Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Trump's CIA speech reveals a challenge to America's 'deep state'

In Trump's mind, the media and the intelligence community are intimately connected as arbiters of 'ground truth', to be tamed and controlled.

Photo by Olivier Doulier - Pool/Getty Images
Photo by Olivier Doulier - Pool/Getty Images

Yesterday, in his first official engagement as President, Donald Trump visited CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia where he gave a 15-minute televised speech in front of the Agency’s memorial wall to around 400 employees. The decision to visit the CIA, and to speak publicly, as virtually his first presidential act, is surely significant. To what end?

According to the Republican chair of the House committee on intelligence, Devin Nunes, the visit was scheduled in anticipation that Trump’s pick for CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, would have been sworn in. Pompeo’s appointment has yet to be confirmed, triggering a predictable swipe at Democrats from Trump. The President was no doubt also briefed during his visit to Langley. The fact that his speech still went ahead suggests he had more than Pompeo and ceremony in mind.

On the surface, Trump’s gushing support for the CIA ('I love you. I respect you') comes across as an attempt to bury the hatchet, following the public rancour between the president-elect and US intelligence community over Russian interference in the presidential election. On Twitter, Trump attributed media leaks to the intelligence community, making an inflammatory comparison to Nazi Germany. Trump also singled out the outgoing CIA Director, John Brennan, for criticism.

Trump’s speech, in contrast to the inauguration address, marked a return to the raw, unfiltered extemporising of the election campaign. In addition to praising himself, Trump lionised Pompeo and included raucous shout-outs to National Security Advisor John Michael Flynn, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, both present. Trump spent much of his remaining time riding a familiar hobby horse, attacking the 'dishonest media' for its coverage of the inauguration ceremony – a theme later to dominate Sean Spicer’s extraordinary, intemperate outburst in the first White House press briefing of the Trump presidency.

Despite abundant contrary evidence on his own Twitter account, Trump accused the media of misrepresenting his relationship with the intelligence community as a feud: 'I just want to let you know, the reason you’re the number 1 stop is exactly the opposite'.

Trump declared he would give the CIA his full backing for a campaign to 'eradicate' IS 'off the face of the Earth', intimating that operational restraints on the Agency’s 'real abilities' will be relaxed. Beyond the threat of 'radical Islamic terrorism', Trump did not elaborate on other threats facing the US. The only reference to another state, was a typically Trumpian aside on Iraq ('So we should have kept the oil. But okay. Maybe we’ll have another chance.').

While the audience of CIA employees was out of camera shot, for security reasons, clapping and cheering, presumably from a portion of the Agency’s rank and file, was clearly audible - although an indeterminate number of Trump’s own staff were also present. In a characteristic effort to claim the crowd's allegiance, Trump went as far as to claim that 'probably almost everybody in this room voted for me'. His assertion that 'we’re all on the same wavelength' was greeted by applause.

Trump’s egotistical stream-of-consciousness mode of delivery makes his unscripted speeches easy to dismiss, as ill-considered or buffoonish.

Outgoing Director John Brennan was said by a spokesman to be 'deeply saddened and angered' at Trump’s 'despicable display of self-aggrandisement'. At first sight, Trump’s attention to media coverage of his inauguration ceremony appears waywardly off-target for an address to the US Government’s premier intelligence body.

The written transcript allows for an alternative interpretation. Consider, in particular, Trump’s closing comments:

So I only like to say that because I love honesty. I like honest reporting. I will tell you the final time: although I will say it, when you let in your thousands of other people that had been trying to come in, because I am coming back.

We may have to get you a larger room. [laughter, applause] We may have to get you a larger room.

And maybe - maybe - it’ll be built by somebody that knows how to build and we won’t have columns [laughter] You understand that? We’d get rid of the columns.

I just wanted to really say that I love you. I respect you. There’s nobody that I respect more. You’re going to do a fantastic job. And we’re going to start winning again. And you’re going to be leading the charge.

So thank you all very much. Thank you, beautiful. Thank you all very much.

Have a good day.

I’ll be back. I’ll be back. Thank you.

Without being overly conspiratorially minded, it is possible to see within this a distinct double message. On one hand, Trump is expressing his support for the CIA rank and file, cracking jokes and venting off-topic frustrations with the media.

For the senior CIA leadership present, however, I believe Trump’s comments took on a painful 'dog whistle' pitch. They are likely to connect Trump’s media complaints and call for 'honest reporting' with the intelligence community’s ongoing investigation into Russian election interference. Indeed, shortly after Trump’s CIA visit, Devin Nunes announced to CNN that alleged leaks to the media are going to be investigated by Congress.

Trump’s line 'I will tell you the final time' could be read as an ultimatum. When he jokes about letting in 'thousands' of other CIA employees for his next visit, that sounds rather like an effort to play the Agency’s base off against its leadership. When Trump promises to 'get rid of the columns' and build the CIA 'a larger room' is he flippantly playing the property mogul, or is he putting the guardians of America’s most vaunted 'deep state' institution on notice that he can pull their temple down, unless they play ball?

Perhaps I am committing the analysts' sin of over-interpreting Mr Trump’s 'off-the-wall' comments. My hunch is I’m right in thinking that in Trump’s mind the media and the intelligence community are intimately connected, as arbiters of 'ground truth' to be tamed and controlled, in a world where truth is fungible, and where the wars that count most are wars of information.

If the CIA is to maintain its central role and independence under President Trump’s administration, deep thinking is required before he returns with the bulldozers.

You may also be interested in