When I was an intelligence officer in the Army serving in Afghanistan, I was fortunate to have commanders who understood the value of intelligence. They carefully considered my analysis before making operational decisions. We had relationships rooted in trust and a shared, unwavering commitment to national security. Luckily, Donald Trump was never in my chain of command. Trump is the kind of boss that intelligence professionals imagine only in their worst nightmares.
Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump has flaunted his disrespect for the intelligence community and national security. During the presidential debates, he consistently repudiated the fact of Russia’s role in hacking to interfere with the U.S. election process.
One might argue that he may have done this out of innocuous ignorance or because of a good-faith effort to protect a classified assessment. Neither claim, however, stands the test of scrutiny. According to NBC News, a senior U.S. intelligence official confirmed that Trump had been briefed on the topic long before the debates. Throw that ignorance argument out. Then, before the second debate, the intelligence community publicly released an official statement articulating its confidence in the assessment that Russia is conducting hacks in order to influence the election. And there goes the classified assessment argument.
So, what could possibly explain his flat rejection of the intelligence community’s assessment? Three likely reasons might explain his decision, and all three of them demonstrate the clear and present danger of a Trump presidency.
First, Trump might have more faith in his groundless personal instincts than the facts and advice offered by the intelligence community and the military. This reckless behavior in the White House would cause a total collapse of the relationship between Trump and some of the most important assets he would have. Trump has been brazen in his display of mistrust in the intelligence community, and he has categorically insulted American general officers and threatened to purge them if elected. Meanwhile, former national security officials have expressed dismay at Trump’s denial of Russian hacking, and Michael Hayden—a former general who ran the CIA and NSA—said that Trump’s ignoring the advice of intelligence officials “defies logic.” Military experts have also indicated that Trump is plainly wrong in his criticism of the strategy for retaking Mosul from ISIS.
Trump’s public treatment of the national security community leaps beyond healthy questioning straight to a level of sheer contempt.
To be sure, no president should blindly accept everything the intelligence community says. It is not only appropriate but also desirable for presidents and other leading officials to privately pose legitimate questions: How reliable are the sources and methods? How recent is the reporting? Has the intelligence been corroborated by multiple forms of collection? What is the overall confidence in the assessment? Are there any other courses of action that can be taken? And presidents should also seek perspectives from knowledgeable sources outside of government to help avoid the potential trap of “groupthink” that distorted decision-making on the Vietnam War and the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But Trump’s public treatment of the national security community leaps beyond healthy questioning straight to a level of sheer contempt. Instead of shunning this pool of nonpartisan, experienced professionals, the president should embrace it as among his or her most valuable tools. After all, these dedicated public servants exist solely to help policymakers—especially the president—make sound and informed decisions.
Second, Trump is perhaps willing to advocate and celebrate acts of espionage by foreign adversaries when they are convenient for his own domestic interests. In the wake of the DNC hack this past summer, Trump encouraged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. Then, when more information—likely hacked by Russia—started pouring through the WikiLeaks faucet, Trump rejoiced in the political capital he thought it would deliver. “I love WikiLeaks,” he proclaimed to a crowd at a Pennsylvania rally this month before reading several hacked emails to his diehard supporters. The president’s job is to protect the country from espionage and cyber attacks, not encourage and exploit them.
Third, Trump apparently has an interest in protecting the reputation of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president whose leadership he has praised. But Trump’s vigorous defense of Putin is concerning for both domestic and international reasons. Trump’s admiration of Putin could be an ominous sign of the type of domestic leadership Trump would provide. Putin has a record of stifling dissent and has been accused of jailing political opponents. Trump, of course, threatened to jail Hillary Clinton in the event he wins the election. Internationally, it is crucial for the United States to stand behind its European allies in a time when Putin’s behavior has become increasingly aggressive. Yet Trump has already failed this test—he indicated that he might not defend our NATO allies in the face of a Russian attack. His unsettling statements praising Putin also raise the reasonable question that so far remains unanswered of his own links to Russia.
Whether Trump’s refusal to accept the intelligence community’s assessment of the Russian hacks can be attributed to just one of these explanations or some combination thereof, it upends any notion that he could be an effective Commander in Chief. His actions as a candidate have made an indisputable case that a Trump presidency would threaten our national security. Drawing on my years as an intelligence officer, I make that assessment with confidence.
Benjamin Haas graduated from West Point in 2009 and was an intelligence officer in the Army for five years. He was deployed to Afghanistan twice. He is currently attending Stanford Law School.