President Donald Trump has privately and repeatedly expressed opposition to the use of foreign intelligence from covert sources, including overseas spies who provide the US government with crucial information about hostile countries, according to multiple senior officials who served under Trump.
Trump has privately said that foreign spies can damage relations with their host countries and undermine his personal relationships with their leaders, the sources said. The President “believes we shouldn’t be doing that to each other,” one former Trump administration official told CNN.
In addition to his fear such foreign intelligence sources will damage his relationship with foreign leaders, Trump has expressed doubts about the credibility of the information they provide. Another former senior intelligence official told CNN that Trump “believes they’re people who are selling out their country.”
Even in public, Trump has looked down on these foreign assets, as they are known in the intelligence community. Responding to reports that the CIA recruited Kim Jong Un’s brother as a spy, Trump said he “wouldn’t let that happen under my auspices.”
These new details about Trump’s approach to foreign intelligence follow CNN’s exclusive report that the United States in 2017 removed one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government. CNN reported on Monday that the asset provided the US with insight and information on Russian President Vladimir Putin and that the extraction was driven, in part, by concerns that Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and could contribute to exposing the spy. In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, “All these arguments about who urgently extracted whom, who saved whom – this, you know, is in the genre of what you call pulp fiction.”
The decision to carry out the extraction occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. The disclosure to the Russians by the President was about ISIS and not the Russian spy specifically, but the incident prompted US intelligence officials to renew earlier discussions about the potential risk that the spy would be exposed, CNN reported.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday disputed reporting about the extraction, first revealed by CNN and later covered by The New York Times and The Washington Post, calling it “materially inaccurate” and “factually wrong” without offering any specific comments about was incorrect in his view. Pompeo had previously declined to comment on CNN’s exclusive report before it published Monday. CNN stands by its reporting.
Just last month, Trump again demonstrated his unorthodox approach to classified material when he tweeted a photo of a failed Iranian rocket launch and taunted Tehran about its military setback. The photo was of a much higher resolution than previous photos released by the US government, prompting concerns that Trump perhaps shared a photo of a classified image that wasn’t meant for the public.
Trump’s skeptical view on foreign informants undermines one of the most essential ways that American intelligence agencies gather information about US adversaries, including analysis of their capabilities and intentions. In the intelligence community, this information is referred to as “HUMINT,” which is short for “human intelligence.” This is distinguished from so-called “SIGINT,” or “signals intelligence,” which includes intercepted emails, telephone calls, and text messages.
Intelligence assessments of national security threats all typically depend on a combination of HUMINT, SIGINT, and other sources. This includes assessments about North Korea’s expanding nuclear program to terror threats from al-Qaeda and ISIS, and the military capabilities of Russia and China.
In June, after The Wall Street Journal reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother had been a CIA source, Trump said publicly that he would not allow the use of CIA informants against Kim. Throughout his presidency, Trump has pursued personal diplomacy with the North Korean despot.
“I saw the information about the CIA, with respect to his brother, or half-brother,” Trump said when the news reports came out in June about Kim Jong Un’s half-brother. “And I would tell (Kim Jong Un) that would not happen under my auspices, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t let that happen under my auspices.”
These views are one part of a deeper divide between Trump and the US intelligence agencies that he oversees, which began before he took office, when he compared US intelligence agents to the Nazis. He has also publicly and privately derided senior intelligence officials, many of whom served in the Obama administration, but also a handful of people that he appointed to lead US intelligence agencies.
Untold stories of American spies
While in office, Trump has repeatedly and publicly rejected, questioned, or undermined US intelligence assessments on a range of key national security topics. This includes Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, and the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the gruesome 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Most notably, Trump sided with Putin regarding Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The US intelligence community concluded that Putin ordered a sweeping program to influence the election and help Trump’s campaign. Putin denied this, and at the 2018 Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, Finland, Trump accepted the denial, saying, “I don’t see any reason why” Russia would have been involved.
A businessman with no formal experience in government or the military, Trump was likely never exposed to highly classified information before he became the Republican nominee in summer 2016 and started receiving intelligence briefings. His briefers reportedly adopted new techniques to get his attention, like giving presentations instead of providing large binders filled with dense reading materials.
The CIA declined to comment and the White House did not respond to a request for comment.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include comments by both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Kremlin spokesperson.