Trump’s Great Purge
US President Donald Trump has unleashed another round of personnel changes in the intelligence community, replacing career national-security officials with unqualified toadies. With the White House's war on intelligence agencies taking its toll, those who remain are likely to be intimidated into submission.
ATLANTA – After nearly four years of inveighing against the US intelligence officials and analysts who revealed Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump is finally acting fully on his paranoia by carrying out a purge. The recent defenestration of top US national-security officials may come as a shock to Americans, but it is no surprise to the Russians. For months, the joke making the rounds in Moscow goes that if Trump would only fire his spy chiefs, he could get his intelligence directly from the source: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Among those ousted by Trump in the past month were the acting director of national intelligence, Admiral Joseph Maguire, and his deputy. But the removal of senior officials isn’t the most important part of the story. What matters most is that Trump wants to send a message to the intelligence community’s rank and file, which has consistently given the lie to his groundless claims about issues ranging from the North Korean nuclear program to climate change. Trump wants to intimidate US intelligence professionals into submission, and he might just succeed.
There is no question that Trump’s latest round of firings qualify as a “purge.” His interim choice to replace Maguire, Richard Grenell, who had been the US ambassador to Germany, is a notorious Trump sycophant with no intelligence experience. Grenell will happily play to the Oval Office’s audience of one. He has already ordered his own minions to start investigating alleged conspiracies among the intelligence officials who uncovered Russia’s election interference, and to pore over personnel files in search of those who may not be sufficiently loyal to Trump.
With the 2020 presidential election approaching, it isn’t hard to see Trump’s motive. In December, intelligence officials avoided the public portion of their annual threat briefing to Congress, following hearings a year earlier in which they provoked Trump’s wrath by contradicting him on almost every major national-security issue. The message from that episode was clear: Trump wants an executive suite staffed by servile appointees who will muzzle the intelligence agencies throughout the 2020 presidential campaign season. If Grenell does his job and completes the purge, Trump’s new DNI nominee should be able to sail through the Senate confirmation process with an innocent smile.
That nominee will be Republican US Representative John Ratcliffe, another consummate Trump toady. Ratcliffe’s attacks on Special Counsel Robert Mueller during the congressional hearings into the Russia investigation led Trump to pick him for the DNI job last summer. But revelations that Ratcliffe had inflated his resumé to make up for his lack of intelligence experience torpedoed his nomination, with even Senate Republicans admitting that loyalty to Trump is not a sufficient qualification for the job. Now the Senate will be faced with choosing between Ratcliffe and Grenell.
Ratcliffe’s history of shameless pandering suggests that, like Grenell, he will politicize intelligence whenever Trump demands. The intelligence community’s job is to deliver facts and nonpartisan analysis to the president, top policymakers, and military commanders, regardless of their stated policy preferences. But Trump has made many efforts to suppress or discredit intelligence he doesn’t like, and he is now likely to do so with abandon.
Project Syndicate is conducting a short reader survey. As a valued reader, your feedback is greatly appreciated.
Both Republicans and Democrats have already raised alarms about the White House’s meddling in critical intelligence activities. In January, Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, warned that the Trump administration was pressuring intelligence agencies to withhold information on Ukraine from congressional oversight. And in the Senate, an intelligence briefing to explain the imminent threat that supposedly justified the targeted killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in January was met with bipartisan criticism over what looked like White House misrepresentations.
To be sure, presidents have every right to give intelligence agencies new directives and to remove officials for failures or missteps. After the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, President John F. Kennedy installed an intelligence-community outsider, John McCone, at the helm of the CIA. And after the Iran-Contra scandal implicated CIA Director William J. Casey, President Ronald Reagan tapped William H. Webster, a former FBI director, to replace him. Nonetheless, until Trump, no president has so blatantly put his own political fortunes ahead of the country’s security by discrediting the very agencies charged with its defense.
Indeed, not even a president as ethically challenged as Richard Nixon has come close to Trump’s war on intelligence. Under pressure from the Watergate scandal, Nixon, in February 1973, appointed James R. Schlesinger to replace Richard Helms as CIA director, because the latter had refused to go along with the coverup. Upon arrival, Schlesinger downsized the agency, forcing out hundreds of experienced officers and unsettling the rank and file. But he never questioned the agency’s loyalty or discredited its work. Moreover, unlike Grenell and Ratcliffe, Schlesinger, who later served as secretary of defense, at least had national-security credentials.
Trump’s ceaseless attacks and installation of political apparatchiks at the top of the intelligence community has undoubtedly taken its toll on morale. US spies and intelligence analysts are trained to do their jobs with integrity and to take risks in the field. They are there to provide independent, nonpartisan information and analysis in the service of the country’s security. By ignoring their findings, denigrating their work, and hunting for signs of disloyalty, Trump’s actions have jeopardized that mission.
So far, the intelligence community’s leaders have said little about the damage that Trump has wrought. The most charitable explanation of their silence is that they are protecting the mission by keeping their heads down. That may be true. But at some point, silence becomes indistinguishable from complicity, particularly when those who are most responsible for the success of the mission are targeted by purges and bogus investigations. When those who should be receiving accolades are getting the boot, something has gone very wrong.