By Michael D. Shear
WASHINGTON – President Trump hailed Gina Haspel on Monday as he swore her in to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, honoring the “most elite intelligence professionals on the planet” even as he accuses the CIA of having orchestrated a conspiracy against him during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“The patriots of the CIA will have the tools, the resources and the support they need to accomplish their incredible, complicated and oftentimes very dangerous mission,” the president said as he congratulated Haspel. “You live the CIA. You breathe the CIA. And now you will lead the CIA.”
Trump’s brief remarks were strikingly different from those he delivered on his first visit to the agency the day after his inauguration, when he stood in front of a memorial to fallen intelligence officers and delivered an angry, political diatribe against the media, Democrats and others who questioned the size of his inaugural crowd.
On Monday, Trump lauded the “exceptional men and women of this agency,” adding: “I see what you do. I understand what you do and it’s incredible.”
The president’s decision to praise the nation’s premier intelligence agency served as a contradictory note amid what has been a relentless assault on what he perceives as the intelligence community’s improper actions as part of the investigations into his presidential campaign and his administration.
Just hours before his remarks Monday, Trump lashed out on Twitter against John Brennan, who led the CIA under former President Barack Obama, quoting a Fox News contributor who says Brennan “is largely responsible for the destruction of American’s faith in the Intelligence Community.”
Trump used the power of his Twitter account to amplify remarks from Dan Bongino, a conservative commentator, who alleged on Fox that Brennan used an intelligence dossier to begin an illegitimate investigation of the Trump campaign.
“This guy is the genesis of this whole Debacle. This was a Political hit job, this was not an Intelligence Investigation,” the president tweeted to his 52 million followers, quoting Bongino’s television appearance.
The Monday morning tweets by the president followed a weekend in which Trump angrily complained about reports that the investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russia relied in part on confidential informants. Trump again assailed the investigation as a “Witch Hunt” and demanded that the FBI or the Department of Justice investigate whether his campaign was subject to improper surveillance.
“I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!” Trump wrote Sunday.
Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who is overseeing the Russia probe, said Sunday that the department’s inspector general would look into the questions raised by the president. But it is unclear whether that will satisfy Trump, who has said it was “disgraceful” to hand investigation of the Russia probe to an inspector general who was “Obama’s guy.”
Trump enthusiastically backed Haspel to lead the CIA after his decision to move Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state. The Senate confirmed her Thursday by a vote of 54-45, despite deep concerns from Democrats and some Republicans about her role in the agency’s brutal interrogations following the 2001 terror attacks.
Now, Haspel will take over an agency under verbal siege from the very person it exists to brief. Despite his praise for her on Monday, it is unclear whether she will be able to build the kind of personal relationship that will satisfy the president.
Trump has often expressed misgivings about his own advisers, especially those who were part of the bureaucracy in previous administrations. Haspel has worked at the CIA for more than 30 years, and was a senior official at the agency under former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
Trump’s first visit to the CIA on January 21, 2017, also followed weeks of angry denunciations of the intelligence community by Trump during the transition.
Just two weeks earlier, intelligence agency officials, including Brennan and James Comey, the former FBI director, briefed Trump about the Russia probe, and Comey revealed to him the existence of a dossier containing salacious details about his alleged sexual activities.
The remarks that day angered many intelligence officers at the agency, who accused the president of being disrespectful by delivering a politically charged speech – and not explicitly honoring the agency’s fallen – at one of the most hallowed places at the CIA. The president’s speech that day came just a month after a covert intelligence officer was killed.
On Monday, Trump did not deliver remarks in front of the memorial wall. But he did explicitly honor intelligence officers who had died in service to the country, saying that even though their deaths may remain secret, their stories of “sacrifice and daring will live on.”