Last Tuesday, in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the heads of the U.S. intelligence community released their annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, a routine exercise that probably wouldn’t have garnered much notice were it not for one thing: Many of the assessment’s conclusions ran directly counter to what the man in the White House seems to believe.
Among them: North Korea isn’t, in fact, giving up its nukes. Iran isn’t restarting its nuclear program; it’s actually still abiding by the terms of the international agreement President Trump abandoned. Trump’s trade wars and isolationism are straining alliances. The Islamic State has not been defeated and will continue to “stoke violence” in Syria, as national intelligence director Dan Coats explained to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The president, of course, maintains that the opposite is true in all of these cases: He’s wiped out the Islamic State. North Korea is no longer a threat because he’s on good terms with Kim Jong-Un. Trade wars are good and easy to win (and, under his leadership, the U.S. is finally respected in the world). And Iran poses an existential threat.
Just to be clear about what happened: Trump’s handpicked intelligence leaders went before the Senate Intelligence Committee and said, in front of television cameras, that the conclusions of the country’s intelligence apparatus are fundamentally at odds with the White House’s foreign policy.
That’s a hell of a thing.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is chaired by Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina. We’ll get back to that.
Trump didn’t take kindly to be made to look the fool on the world stage. The next day, he abruptly canceled his intelligence briefing, then began venting his spleen on Twitter: “The Intelligence people,” he wrote, “seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!”
It went on from there [sic, of course]: “When I became President Iran was making trouble all over the Middle East, and beyond. Since ending the terrible Iran Nuclear Deal, they are MUCH different, but a source of potential danger and conflict. They are testing Rockets (last week) and more, and are coming very close to the edge. There economy is now crashing, which is the only thing holding them back. Be careful of Iran. Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”
And on, and on: Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan—he was right, they were wrong. Trump, the reality TV personality who entered the White House with no foreign policy background, knows better than the analysts who’ve done this their entire lives.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Actually, don’t. Let’s ask Richard Burr about it.
After all, he runs the committee that received the threat assessment and heard from the intelligence chiefs. He’s also closer to the information the intelligence community receives than almost anyone in the U.S. government—and, as a loyal Republican, he’s been a pretty good ally of the president. So what does he think about this Trump-on-Trump-appointee rhetorical violence?
On Wednesday, after Trump’s Twitter barrage, we asked, first with a phone call, and then, at a staffer’s suggestion, an email: Do you agree with the president’s assessment that the intelligence chiefs are “extremely passive and naïve”? Do you believe the president’s judgment is superior to that of intelligence professionals when it comes to assessing the situations in Iran and North Korea?
If not, do you consider the president’s confidence in his own assessments—even when they contradict the conclusions of the intelligence community—dangerous?
As of Tuesday, when this paper goes to press, we’re still waiting for a response.
Obviously, there’s no good way for Burr to answer. If he says Trump’s right, he’ll not only throw career civil servants under the bus, but he’ll also undermine the public’s faith in intelligence agencies. And if he says Trump’s wrong, he’ll not only incur the president’s wrath, but he’ll also tacitly admit that the guy with the nuclear codes is a megalomaniac whose arrogance and ignorance could get us all killed.
It’s a no-win scenario.
To be clear, presidents should question intelligence. What they shouldn’t do is pressure the intelligence community into telling them what they want to hear. That’s how we got into Iraq, after all. And that’s what Trump’s bullying is trying to accomplish—to get the CIA, NSA, and Department of Defense to support his preordained conclusions about Iran, North Korea, and whatever else.
Trump can never be wrong. If the data says he’s wrong, the data must be wrong.
As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and as a top Republican, Burr is in a position to defend intelligence professionals from the president’s attacks, to defend rigorous analysis from the kind of shortsighted politicization that has led to so many foreign policy debacles.
He’s chosen not to do it.
In his defense, Burr hasn’t been completely silent. Last Wednesday night, he told CNN that he has “ultimate faith in the intelligence community.” But he also declined to comment on Trump’s Twitter tantrum.
On Thursday, Trump moved on to a new target: reality itself.
After spending the previous day berating intelligence officials for what they said to Congress, Trump now said that they’d been mischaracterized by the media and hadn’t really said what they’d said, never mind the transcripts and video of their testimony.
So everything’s fine now. There’s nothing to worry about. Right, Senator?
This column originally appeared February 1 and has been updated and edited for print. Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman by email at email@example.com, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @jeffreybillman.