WASHINGTON – While President Donald Trump brags about how hundreds of CIA employees gave him standing ovations during his Saturday visit, it should not have come as a surprise.
He never told them to sit.
The 400 agency staffers were standing when Trump entered the room, were still standing when he came to the lectern, and then remained standing through his 15 minutes of remarks.
“You know that the CIA will not sit down until the president tells them to,” said Yael Eisenstat, who spent more than half of her 13-year career in counterterrorism and intelligence work at the agency.
On Sunday morning, Trump tweeted: “Had a great meeting at CIA Headquarters yesterday, packed house, paid great respect to Wall, long standing ovations, amazing people. WIN!”
It’s unclear whether the new president understood that federal employees, regardless of the agency ― but particularly in national security fields ― will likely remain standing until he tells them otherwise. Military audiences, in the presence of their commander in chief, will absolutely remaining standing until instructed to sit.
“You know that the CIA will not sit down until the president tells them to.”
The White House did not respond to a Huffington Post query on the matter, but press secretary Sean Spicer, during his first press briefing Monday, again referred to the “standing ovation” at the CIA as proof of the employees’ support for the president.
“I’m amazed by the fact that he doesn’t understand basic protocol,” said Rick Wilson, a former Pentagon staffer with a background in military intelligence. “There’s no Miss Manners in this group. There’s no one telling him, ‘Here’s what you need to do.’”
Even more offensive to many in the intelligence world than Trump’s lack of understanding about protocol, though, was the content of his remarks ― a rambling, campaign-style speech that attacked the news media for their coverage of the inauguration, a boast about his own intellect, and a claim that almost everyone in the room had voted for him ― all of it while standing in front of a memorial wall honoring the 117 CIA agents who have died in the line of duty over the decades.
“Unbelievable,” Wilson said. “It’s like going to do standup in Arlington Cemetery. I know how much that wall means to the people in the agency. I know how sacred that space is. It was a graceless display.”
Eisenstat, who also served in the White House as former Vice President Joe Biden’s counterterrorism adviser, is one of those people. “One of those stars behind him was a friend of mine,” she said.
Greg Wenzell, who joined the CIA immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks from a career as a defense lawyer in Florida, was killed in 2003 in Ethiopia. He is star No. 81 on the wall.
“People are outraged,” Eisenstat said. “I have yet to hear anyone not disgusted.”
She pointed to speeches by former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush at the CIA early in their tenures. They talked about the agency, its employees and the challenges they faced ― and avoided speaking about themselves.
“Both did exactly what a president does when they speak to the CIA,” she said. “Obama did all throughout his speech. And George W. Bush did it too.”
Trump came to the agency ostensibly to show his support for its work after weeks of disparaging the CIA and the other U.S. intelligence agencies for their analyses that Russian leader Vladimir Putin had directed his spy agencies to help Trump’s campaign by stealing private emails embarrassing to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump for months had claimed it was impossible to determine who had done the hacking ― all the while praising WikiLeaks for releasing the stolen emails. Many in the U.S. intelligence world consider WikiLeaks a mouthpiece for Russian spy agencies.
““Unbelievable. It’s like going to do standup in Arlington Cemetery. I know how much that wall means to the people in the agency. I know how sacred that space is. It was a graceless display.”
Trump also used his visit to praise his pick for CIA director, Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo, describing how Pompeo had finished first in his class at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, and then near the top of his class at Harvard Law School.
“And then he decided to go into the military,” Trump said, not seeming to understand that accepting a commission at West Point comes with the commitment of serving at least five years in the Army and three years in the Reserve.
Trump, who described himself as “the most militaristic” person ever to run for president during his campaign, had other instances where he displayed a lack of knowledge about military issues.
Standing on the deck of the World War II-era battleship USS Iowa in Los Angeles harbor in 2015, Trump wondered why the Navy was not recommissioning that vessel now ― seeming not to know that navies have been shying away from large surface ships since the 1982 sinking of Britain’s 400-foot HMS Sheffield during the Falklands War. The ship was taken down by a single cruise missile fired by an Argentine plane from two dozen miles away.
Trump in November became the first president to be elected with no experience in the government or the military. Trump said he avoided the draft during the Vietnam War because of bone spurs in one of his heels. In 1997, he joked on Howard Stern’s radio show that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the 1970s was “my personal Vietnam,” and that he felt like “a great and very brave soldier.”