Donald Trump pissed off many in the intelligence community (and a lot of other people) earlier this week when he derided their analysis of political hacking during the election, which pinned the blame on Russia. There’s a lot that could play out in the public arena for sure, but what is less certain is what could happen behind closed doors between Trump and the United States’ spy services. But thanks to President Richard Nixon, of all people, we’ve seen this one play out before.
Intelligence officials have said “with a high level of confidence” that the former KGB officer determined how hacked information was to be used. What began as a grudge to tarnish Hillary Clinton’s image ballooned into an all-out cyberattack to undermine America’s political process and get Trump elected president.
The issue is that Trump doesn’t believe it and the latest news will only fuel his distrust of American intelligence agencies and, ultimately, sow doubt among his supporters. He has already taken to Twitter, his usual space for venting, to lament the media and cast doubt in American intelligence:
Of course, his tweets were a complete lie.
To be sure, this isn’t the first time a president-elect has started off his presidency by stiff-arming the intelligence community. Paul Pillar, former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, told the Washington Post that “Everything Trump has indicated with regard to his character and tendencies for vindictiveness might be worse” than former president Nixon.
There are some parallels between Trump and Nixon’s distrust of U.S. intelligence. John Helgerson, the former CIA Inspector General, wrote an article detailing Nixon’s tumultuous relationship with the intelligence community. As vice-president for eight years, Nixon was well-versed in how the CIA brief presidential candidates since 1952 and was always troubled by it. In fact, he accused the C.I.A of helping John F. Kennedy defeat him the 1960 election.
In a 1982 interview, former C.I.A. Director Richard Helms said that Nixon constantly criticized the agency for not properly assessing the Soviet’s weaponry and other issues dating back to his time as vice-president. All of this, Helms said, was due to Nixon’s belief that the C.I.A. was working in Kennedy’s favor over the “missile gap” question.
At the time, a major campaign talking point was how well was the U.S. prepared for a major missile attack from the Soviet Union. In 1957, the Gaither report, compiled by outside experts, determined that the U.S. was far behind the Soviet’s nuclear capabilities. That, of course, was not true. But Kennedy ran his campaign, in large part, on criticizing President Dwight D. Eisenhower for not taking the missile gap seriously and not investing the billions of dollars needed to defend the U.S. against a Soviet attack.
General Earle Wheeler allegedly told Kennedy during an intelligence briefing on behalf of the Defense Department that there was no missile gap and that the misleading information on the disparity came from the C.I.A., not the Pentagon, according to a 2003 article titled “Who Ever Believed in the ‘Missile Gap’?: John F. Kennedy and the Politics of National Security” published in the Presidential Studies Quarterly.
Whatever the truth is of what Kennedy knew and how he was briefed, Nixon always believed the C.I.A. worked to undermine his failed 1960 presidential campaign, and that set the tone for his relationship with the intelligence community during his presidency from 1968 onward.
After his election, Nixon’s relationship with the CIA deteriorated further, according to the National Security Archive, to the point where Nixon may have never even read the Daily Briefs that the intelligence community provided for him. Instead, he delegated the responsibility to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was given unprecedented power and the ability to filter the intelligence reaching the President’s desk, as the National Security Archive notes:
According to John Helgerson’s fascinating study, Getting to Know the President: Intelligence Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-2004, CIA officials who worked at a special transition office in Manhattan soon learned from Kissinger, the newly appointed national security adviser, that “the president-elect had no intention of reading anything that had not at first been perused and perhaps summarized by one of his senior staff.” (p. 68).
Kissinger, an unelected official, was eventually able to take control of much of American foreign policy, and make vast strategic decisions concering intelligence, without the President.
What we are seeing with Trump has the potential to be Nixon 2.0.
More specifically, Trump may be feeling that the C.I.A is casting doubts that he didn’t win the White House on his own—even though he encouraged Russia to hack Clinton’s emails. Until a declassified assessment detailing the Russian hack is released to the public, it will only allow Trump to deny any Russian involvement and undermine the integrity of the intelligence community.
Trump’s soon-to-be Chief of Staff has already pushed back against news reports that Russia has been hacking U.S. entities, and his transition team has essentially blown off past reports of hacking as sour grapes. Without a declassified assessment released the the public, Trump can argue that the Democrats are using the country’s spy agencies to undermine his White House victory. Politics, not intelligence, is motivating the media’s news reports of the cyberattacks, is his argument.
But behind closed doors, this might not be the end of the fight.
Terrell Jermaine Starr is a freelance journalist in New York City who specializes in Russian-U.S. affairs and national security. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.