Currently, there is a debate raging within the conservative
community about the relationship between President Trump and the intelligence
community. America’s intelligence agencies have come under fire from many
Republicans for their purported attempts to undermine the president, with some
even claiming that a coup attempt is underway.
To me, the debate is reminiscent of the old debate about whether
the chicken or the egg came first. On one hand, there are the Trump loyalists
who say that the intelligence community tried to undermine the president from
Day One. They cite Peter Strzok and the Russia investigation as evidence that leftists
in the intelligence agencies have been out to get Trump all along.
On the other hand, there is the argument that the intelligence
community was suspicious of Trump because he acted suspiciously. As a candidate,
Donald Trump hired numerous associates with ties to Vladimir Putin and even
publicly called upon Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails at a time
when Putin’s cyber warriors had hacked into the Democratic National Committee
only weeks before.
In truth, the friction between the president-elect and the
intelligence community began as soon as the votes were counted, if not before.
Perhaps out of hubris, Trump
rejected the findings of intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered
in the 2016 election, which may have raised more suspicion among intelligence
When the Russia investigation began, I don’t think that
anyone knew where it would lead. Including Donald Trump. The president knows
what he did and said himself, but he could not know whether members of his
campaign were working illicitly with the Russians. His attacks on investigators
looked a lot like a coverup to much of the country.
Ultimately, the Mueller
report found no evidence of a criminal conspiracy between members of the
Trump campaign, but it did confirm Russian meddling in the election. Trump seems
to have never really accepted that finding, however. Another recent
leak indicated that Trump told the Russians in 2017 that he was not
concerned about the election meddling.
Trump has also consistently undermined US intelligence
agencies with claims, so far
unsupported, of illegal wiretaps and abuse of FISA surveillance authority. Trump’s
reluctance to blame Putin together with such attacks likely fed discontent in
the ranks and sowed more suspicion of the president.
The intelligence community and others within the Trump
Administration responded with leaks. I haven’t found a comprehensive list of
leaks over the past three years, but, suffice it to say, that the Trump
Administration has leaked like a sieve. The volume of leaks about President
Trump and his staff is too large to
recount here. The leaking embarrassed Trump and understandably made him suspicious
and paranoid as well. The leaks apparently ultimately led to the decision to
consolidate sensitive material in a single, classified location. When this news
broke, it again made Trump look like he was hiding something.
The question is what he was hiding and why he was hiding it.
Was the material isolated merely to stymie would-be leakers or was it because it
contained information that would be embarrassing or incriminating to Donald
Trump? At this point, no one really knows.
The key point in the intelligence debate is that America’s
intelligence agencies do not take an oath to support the president. Their oath is
to “ support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all
enemies, foreign and domestic.” If intelligence officials discovered that Donald
Trump was breaking the law, for example, by ordering off-the-books spying on a
campaign opponent, they would have a duty to take action. That seems to be what
the whistleblower did, following proper channels.
But what if the president’s actions were not illegal, but
only ill-advised? Perhaps laws were not broken but the president gave the
impression of being incompetent or of having loyalties to someone or something other
than the Constitution of the United States. That’s more of a gray area, but it
is reasonable that Trump’s actions could have so concerned intelligence
officials that they thought the American people needed to know. That does not
presume that these intelligence officials are leftists. A traditional national
security conservative could come to the same conclusion that a dangerously
incompetent chief executive is a threat to the country.
This assessment would not be unique to members of the intelligence community. The Trump Administration has left a large number of former staffers in its wake, some who were fired and some who left voluntarily, who have sounded the alarm about Donald Trump. Trump supporters attribute these criticisms by former Administration officials to sour grapes and that is probably true in some cases. Others, such as the apolitical James Mattis, who penned a tactfully blistering resignation letter when he stepped down from his position as Secretary of Defense last year, are not so easy to dismiss. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was less diplomatic when he called Trump a “moron” and said that the president often wanted to have his own way, regardless of the law. This is the picture painted by the Mueller report as well, which featured sworn testimony that President Trump had ordered staffers to illegally obstruct the Russia investigation.
Even if the whistleblower complaint represents a coordinated effort, that would not preclude the possibility that the participants acted in good faith. If mistrust of Donald Trump in the government is widespread and based upon good cause, a coordinated effort to expose his faults and misdeeds would not necessarily be unreasonable or unethical.
So which came first, the chicken or the egg, Trump’s animosity
toward the intelligence community or the intelligence community’s distrust of
Donald Trump? The chicken came first according to the Genesis account and it is arguable that the intelligence community’s mistrust of Trump
came first but was not without cause. Trump’s associations and actions during
the 2016 campaign generated legitimate suspicion. Since then, the two sides have participated in
a vicious cycle in which the actions of one served to heighten the suspicion
and paranoia of the other.