Unwanted Truths: Inside Trump’s Battles With U.S. Intelligence Agencies

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Historically, the C.I.A. has learned to accommodate the individual presidents it serves, though always with the tacit understanding that the “first customer” would not abuse the courtesy. Bill Clinton’s famously fluid schedule made it difficult for him to commit to daily one-on-one briefings. (When a man in a stolen Cessna 150 plane crashed it into the South Lawn of the White House in 1994, the mordant joke around the C.I.A. was that it was the agency’s director, Jim Woolsey, trying to get a meeting with the president.)

Still, Clinton read his briefing material. George W. Bush, whose father had been a C.I.A. director, faithfully took his briefings six mornings a week — though it famously did not result in his heeding the August 2001 briefing titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.” Obama, too, took daily briefings for most of his presidency; Lisa Monaco, his homeland-security adviser, earned the presidential nickname Dr. Doom for her grim counterterrorism updates. The briefings were a ritual through which the intelligence community implicitly made the case for itself as something that transcended partisanship and operated on a time scale beyond mere presidencies.

It was inevitable that some adjustments would prove necessary for Trump, novice as he was to government. The new president’s interests were primarily economic, a field that was never the intelligence community’s strong suit. Under Trump, intelligence officials learned to “up our econ briefings game,” as one of them told me.

But the culture clash posed more serious problems too. Trump was accustomed to cutting deals and sharing gossip on his private cellphone, often loudly. He enjoyed being around billionaires, to whom he would “show off about some of the stuff he thought was cool — the capabilities of different weapons systems,” one former senior administration official recalled. “These were superrich guys who wouldn’t give him the time of day before he became president. He’d use that stuff as currency he had that they didn’t, not understanding the implications.” Trump also stocked his President’s Intelligence Advisory Board with wealthy businesspeople who, when briefed by one intelligence official, “would sometimes make you uncomfortable” because on occasion, “their questions were related to their business dealings,” this individual recalled.

The chairman of that advisory board, Stephen Feinberg, is co-chief executive of Cerberus Capital Management, which owns DynCorp, a major defense contractor that has won several lucrative military contracts. Feinberg was a friend of the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whose expansive role in the new administration also created unease within the intelligence community. “His attitude,” one former intelligence official recalled of Kushner, “is like that of his father-in-law, who always thought that people who weren’t trying to be wealthy but instead went into public service were lesser.” There were obvious security issues that seemed not to have occurred to Kushner, who “would have the Chinese ambassador and his minions wandering around the West Wing unescorted,” recalled one former senior administration official. (The White House disputes this. “No foreign nationals are allowed to roam freely in the West Wing,” McEnany said in a statement.)

Early in the administration, Kushner and an aide showed up to Langley headquarters — conspicuous in their fitted suits — for a meeting to learn how the C.I.A. functions. The agency accommodated them, but afterward, according to one participant in the meeting, concern developed within the agency about Kushner’s potential conflicts. His complicated international business interests, as well as his evolving friendship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, had raised serious concerns among officials responsible for awarding security credentials. A further concern, another former senior intelligence official said, “was just his cavalier and arrogant attitude that ‘I know what I’m doing,’ without any cultural understanding of why things are classified, that would put our intelligence at risk.”

Trump publicly claimed to know little about Kushner’s security-clearance problem. But in fact, the president “made a huge deal of it and tried to pull all sorts of strings and go around the system,” one former official recalled. Another former official said, “I’d hear the president say, ‘Just do it, just give it to him.’ I’m not sure he understood what it actually meant. He made it sound like Jared was just trying to join a club.”

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