watch: Trump named Time magazine’s Person of the Year
Adam Schiff, the chief Democrat on the House intelligence committee, sounded incredulous about Trump’s speech, particularly his using the agency memorial “as a backdrop” for it.
“While standing in front of the stars representing CIA personnel who lost their lives in the service of their country – hallowed ground – Trump gave little more than a perfunctory acknowledgment of their service and sacrifice,” Schiff said.
“Instead he argued at length about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, set out his favourites in the media, meandered through a variety of other topics unrelated to intelligence, and made the astounding claim so belied by the evidence – ‘I love honesty.”