The American political media needs to develop more critical listening skills with President Trump. True, he is a softball headline-generating machine. His first speech at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) served up controversy about the size of his inauguration that became the narrative of the Saturday cycle, but something much more important, and much more troubling was overlooked:
The President of the United States used an intelligence agency to showcase that he isn’t very smart.
That will get the Trumpsters’ hackles up, but it’s not a shot, it’s analysis of what came out of his mouth again yesterday at Langley, CIA’s HQ.
Let’s say you were hiring a pilot to fly the biggest airplane in the world, the Airbus A380. Some flying experience might be helpful before strapping your hire into a multi-million dollar aircraft with the lives of up to 850 people aboard. Hundreds of hours of training, and flying a lot of smaller aircraft would probably be the logical route to insure the safety of everyone aboard, and people on the ground.
Our new pilot, President Donald J. Trump, is flying our A380 government without ever an hour in a little Cessna 172. Trump has never governed. Not a governor, senator, congressman, mayor, or alderman.
We’ve heard, time and again, on the campaign trail, when Trump isn’t chained to a Teleprompter and highly scripted, that he isn’t exactly the most gifted of extemporaneous speakers. He rambles quite a bit, and we tend to hear more about what is most immediately on his mind more often than we hear about the topic about which he was supposed to speak.
When you potboil down Trump speeches, they generally come down to some variation of “I’m smart,” “I’m popular,” and/or “You love me.” In between come a lot of platitudes and juicy gaffes that Saturday Night Live and the media lives for because they generate headlines and revenue.
First, the reason that the new President made his first speaking stop the CIA was because of the Tweet, one of a burst on the intelligence community’s assessment that there was credible evidence that the Russians hacked and manipulated the U.S. election in Trumps favor, that suggested that the CIA behaved like Nazis.
As president, every public speech of the POTUS is a world speech. Trump came to CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to walk that Tweet back a bit. Reading the speech in its entirety, it is a rambling mess:
“But, I want to say that there is nobody that feels stronger about the Intelligence Community and the CIA than Donald Trump. [applause]. There’s Nobody. Nobody. And the wall behind me is very very special. We’ve been touring for quite a while. And I’ll tell you what: twenty … nine? I can’t believe it.. No. Twenty eight. We’ve got to reduce it. That’s amazing. And we really appreciate it what you ‘ve done in terms of showing us something very special. And your whole group. These are really special, amazing people. Very. very few people could do the job you people do. And I want to just let you know: I am so behind you. And I know, maybe sometimes, you haven’t gotten the backing that you’ve wanted. And you’re going to get so much backing. Maybe you’re going to say “please don’t give us so much backing”... ‘Mr President, please, we don’t need that much backing.’ But you’re going to have that. And I think everybody in this room knows it.”
Trump makes references to information, or speaks of people in the room by their first names without without grounding them because he forgets that any room that he’s in publicly is heard all over the world:
Because we’re all on the same wavelength, folks. We’re all on the same wavelength. [applause] Alight? [pointing to the crowd] He knows. Took Brian about 30 seconds to figure that one out, right? Because we know. We’re on the same wavelength.
The purpose of this speech was to walk back the Nazi comment. The media came into the event with the framing of this either as an apology or a continued snub. Instead, President Trump took up a large part of his remarks to complain about the media coverage of the smaller size of his inauguration crowds.
It’s a hugely trivial issue, that can have many causes, other than his low 33%+ approval ratings. Other factors might include: weather; Not winning the District of Columbia, and Trump was not very popular in the D.C. adjacent Virginia suburbs.
Largely out was the apology. In was the “tiny hands” moment of Trump’s personal insecurities of our petulant president, which was the lede of most news organizations covering the conference.
What was missed though, was the simple, genuine lack of knowledge of the CIA. He began with:
“You know, the military, and the law-enforcement generally speaking, -- but, all of it -- but the military, gave us tremendous percentages of votes. We were unbelievably successful in the election with getting the vote of the military and probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did. But I would guarantee a big portion. Because we’re all on the same wavelength, folks. We’re all on the same wavelength. Alight?“
The Central Intelligence Agency is a civilian organization. The U.S. military has its own intelligence services. It isn’t law enforcement either. That would be the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI.
