The Trump administration got under way last week and the initial 72 hours were bizarre. Actually, they were disastrous. We all knew that this presidency would be unlike any other but what we saw was breathtaking – and terrifying.
The first events, of course, were the Oath of Office and the Inaugural Address. In January 1981 another insurgent outsider determined to upend Washington gave his first address as president. Ronald Reagan’s demeanor was a sunny smile and open arms and his message was “morning in America.” Donald Trump presented a scowl, a clenched fist, and his message was “carnage in America.” Mr. Trump’s America is a dystopian place of despair-ridden, crime-infested cities and “rusted-out factories, scattered like tombstones across the landscape” and where the national education system “leaves students deprived of all knowledge.” Reagan would not have recognized Trump’s America. This is not the language of a political leader who seeks to, using Lincoln’s phrase, “bind up the nation’s wounds.” This is the language of a demagogue who seeks to stoke and exploit anger and paranoia.
The concerns go well beyond tone and disposition. There is an urgent question whether this president and some of his closest aides know the difference between truth and falsehood – and whether they care. In his first full day in office, the president visited the CIA – a commendable initiative. Any other new president would have used such an occasion to express his appreciation for the patriotism, sacrifice and expertise of the intelligence professionals. But in a statement delivered in the CIA lobby in front of a wall memorializing fallen CIA agents, Mr. Trump began with a brief statement of support but quickly veered off into a political tirade against the media (“the most dishonest human beings on earth”) because of their description of the size of the crowd at the inauguration. From his vantage point on the dais Mr. Trump concluded the crowd numbered at least a million – probably a million and a half – and was, of course, the largest ever seen at such an event. In fact, aerial photographs and passenger traffic to the inaugural recorded on Washington D.C.’s Metro (subway) system show beyond any question that the crowds were far smaller than those for President Obama’s first inaugural and far smaller than the crowds that assembled for the “Women’s March” on Washington this past Saturday. Mr. Trump also accused the media of falsely portraying him as a critic of the CIA. In fact, Mr. Trump’s own Twitter feeds provide repeated instances of such criticism, including portraying the intelligence community as “Nazis.”
The theme of alleged media lies aimed at discrediting the president was picked up and amplified by the new press secretary in a one-way diatribe aimed at the assembled White House press corps. This was followed by a television interview in which Trump’s former campaign manager and now counselor to the president described the various falsehoods as “alternative facts.”
For CIA professionals and those, like this writer, who have worked at the CIA, Mr. Trump’s political rant was made more offensive by the location he used. For people at the CIA, that memorial wall is sacred ground. Moreover, Mr. Trump was facing an opposite wall emblazoned with the CIA motto (from the Bible): “Ye shall know the truth; and the truth shall make you free.” That this would be used as a stage set for a diatribe of lies is beyond ironic. And, can you imagine Abraham Lincoln obsessing over the size of the crowd at his inaugural and using the press as a whipping boy when published estimates weren’t to his liking?
All this takes place against the backdrop of an equally incendiary issue – an intelligence dossier alleging that President Trump is susceptible to blackmail by the Kremlin (i.e. Vladimir Putin). By this time the backstory is well known. During the recent primary campaign a supporter of Republican rivals to Trump hired a retired British intelligence agent to investigate Trump’s activities while he was in Russia producing a beauty pageant. The investigation determined there was credible information that Russian intelligence, using high class prostitutes as bait, had entrapped and videotaped Trump. When the allegation became public, Mr. Trump denounced it as “fake news” that “never happened.” If this were Dwight Eisenhower, the most reasonable response would be to take him at his word. But we are dealing, here, with someone quite different.
As it stands, the only people that know what did or did not happen are Donald Trump and the Russians. What can be said, without such first-hand knowledge, is that the allegations are at least credible – for several reasons. (1) It has always been standard practice of Soviet/Russian intelligence agencies to use “honey traps” to compromise prominent visitors. It is a virtual certainty that this ultra-rich visiting American would have been given the standard treatment. Given Mr. Trump’s well-documented sexual appetites and his reckless self-confidence, it is hard to believe he rejected the offer. (2) The author of the report is well known in British and American intelligence circles and is well-regarded as an experienced professional with excellent sources inside Russia. [He was the former head of the Russia section of MI-6]. (3) The sources the author reportedly used were retired Russian intelligence agents – the people most likely to have learned this kind of information. In short, the “tradecraft” behind this report was professional and by-the-book.
If recordings and videos do exist, they are in the hands of the ex-KGB agent who is now the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin.