Polman: Trump is sabotaging his own presidency
During last week's choleric press conference, Donald Trump compared the intelligence community to the Nazis. Not a good idea.
Actually, Trump has been trash-talking the intel community for months, siding with a foreign adversary and dissing our spy agencies as bumblers, based on what they said about Iraq 14 years ago. Not a good idea.
The most dangerous thing that this intemperate, unqualified man-child could possibly do is precisely what he continues to do — alienate the people whose job is to protect our national security, people whose pursuit of foreign secrets sometimes requires them to put their lives on the line.
In the apt words of former National Security Council and State Department counter-terrorism official Daniel Benjamin, the incoming leader's "wild, swinging attacks against the intelligence community have been so far off the charts of traditional behavior for a president-elect that it is hard to wrap one's mind around it."
Trump is "sabotaging his own presidency before it even starts," Benjamin said. "In the end, there is simply no evading the scorecard that governing creates. No American president can succeed in foreign policy — and by extension his term as commander-in-chief — without a good relationship with the intelligence community."
Trump doesn't know such things, but he has never governed anything. What he does know how to do is make things worse. He's ticked off about the unsubstantiated dossier that says the Russians caught him doing kinky stuff. Fine, he's entitled to be ticked off. But then he semi-coherently insisted that the intelligence community leaked the dossier to undermine him:
"I think it was disgraceful — disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be false and fake out," Trump said during his press conference. "I think it's a disgrace, and I say ... that's something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do."
It just so happens that the dossier dirt had been circulating in Washington since last summer. Media people knew about it (and largely ignored it), people on Capitol Hill knew about it, and indeed, the material was originally gathered by anti-Trump Republicans who were engaged in opposition research. No wonder it leaked. Indeed, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed in a statement that the material was all over Capitol Hill "before the IC became aware of it ...This document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product."
Just last week, for a millisecond or so, Trump declared that he's "a big fan" of the intel community; then they were Nazis. This is not smart. If spooks and spies don't feel respected, if they perceive that this president's mind is closed, "they will find it tougher to push their considered views against his surly blasts," says Benjamin. "How many times will the briefers come back to warn Trump that his friend Vladimir Putin is indeed hacking U.S. government computers or massing troops on the borders of Estonia or Latvia when he refuses to heed it?"
Michael Morell, former CIA deputy (and twice acting) director, says that if Trump reflexively demeans the intelligence he receives, and the briefers who bring it, "how will (he) know whether the Iranians are living up to their commitment not to produce a nuclear weapon without good intelligence? How will he know how close North Korea is to mating a nuclear weapon to a long-range missile and detonating it over American soil? How will he know whether the Islamic State or Al Qaeda is plotting another 9/11-style attack? ... And why would a foreign agent take extraordinary risks to spy for the United States if his or her information is not valued?"
And he rightly warns: "If the president rejects out of hand the CIA's work, or introduces uncertainty by praising it one day only to lambaste it on Twitter that afternoon, many officers will vote with their feet. These officers cannot be easily replaced. It takes years of training and, more important, on-the-job experience to create a highly capable case officer, analyst, scientist, engineer or support officer. It would take at least a decade to recover from a surge in resignations."
See, this is what I meant when I wrote, repeatedly for a year, that Trump was a clear and present danger to our national security.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Pennsylvania.