Trump then uses vague and unsubstantiated statements like a cheap hot dog company puts cereal filler or byproducts into a casing:
“We’re going to do great things. We’re going to do great things. We’ve been fighting these wars for longer than any wars we’ve ever fought. We have not used the real abilities that we have. We’ve been restrained.”
Great things. Like what? Restrained. How? Then comes another open-mind ramble:
“People respect … they respect that military sense. All my political people? They’re not doing so well. The political people aren’t doing so well… but you … We’re going to get them all through. But some will take a little bit longer than others.”
Here he is talking about his National Security appointees like Pompeo, who will helm the CIA when the Congress clears him, General John F. Kelly, already approved at Homeland Security, and Secretary of Defense (Gen) James Mattis. Pompeo is a West Point grad with service as well.
Two more troubling tells that the media is perhaps becoming accustomed, or numb to: Trump’s adulation of military men, and his admission that his political picks are being raked over the coals in what should be a party-controlled and very hospitable congress.
Speaking of Pompeo, Trump rambles into another self-promotion for his intellect that tries to use a relative of his to legitimize his intelligence:
“But I met him, and I said “he is so good”. Number one in his class at West Point. Now, I know a lot about West Point. I’m a person that very strongly believes in academics. In fact, every time I say, I had an uncle who was a great professor at MIT for 35 years, who did a fantastic job in so many different ways academically. He was an academic genius. And then they say: ‘[I]s Donald Trump an intellectual?’ Trust me. I’m like a smart person.”
“Like,” indeed. Ramblin’ man keeps rolling along though:
“You do the job like everybody in this room is capable of doing. And the generals are wonderful and the fighting is wonderful. But if you give them the right direction? Boy does the fighting become easier. And boy do we lose so fewer lives, and win so … quickly. And that’s what we have to do. We have to start winning again.”
The CIA provides actionable intelligence to the President and to the Congress. While they are not military, they can, abroad, act on that intelligence through a number of means, including targeted assassination. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) provides military intelligence and analysis. That you don’t know that might be understandable. That the president, and, more important, his staff full of generals briefing President Trump, don’t get him to understand that nuance is embarrassing.
Trump then goes on to preen his ego about how young he is, about winning, another huge personal obsession, and then gravitates into another verbal landmine IED (Intellect-Exposing Diatribe):
“The old expression: “to the victor belong the spoils” - you remember? You always used to say ‘keep the oil.’ I wasn’t a fan of Iraq. I didn’t want to go into Iraq. But I will tell you. When we were in, we got out wrong. And I always said: ‘In addition to that, keep the oil.’”
It’s a popular stump topic of his that crept into the debates, but, as the Washington Post debunked, aside from the illegality of it in world courts, it would have meant committing hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to decades of occupation before it produced much revenue and would have cost the armed forces billions if not trillions of dollars.
He also took the opportunity to declare war, not on ISIS, but the media: “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” It was a prelude to his rants on the photographs of Obama’s 2013 and Trump’s 2017 inaugural crowds on the Washington Mall that clearly show, particularly thanks to the white protective tarps that the National Park Service put on the grass, that the event was less attended than President Obama’s second inauguration.
Then that was it. He wrapped up, thanked everyone with a stream of platitudes again about winning, made a remark about building them a better building without columns, and left.
This, after the one semi-substantive thing that he said in his speech, the identification of ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism as ”evil,” where he further stated that it “has to be eradicated. Just off the face of the Earth.“ There was no policy, no directive. Not even much of a message that ISIL, as it is more commonly known in intelligence circles, might take with them about the CIA’s stepped-up role in this terrorist extermination agenda.
So, while the media makes a lot of money off of Trump whining about the size of his.. crowds, what isn’t high on the agenda is calling out the 45th President of the United States for being ill-prepared, unfocused, and self-absorbed.
If the pilot of that huge Airbus spends all of his time in the bathroom admiring himself in the mirror and talking up what a great pilot he is, what happens to the aircraft?
President Trump is fixated on pomp and circumstance and the sound of his own voice, but the fun is over, and if he and the White House staff won’t get him on track for the leadership portion of the job, then the media better worry less about doing battle with him on Twitter optics and more reporting of his shortcomings as a leader, before our government crashes and burns.