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The Chicken, The Egg, And The Intelligence Community

President Trump and the intelligence community have engaged in a vicious cycle of suspicion and paranoia.

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 operatives.

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.

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