Campaign Puts Trump and the Spy Agencies on a Collision Course

Campaign Puts Trump and the Spy Agencies on a Collision Course

Even as president, Donald J. Trump flaunted his animosity for intelligence officials, portraying them as part of a politicized “deep state” out to get him. And since he left office, that distrust has grown into outright hostility, with potentially serious implications for national security should he be elected again.

Citing his belief that his 2016 campaign had been spied on by the intelligence community, Mr. Trump on Wednesday urged his House allies to “kill” a bill that would extend an expiring surveillance law that national security officials say is crucial to their ability to gather foreign intelligence and fight terrorism on behalf of the country. The House approved the legislation on Friday only after Republicans revised it to ensure that Mr. Trump would get another crack at shaping it to his liking if he wins the presidency again.

Indicted last year on charges of hoarding classified documents after leaving office and obstructing efforts to retrieve them, Mr. Trump has also translated his anger into legal arguments, telling a federal court that there is no reason to believe the “meritless claims” of agencies like the C.I.A. regarding the “alleged sensitivities” of the files.

Intelligence agencies have shown a bias against Mr. Trump since the first impeachment against him, his lawyers have argued in the classified documents case, promising a fight if officials testify that his actions put the country at risk.

Mr. Trump is now on a possible collision course with the intelligence community. After he formally accepts the Republican presidential nomination in July, he will be entitled to receive a briefing from intelligence officials. Should he win the election, he would again command security agencies that he has repeatedly portrayed as his enemy and vowed to “demolish.”

The result is a complicated and possibly destabilizing situation the United States has never seen before: deep-seated suspicion and disdain on the part of a former and perhaps future president toward the very people he would be relying on for the most sensitive information he would need to perform his role if elected again.

“Either the deep state destroys America or we destroy the deep state,” Mr. Trump said at a rally last year, in remarks that have become a mainstay of his grievance-and-vengeance pitch.

Mr. Trump and his advisers have yet to lay out any specific plans for the spy agencies, and intelligence officials declined to comment on Mr. Trump. But while the professed ethos in the intelligence community is to behave as nonpartisan professionals, the prospect of a return to power by Mr. Trump has generated a palpable shudder in their ranks.

Some senior intelligence officials are considering leaving or retiring early, should Mr. Trump be re-elected and appoint a close ally to lead the C.I.A., said former officials who have been in touch with former colleagues. Others at the spy agencies fear Mr. Trump will seek to fire people he sees as disloyal, these officials said.

“There are senior folks in the intelligence community who are looking at their options,” said Douglas London, who served as a C.I.A. station chief three times before retiring in 2019. “They are not necessarily planning to jump ship immediately. But they are looking at contingencies depending on who Trump appoints to take over the agency, and the ensuing internal agency senior personnel appointments that follow.”

Other former officials said they were worried that Mr. Trump or his allies had “retribution lists” of current and former intelligence officials they intend to punish, either stripping them of their jobs and their security clearances, or trying to initiate criminal investigations.

The origins of Mr. Trump’s animosity trace back to the 2016 campaign, when the F.B.I. opened a counterintelligence investigation into the nature of numerous links between people associated with his campaign and Russia, and intelligence analysts concluded that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia covertly tried to help Mr. Trump win the presidency.

Seeking to discredit what became a special counsel inquiry, Mr. Trump and his allies floated conspiracy theories that misconduct by intelligence agencies lurked in the origins of the Russia investigation. His Justice Department opened what became another special counsel investigation in an unsuccessful hunt for evidence proving that notion, including trying but failing to find a basis to charge former top intelligence officials with crimes.

Mr. Trump and his allies also seized upon an inspector general’s finding that the F.B.I. had botched applications for court warrants to eavesdrop on a former foreign policy adviser to his 2016 campaign under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

A different part of FISA, known as Section 702, allows the National Security Agency to collect the communications of noncitizens abroad from U.S. companies without a warrant for foreign intelligence purposes.

It is set to expire next Friday, and the House was moving to vote on a bill to extend it when Mr. Trump intervened on Wednesday with an early morning post on his social media platform: “KILL FISA. IT WAS ILLEGALLY USED AGAINST ME AND MANY OTHERS. THEY SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN!!!”

In fact, Section 702 is not the surveillance law that was used to target his former campaign foreign policy adviser. But Mr. Trump’s intervention nearly led to the collapse of the effort to renew the surveillance program.

Only after the program extension was scaled back from five years in the original bill to two years — a period some intelligence officials see as inadequate to assess and carry out the complicated changes the bill would make — did Mr. Trump’s allies in the House allow it to move forward. The shorter extension would mean the surveillance program would come up for renewal again during a second Trump presidency if he were elected in November.

Current and former officials routinely describe Mr. Trump in private conversations as an obvious security threat for another reason: They do not trust him to protect national security secrets based on his actions both in office and after leaving it.

As president in 2017, Mr. Trump disclosed highly sensitive information to the Russian ambassador during an Oval Office visit that apparently jeopardized an Israeli intelligence operation against ISIS.

He later posted on Twitter a classified photograph of a missile launchpad in Iran that revealed spy satellite capabilities. And he installed loyalists atop intelligence agencies who declassified and publicized information about Russia that risked blowing information sources in order to provide fodder for right-wing conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation.

