Trump vs. the CIA (with Kristin Wood)
The USIC warned us. We didn't listen.
On October 7, 2016—a month before the election—the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a joint statement on election security. It began:
The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow—the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.
It’s hard to overstate how big a deal this was. The Intelligence Community, as a rule, steers clear of involvement in U.S. politics. For the entire USIC and Homeland Security to make such a pronouncement, they had to be absolutely certain that Russia was up to no good. In spook speak, a language of understatement, “we believe” means “we’re pretty much positive.”
And while the press release did not explicitly state which candidate the Kremlin was throwing its weight behind, you don’t have to be a CIA analyst to figure out that Vladimir Putin hated Hillary Clinton and dug Donald Trump. Basically, the USIC—all seventeen agencies—determined that the threat posed by Russia’s fuckery was dire enough that the American people must be warned, even at the risk of the IC appearing “political.”
A hostile foreign power—and not just any hostile foreign power; our #1 adversary for most of the last century—was using its formidable intelligence and hacking capabilities to help its preferred candidate, a jackass the FBI knew damn well was a criminal, win the White House. That should have been the main news story for the next month. That press release should have ended his campaign.
It was not. It did not.
Later that same day—October 7, 2016—footage was released of Donald Trump and Access Hollywood host Billy Bush from the mid 2000s, in which the former made a number of lewd, sexist remarks about two of the latter’s comely co-hosts, including the now-infamous “I moved on her like a bitch” and “You know I'm automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. . . . And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.” We all knew Trump was a disgusting pig; here was incontrovertible proof.
October surprises happen. They are not necessarily coordinated. It may have been sheer coincidence that the Access Hollywood tape dropped a few hours after the USIC press release, knocking it off the front page of our collective minds (and the front page of the newspapers, which undersold the enormous importance of the press release). But the timing had the effect, intended or not, of upstaging the five-alarm warning of Kremlin interference.
At the presidential debate two days later, when pressed on the Russian election interference charge, Trump said: “I notice, anytime anything wrong happens, they like to say the Russians are—[Clinton] doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia. And the reason they blame Russia [is] because they think they’re trying to tarnish me with Russia. I know nothing about Russia.”
This was a word salad of lies. HRC knew Moscow was doing the hacking because the USIC told her—just as it had told Trump. He knew plenty about Russia. He chose to believe Putin rather than the U.S. intelligence services.
As it happened, Russia helped Trump more than the Access Hollywood tape hurt him; Billy Bush suffered more consequences from the leak than did the former reality TV star. Trump apologized for his comments—the only time I remember him apologizing for anything—and voters didn’t seem to mind the normalization of sexual assault that the Republican candidate downplayed as “locker-room talk.” After the election, reports in the press made clear that, while the USIC statement had not explicitly said so, it was the consensus at the CIA that Russia was not just meddling in the election, but actively helping Trump.
The 45th president took all of this personally. “The Deep State is out to get me!” In a tweet on January 11, 2017, he compared the USIC with the Gestapo: “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” He believed that the USIC, and the CIA in particular, had it in for him. And he wanted them to know it.
On January 21, 2017—his first full day as POTUS—Trump gave a speech at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. It was one of the rambling, off-the-cuff, inappropriate speeches the nation would come to know so well. “I can only say that I am with you 1,000 percent,” he said at one point to the 300 or so CIA employees in the audience. “And the reason you’re my first stop is that as you know I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth. Right? And they sort of made it sound like I have this feud with the intelligence community.”
Some of those in the audience—it was a voluntary event at headquarters—laughed and applauded. The result of this spectacle was to politicize the CIA, an agency that must operate apolitically.
“For folks who were there, it was very challenging,” says Kristin Wood, a former CIA analyst and my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast. “Because—I mean, we serve the president. We serve the Constitution, and the president is the elected leader of the country who, you know, is representing that for the most part. And you honor that person, regardless of whether you believed them or not, whether you agree with their policies or not. And it’s so weird, to me, that this became so political.”
Worse, Trump gave his remarks in front of the Wall of Stars, a marble memorial to the 117 CIA agents who lost their lives in the line of duty. This was hallowed ground. For Trump to behave like that in such a sacred space was sacrilege.
By 2016, Wood had left the CIA. Even so, she says, “Watching that, just as a former—I was outraged. For us, it’s as close as you get to church, or synagogue, or temple, or whatever anyone’s tradition is. Standing in front of the stars—we all know someone, or someones. To stand in front of the stars and make it political? It was awful.”
Trump made the story into a vast conspiracy about the Deep State, further eroding public trust in the USIC. But what happened is this: Russia helped him. The CIA found out about it and warned the American people. The media failed to convey the magnitude of what was happening, equating the warning with Hillary Clinton’s email server. And 63 million Americans voted for him anyway.
What is the CIA, exactly? What is its mission? How is it structured? What’s it REALLY like to work there? Greg Olear talks to Kristin Wood, a former CIA analyst, about the CIA, her experiences briefing Dick Cheney on the morning of 9/11, how the agency changed after the WTC attacks, special saddles and boxes of cash in Tashkent, and the challenges posed by Trump. Plus: a song for Arizona.
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