On President Donald Trump’s first full day in office, he crossed the Potomac to visit CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, where he attempted to assure the intelligence professionals gathered there that nobody—nobody—cared about the agency more than he did. Of course, the people who work at the CIA are paid to see through such deception—which, in this case, may not have been terribly hard, given that Trump had just days earlier compared them to Nazis.
Trump compounded the awkwardness of this moment by choosing as his backdrop the hallowed Memorial Wall, which commemorates men and women of the CIA killed in the line of duty—and then compounded this compounding by saying casually, “Probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did.”
This encounter aptly foretold the tenor of the relationship between the CIA and this White House—uncomfortable, mutually suspicious, at times hostile.
It is said that the CIA has only one customer—the president. For that reason, early on, the agency’s cadre of morning briefers readily dumbed down the President’s Daily Brief to bullet points and charts and graphs to suit Trump’s preferences. But whatever mistakes the CIA has made over the years—and there have been some big ones—the professionals who work there are avowedly apolitical, and pride themselves on a devotion to intellectual rigor and the truth. So when it became clear that Trump often didn’t care about the truth, especially when the CIA’s findings conflicted with his desired outcomes, their distrust of the president mounted.
The most shocking episode for the CIA came last July in Helsinki, when Trump publicly accepted President Vladimir Putin’s smug assurances that Russia had not meddled in the 2016 presidential election—even though the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that Russia had. For an agency that has spent the better part of its history squaring off against Moscow, this was galling. Former CIA Director John Brennan said that Trump’s Helsinki performance “was nothing short of treasonous.” Soon after, Trump said he was revoking Brennan’s security clearance, triggering acrimonious sniping between the president and the intelligence establishment.
The president has tended to find the CIA’s assessments inconvenient or worse, and he has described his intelligence agencies as part of a “deep state” rife with Democrats and other careerists out to destroy him.
The president and the agency have differed on issue after issue. Trump has said that, as a result of his own dealmaking prowess, North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat; the CIA believes the threat remains. Trump claims that Iran is in violation of the 2015 deal negotiated by Barack Obama’s administration, limiting the nation’s nuclear ambitions; the CIA says that Iran remains in compliance. After the CIA concluded, late in 2018, that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Trump said: “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.”
Ironically, the president’s fraught relationship with the intelligence community has produced at least one result that could benefit the CIA: Trump’s behavior has led Democrats, many of whom have for years viewed the CIA warily, to staunchly defend the agency.