American presidents can come to be defined by the fights they choose to wage.
Ronald Reagan fought big government at home and the Iron Curtain abroad. George H.W. Bush fought Saddam Hussein. Bill Clinton fought a "vast right-wing conspiracy" and Slobodan Milosevic. George W. Bush fought the Axis of Evil and the wellspring of extremism that his invasion of Iraq unleashed. Barack Obama fought the Islamic State, climate change and, occasionally, the U.S. Congress.
What, then, are Americans to make of the early fights President Donald Trump has picked with American institutions he seems to perceive as his primary foes: the press and the intelligence community?
Those battles, which have simmered for many months, came to a head over the weekend when the president held what amounted to an anti-press pep rally at the Central Intelligence Agency, whose analysis he had long disparaged, and his press secretary used his first appearance in the briefing room to shout easily disprovable "alternative facts" about the size of the crowd at Trump's inauguration, then stormed out without taking questions.
It would be easy to dismiss these developments as stunts aimed at distracting the public from some unpleasant failing, like the chaotic transition Trump's team has overseen or the scathing reviews of his grim inaugural address, or, perhaps, as spontaneous tantrums that speak more to temperament than to nefarious intentions.
But a closer look reveals a clear and unsettling logic behind Trump's two early fights and a common thread that links his unorthodox adversaries.
Trump is taking on two institutions in American life that are traditionally charged with establishing the factual basis that inform national-security decisions––the press in its public discourse and the intelligence community behind closed doors in the Situation Room.
In making foreign policy, what a government does should flow from what it purports to know about the world. For an administration that says it is bent on upending aspects of the established order, that means there is a premium on seizing control of baseline facts to fortify its narrative of an America in decline, our economy depleted by trade, our borders overrun by hordes bent on doing us harm.
Every administration feuds with the press, sometimes with good reason. With the unenviable task of writing about meetings they cannot attend, Washington reporters can be too easily seduced by leaks that may only provide a portion of the story.
Nor is it unusual for the objective truth of news events to be contested. When I covered the Iraq War for The Washington Post, my colleagues and I often found ourselves competing with an army of government spokespeople over whose account of the conflict was correct. The stakes of such disputes are high: public perceptions of the war helped determine how much latitude the Bush administration had to continue waging it.
What is different about the Trump administration's approach to the press is that it has not just advanced an alternate version of important events, but rather it appears to be signaling an assault on the very legitimacy of the press as an independent actor in American public life.
The result has been unusual statements by administration officials about what is or is not the press's job, ominous warnings about holding reporters "accountable" or ensuring they “suffer the consequences,” misapplying the term “fake news” to legitimate organizations, and repeated statements by the president himself that the press are "the most dishonest human beings," a sentiment he echoed to chilling applause at the CIA.
At least part what explains this onslaught is that the press has been the first line of defense against a steady stream of contestable, or outright false, "facts" put forth by Trump since the dawn of his campaign, including about a deluge of rapists and murderers among Mexican immigrants, a surge of violent crime across urban America, or millions of fraudulent voters in the 2016 election.
Now that candidate Trump has become President Trump, such "facts" are no longer just about winning votes. In government, they become the basis on which policies are sold to the public. For example, different decisions would surely flow from the myth advanced by Trump that the refugee population could be replete with terrorists, than from the reality that an infinitesimal few have been implicated in any crimes at all; or from his frequent claim that Iran received $150 billion in the nuclear deal it made with the international community, rather than the reality that it received a small fraction of that amount.
But Trump has not been content to merely distort the public debate over his policy proposals, an approach that may differ in degree, but not in kind, from that of his predecessors. Rather, and without recent precedent, he is also laying the groundwork to influence highly sensitive policy discussions by taking on the intelligence community, whose job is to frame those debates for national security decision-makers.
At the beginning of virtually every interagency meeting chaired by the president's National Security Council, representatives of the Central Intelligence Agency or the Office of the Director of National Intelligence are traditionally asked to brief on the current state of play for the issue at hand. For example, a meeting about the conflict in Iraq and Syria will often begin with an assessment of the current strength and disposition of Syrian regime and opposition forces, as well as the campaign against the Islamic State.
These updates can be highly influential––consider, for example, the different policy options that would ensue from an assessment that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is on his last legs, compared with one that indicates he will endure for the foreseeable future.
The Trump administration would hardly be the first to express skepticism about the intelligence community.
Before the Iraq War, former Vice President Richard Cheney famously pushed for information that would more strongly link Hussein to al Qaeda or document his possession of weapons of mass destruction. While being immersed in Obama administration foreign-policy debates over the last seven years, I often heard policymakers effectively use information gleaned from diplomatic conversations or platforms like Twitter to challenge what intelligence officials reported about emerging crises.
Excessive deference to intelligence can itself be irresponsible. Skepticism is constructive if it is intended to introduce important new perspectives or identify biases and false assumptions. But it sends a different message when Trump compares the intelligence community to Nazi Germany, or his advisors refer to the former director of the CIA––a respected career professional who served at senior levels in both Republican and Democratic administrations––as a “partisan political hack.”
These are not substantive criticisms but assaults on the very legitimacy of the intelligence agencies, and it would be dangerous if they also prove to be a prelude to usurping their role in laying the factual predicate on which national security decisions are made.
The Trump administration may eventually abandon its burgeoning fights against the press and the intelligence community, but there is at least one reason to believe it will continue to go to unusual lengths.
In the near term, the new administration's biggest vulnerability seems to be nagging questions about its own legitimacy, which is why certain uncomfortable facts––about popular vote totals, FBI actions, or Russian meddling––generate a ferocious response.
Here too, the two institutions best-positioned to shape this evolving perception (other than the administration itself) will be the press, whose editorial decisions will determine how much public scrutiny such questions continue to receive, and the intelligence community, which may acquire and disseminate further evidence about Russia's role.
Any administration would contest a challenge to its basic claim to power. And it is hard to imagine this president ceding to anyone else's account of the facts. Therefore, while the intensity may ebb and flow, these fights are likely to continue, at least until the administration feels secure enough in its ability to advance its agenda and fend off attacks on its ascent.
Much of the world may not find Trump's early battles unfamiliar, let alone alarming. The United States has always distinguished itself from more autocratic powers like Russia and China, or from our partners in the Middle East, by the protections we provide our press, and by our aspiration to preserve some autonomy from political interference for the analysis of our intelligence agencies.
If Trump prevails in these fights, he could do more than simply enact his agenda; he could alter aspects of our political culture in ways that will be difficult to reverse.
In the meantime, it is important to clarify the underlying effect that the administration is seeking: not merely a political advantage by distraction or deception, but, rather, to undermine its main rivals and define its own reality on which to base the most consequential policy decisions it will face.
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