With Mr. Putin at his side in Helsinki in 2018, he publicly challenged the conclusion of his own intelligence agencies that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

Moreover, in the final days of his administration, a binder of still-classified intelligence about Russia disappeared and remains missing to this day.

But while some former officials fear that Mr. Trump, if elected again, would try to weaken the agencies or undermine their independence by installing loyalists and purging career officials, others are not so sure.

These former officials note that during his first administration, Mr. Trump attacked intelligence leaders but did not interfere with intelligence collection. Under Mr. Trump’s second C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel, information-gathering capabilities about Russia appeared to improve, setting the agency up, for example, to warn accurately in early 2022 that Mr. Putin was about to invade Ukraine.

The spy agencies appear likely to face their first test of dealing directly with Mr. Trump after the party conventions. So far, his campaign has heard nothing officially from the intelligence community about a prospective briefing, according to two people familiar with the matter, but a report in Politico about that prospect has been a focus of discussion within the campaign.

Ahead of the election, any intelligence briefing offered to Mr. Trump will be limited. Presidential candidates do not receive daily intelligence briefings of highly classified information. It is not until after a candidate has won an election and becomes president-elect that intelligence briefings at that level are typically provided, according to officials.

Nominees are typically offered a one-time broad survey of world conditions. Officials have described it as not much different from the intelligence community’s annual threat assessment — a public document discussed at congressional hearings — or what one would find in a major newspaper.

But any briefing would be a shift. After taking office in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, President Biden did not extend to Mr. Trump access to intelligence briefings upon request that former presidents can traditionally receive as a courtesy.

And any briefing would bring Mr. Trump face to face with representatives of the intelligence community he routinely disparages as enemies.

“Trump has this visceral distrust of intelligence and law enforcement; he looks at our sources as snitches and doesn’t have a lot of faith in us,” Mr. London said. “He doesn’t believe he can count on the C.I.A. as an objective, independent intelligence service which will serve whomever is the executive. He believes we will always be out to get him.”

Unlike many other policy areas like trade and immigration or even his vow to use Justice Department prosecutions to take vengeance on his enemies, there is no clear playbook in which Mr. Trump and his closest advisers have detailed how he intends to take on the national security community.

As a result, what Mr. Trump’s rhetoric adds up to is murky — perhaps even to himself at this stage.

Mr. Trump’s own record as president, which evolved over time, may offer guideposts to what could come. At first, he generally nominated traditional Republicans, military leaders and business executives to top positions, like naming Dan Coats, a former Indiana senator, as director of national intelligence.

In that era, Mr. Trump’s warfare against the deep state was mostly rhetorical, attacking the Russia investigation and people like John Brennan, a former C.I.A. director, on Twitter while deflecting the suspicions surrounding the Russia investigation.

But after Mr. Trump survived that investigation, and then was impeached over withholding aid to Ukraine and survived that as well, he became increasingly unconstrained. Part of that evolution was chafing at subordinates he saw as trying to inhibit his impulses.

He began elevating a different type of person into increasingly prominent and important positions. Mr. Trump made Richard Grenell, a onetime ambassador best known as a caustic social-media firebrand, the acting director of national intelligence.

He placed Kash Patel, a conspiracy theorist who has since written a children’s book about the Russia investigation in which a “King Donald” is persecuted by a wicked “Hillary Queenton” and vowed to prosecute journalists in a second Trump administration, in the Pentagon as chief of staff to the acting defense secretary and considered him for a senior C.I.A. post.

While earlier appointees like Mr. Coats have since criticized Mr. Trump over matters such as the allegations that he mishandled classified secrets after leaving office, figures like Mr. Grenell and Mr. Patel have remained close to the former president and appear likely to get national security roles in any second Trump administration.

By the end of the Trump administration, some officials became expert at how to remove people perceived as blocking the president’s agenda from their jobs.

In a potential second administration, some advisers close to Mr. Trump are interested in changes in the civil service regulations to make it easier to fire and replace people. But civil servants at the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies already have far fewer protections than many other government employees, making it easier to force people out, something advisers to Mr. Trump are keenly aware of.

Some of those advisers work at the Center for Renewing America, a think tank run by former administration officials including Mr. Patel and Russell T. Vought, the former head of Mr. Trump’s Office of Management and Budget. It has published several policy papers with proposals to make it easier for political appointees to gain security clearances and access to classified intelligence even if career professionals think they present a security risk or have no need to know the information.

Mr. Trump could continue a pattern he increasingly employed at the end of his presidency of invoking a president’s power to temporarily fill vacancies with acting officials who could serve for significant periods. Doing so would sidestep any need to constrain his choices to people who could win Senate confirmation.

The C.I.A. has fewer Senate-confirmed jobs, and far fewer presidentially appointed jobs, than most other cabinet-level agencies. Critically, the president can appoint a deputy C.I.A. director without the need for a Senate confirmation — and that official would then run the agency if the president never appointed a director.

Maggie Haberman contributed reporting from New York, and Jonathan Swan from Washington.

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2024-04-13 03:37:36