Donald Trump is a bit over 14 days away from becoming president and he’s already managed to go to war with the US intelligence community.
Now, if you’re like me then you have no great love for the US intelligence community. At best it’s a necessary evil, at worst it’s just plain bad. And so I have a very hard time when the top elected Democrat in the country goes on the allegedly liberal cable news channel and, with a smirk on his face, talks about all the ways the intelligence agencies could “get back at” the, for better or worse, elected President of the United States:
If the Democratic Party plans to gleefully await Donald Trump’s downfall at the hands of some kind of IC-led deep state coup, well, thanks but I’ll be sitting this one out.
But this is extremely dangerous territory that Trump has entered and, as The New Republic’s Jeet Heer argues, it’s mostly because of his ego. There is evidence–how much I don’t know, because a lot of it hasn’t been made public–suggesting that Russia was behind efforts to hack the DNC and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta in order to throw the election to Trump. Were those efforts decisive in Trump’s victory? It’s certainly not out of the question–in an election whose margin was this thin, lots of factors could have been decisive, including some unbelievably inept campaigning on Clinton’s part. But Trump is going to be the next president, it’s a done deal, regardless of what any investigation into the hacking uncovers.
For most people in this situation, you’d hope that their main interest would be in uncovering all the facts about the apparent Russian hacks in order to prevent something like that from happening again. But then most people don’t have Donald Trump’s massive but incredibly fragile ego. Instead of trying to get to the bottom of a national security issue, Trump takes any discussion of the hacking as a personal affront and a way to undermine the credibility of his administration. On the latter point he’s certainly right, it’s being used that way, but the “credibility of his administration” ought to be a distant second in importance to thoroughly investigating the hacking, which, again, is (whether it was done by the Russians or not) a real national security issue.
Maybe there’s nothing to all these intelligence agency findings about Russian involvement. Maybe they’re all completely off base. It’s not like the IC hasn’t been wrong before, even (or maybe especially) about things around which there’s been this level of inter-agency consensus. And if Trump were just asking for more evidence or insisting on a more rigorous investigation, that wouldn’t be a problem. But I find myself agreeing with Vox’s Jennifer Williams when she writes that what Trump is doing has crossed over to “disparagement,” to such a degree that the heads of several intelligence agencies went before the Senate Armed Services Committee today and forcefully defended their agencies from the president-elect’s criticisms. And that’s insane.
It’s one thing for me, Some Guy on the Internet, to disparage the US intelligence community. I should probably do it more often than I do, frankly. But in two weeks Donald Trump is going to be in charge of that community and, theoretically, relying on its information to make important decisions, and right now he’s openly suggesting that they’re trying to cook intel before they brief him on it. Trump wasn’t running for a job as the regular call-in house pundit on Morning Joe, where he’d be able to pontificate about anything with little consequence; he’s going to be President of the United States, whose every word matters. And it makes utterly no sense for any head of state to publicly discredit some of his country’s most visible institutions, even if he adamantly disagrees with what they’re telling him. For a guy whose job, by his own frequent admission, is going to involve polishing America’s image around the world, right now Trump is busy covering it in horse shit and lighting it on fire. To be fair, we may question how important America’s image really is, and consider the degree to which it’s already pretty well trashed (with our intel agencies having done a lot of the trashing all on their own), but it’s pretty absurd for a president to go out of his way to make that problem worse.
On top of the damage it does to America’s image, Trump’s repeated shots at the IC invite the kind of deep state retribution that apparently makes Chuck Schumer giddy but that would be, you know, really bad for the country. They also thoroughly undermine his eventual efforts to actually run the intelligence community. Already his reported plans to restructure the CIA and ODNI are being linked to this feud, which may or may not be fair but certainly means that he’ll have a hard time getting intelligence staffers to buy in to his proposed changes. And maybe his proposed changes will suck and we’re all better off without them, but this is still a very fucked up way of doing business that portends bad things for the next four years.
Trump, most likely, doesn’t actually care whether or not the IC is wrong on this, which is why he’s just lashing out at them rather than carefully trying to pick apart their findings. He only cares about what all this talk of Russian hacking is doing to his public image. And while every president cares about their own public image, that really shouldn’t be the only thing they care about.
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