Spy chief’s move for Trump detente is derailed, via tweet – Politico

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“James Clapper called me yesterday to denounce the false and fictitious report that was illegally circulated. Made up, phony facts. Too bad!” Donald Trump wrote on Twitter Thursday morning. | Getty

The president-elect provides a very different readout of his call with James Clapper in a move that one former CIA official calls a ‘hardening of positions.’

01/12/17 08:25 AM EST

Updated 01/12/17 01:41 PM EST

A top U.S. intelligence official tried this week to make peace with Donald Trump.

But the president-elect isn’t quite ready for that just yet.

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Hours after Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Trump spoke on the phone, each emerged with very different views of how the conversation had gone — different enough that one former CIA official said it appeared to be a “hardening of positions.”

Clapper, in a conciliatory but cautious statement late Wednesday, said he’d expressed to Trump his “profound dismay” over leaks to the media about an unverified private dossier containing damaging material that Russia allegedly had gathered on the president-elect. Clapper insisted, however, that the intelligence community had not passed judgment on the credibility of the dossier itself. He also said he did not believe intelligence officials were behind the leaks.

On Thursday morning, Trump offered his own readout of the call, using his favorite medium: Twitter. The president-elect claimed the spy chief had dismissed the contents of the private dossier, not simply the leaks to the media. “James Clapper called me yesterday to denounce the false and fictitious report that was illegally circulated. Made up, phony facts. Too bad!” Trump wrote.

The divergent takes on the conversation will likely exacerbate the extraordinary tensions between Trump and the intelligence community. Trump has frequently derided the intelligence community’s work, while U.S. spy officials and others in the national security world have been worried about Trump’s apparent fondness for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

The mood may calm down once Clapper and other spy leaders step down in a few days and Trump’s nominees move into their new positions, but the episode is likely to linger in the intelligence world’s psyche for years.

Vice President Joe Biden also talked of big consequences. Sitting down with reporters on Thursday, Biden said Trump’s frequent statements disparaging the U.S. intelligence community “play into the Russian narrative” of a weakened America that allies can’t rely on.

For weeks, the president-elect resisted accepting the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help him win. On Wednesday morning, in a small olive branch of his own, Trump said Russia probably played a role in the cyberattacks. But on the same day, as media outlets reported on the unverified private dossier containing the Russia allegations, Trump blamed the leaks on intelligence officials and compared the situation to “Nazi Germany.”

Even if the president-elect was trying to suggest through Thursday’s tweet about Clapper that America’s spies were finally siding with him, his questionable characterization of the intelligence chief’s comments could further frustrate the U.S. spy apparatus.

“Donald Trump and the intelligence community suffer, from among many other things, drastically different approaches to the English language,” said Carmen Medina, a former top CIA official, explaining that while intelligence officials try to use language “precisely,” Trump appears to read things “emotionally.”

Aki Peritz, a former CIA analyst, said his sense was that “we’re seeing a hardening of positions.”

“What Trump should have said was, ‘I had a good conversation with Clapper, and we thought that leaks in general were bad’. But no. He had to go and say, ