Trump's attack on his own intelligence services was both extraordinary and expected
The US president clearly has little appetite for the unvarnished, fact-based realities offered by his own agencies
This week starkly illustrated a remarkable feature of Donald Trump’s administration: this president does not do policy; he only does politics.
Policy professionals always struggle to square sound foreign policy with the effective domestic politics that political leaders require. This tension cannot be completely resolved, although its intensity varies, depending on circumstances and personalities.
This conundrum has now sunk to its American nadir.
It’s not just that most current administration officials are internationalist hawks, while the president has neo-isolationist impulses.
It’s that Mr Trump simply does not see international strategic problems as arising against a backdrop of verifiable realities. Instead of a realistic representation of circumstances as they are, akin to a photograph, he sees a blank canvas, on which he can paint whatever surrealist landscapes best suit his agenda.
Hence, this week’s bizarre confrontation between Mr Trump and all 17 US intelligence agencies, led by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
On January 29, Mr Coats, flanked by the CIA and FBI chiefs, presented their 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment to Congress.
The annual National Intelligence Strategy document, on which it is based, is usually released in a redacted public version and a classified one for those with clearance.
This year, intelligence chiefs took the extraordinary step of issuing their entire strategy publicly.
Mr Coats said that they wanted to reassure the public that the agencies remain committed to producing “nuanced, independent, and unvarnished intelligence”, and not serving any other purpose.
That honesty and independence has been repeatedly questioned by Mr Trump who routinely denigrates US intelligence services, dismisses their findings, has compared them to Nazis and even sided with Russia's Vladimir Putin over them.
The intelligence chiefs were essentially saying that, in light of the accusations the president has levelled against them, transparency was their best defence.
They knew they were provoking an argument they needed to win.
Certainly, they will have anticipated howls of protest from the White House, given that so many of their “independent and unvarnished” findings contradict core assertions that the president frequently cites as political rationalisations.
While Mr Trump constantly hypes the “progress” he has made with Pyongyang, the assessment finds that North Korea is “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons” because its leaders view them as “critical to regime survival”.
It states that Russia has, indeed, engaged in election meddling, information warfare, and efforts to divide the West and undermine the post-Second World War international order. Mr Trump disputes all of this. He welcomes the division of the West, denigrates the international order, and dismisses allegations of Russian interference.
The assessment holds that, for all its other malign behaviour, Iran has not yet violated the terms of the nuclear agreement, which the president cites as a major reason for withdrawing from the deal.
While Mr Trump insists that ISIS has been thoroughly crushed to justify his order to withdraw all US forces from Syria, the assessment finds that it remains a potent threat.
And, most damningly, it makes no mention whatsoever of the entirely fictional “national security crisis” that has prompted Mr Trump to deploy thousands of US forces at the Mexican border and supposedly justifies building his wall.
The fact-based reality offered by the Annual Threat Assessment flatly refutes many fundamental claims Mr Trump relies on to justify his actions.
After the gauntlet was thrown down by the intelligence community, Mr Trump, inevitably, picked it up and hurled a series of insults, via Twitter, back at the agencies he characterises as the “deep state”. These included saying the intelligence services were simply “wrong” and that they “should go back to school”.
This is a particularly disturbing aspect of the relentless campaign of deinstitutionalisation this column has been consistently tracking. Yet again, Mr Trump is lashing out at another authoritative source of information and analysis that remains free of – or is actively resisting – his control.
He has admitted that he denounces the “fake news media” to blunt bad news or criticism of him by the press. He attacks his own intelligence services to rebut their contradictions of his ceaseless false claims.
As for the FBI and other police, Mr Trump is evidently concerned about what they may uncover about his activities, and those of his associates who have not yet been arrested or imprisoned.
Astonishingly, but true to form, he quickly compounded his assault on reality by tweeting that the intelligence chiefs’ statements had been “totally misquoted”, that they never really debunked his fraudulent claims, and that this profound and serious dispute isn’t real and was fabricated by the press.
Mr Trump’s biggest advantage in political and rhetorical fights seems to be his unique shamelessness and boundless willingness to lie when almost anyone else would at least think twice.
Clearly, there’s no room for “unvarnished intelligence” and other inconvenient facts that interfere with his political imperatives.
Mr Trump only does politics, but he heads a government full of highly competent experts. For their continued professionalism, they are traduced and abused by their own chief, who then blames journalists.
During an actual crisis – and there will eventually be one – the president and intelligence services must support each other with trust and confidence. But how can they, when the chasm between them is only widening as Mr Trump’s term staggers on?
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Updated: February 2, 2019 07:31 PM