Traveling to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia in what the White House pointed out was Trump’s first official act in office, Trump stood before the agency’s memorial to its dead officers and delivered an often self-referential and highly political speech that included an untruthful claim that his inauguration was better attended than those of Barack Obama.
Trump vowed “a thousand percent” support for an intelligence corps he has repeatedly and publicly insulted – including recently likening intelligence officials to “Nazi Germany” – and suggested they would have an open checkbook in his White House. Any feud between himself and the agency was the result of a dishonest press corps, the president astonished some by saying.
The speech’s tone, contrasting with the solemnity typically shown to the CIA memorial, prompted the just-retired director of the agency to proclaim his disgust.
Through a spokesman, John Brennan proclaimed himself “deeply saddened and angered at Trump’s despicable display of self-aggrandizement”.
The three-decade agency veteran added: “Trump should be ashamed of himself.”
Trump’s associates are under a counterintelligence investigation to determine the nature of their ties with Russia, an inquiry that includes the CIA. Brennan participated in an assessment that found Russia interfered in the 2016 election for Trump’s benefit.
Beginning in December, Trump rejected the CIA assessment, claiming it was produced by “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction”. In January, ahead of meeting with the outgoing intelligence leadership, he told the New York Times the focus on Russian intrusions in the election was a “political witch-hunt”.
While he struck a conciliatory tone after that meeting, he wrongly accused the agency of leaking an incendiary and unverified dossier filled with rumored ties to Russia that multiple news organizations had long possessed. Trump went so far as to liken the agency to Nazi Germany, a statement that astonished intelligence veterans.
Brennan recently told the Wall Street Journal that Trump’s comparison was “very repugnant” and crossed “the line”.
Yet at Langley on Saturday, Trump said nothing at all about the Russia assessment, and insisted that the “dishonest” media had invented a dispute with the intelligence community that he persistently and publicly waged. The CIA crowd applauded Trump’s derisive comments about the press.
“They made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence agencies. It is exactly the opposite,” Trump said, adding: “I love you, I respect you, there is nobody I respect more.”
Trump suggested that “sometimes you haven’t always gotten the backing” from the White House, suggesting Obama had “restrained” the agency, and said to laughter and applause: “You’re going to say, ‘Please don’t give us so much backing.’
The reference to “restraint” appeared to be a reference to Obama ending the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program, something Trump has repeatedly endorsed restarting and about which his pick to run the CIA has sent mixed messages.
Mike Pompeo, whose nomination vote Democrats in the Senate delayed until Monday, had testified on 10 January that he would “absolutely not” return the CIA to torture, frequently pledging to follow laws that prohibit interrogation techniques not approved by the army’s interrogations field manual.
But in written questions subsequently provided to the Senate intelligence committee on 18 January, Pompeo said he will in office “consult with experts at the Agency and at other organizations in the US government on whether the Army Field Manual uniform application is an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country or whether any rewrite of the Army Field Manual is needed”.
Pompeo pledged to inform the committee of any changes to the law he would seek, and continued: “If experts believed current law was an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country, I would want to understand such impediments and whether any recommendations were appropriate for changing current law.”
At Langley, Trump said Pompeo was a “total star, a total gem” and revealed that Pompeo was the only candidate he vetted for the CIA directorship, one of the most powerful positions in the US government. After meeting Pompeo, Trump said, he cancelled interviews with eight unnamed alternative candidates.
Suggesting he would provide the CIA greater latitude than under Obama, Trump said it would be “one of the most important groups” in combatting Islamic State and what he called “radical Islamic terrorism”.
Trump also reiterated a campaign utterance about stealing Iraq’s oil and mused: “Maybe we’ll have another chance.”
He went on to discuss the crowds attending his events, said he felt “35 or 39” again, and boasted of being on more Time Magazine covers than the New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Adam Schiff, the chief Democrat on the House intelligence committee, sounded incredulous over Trump’s speech, particularly over the president’s use of the agency memorial “as a backdrop”.
“While standing in front of the stars representing CIA personnel who lost their lives in the service of their country – hallowed ground – Trump gave little more than a perfunctory acknowledgment of their service and sacrifice,” Schiff said in a statement.
“Instead he argued at length about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, set out his favorites in the media, meandered through a variety of other topics unrelated to intelligence, and made the astounding claim so belied by the evidence – ‘I love honesty.”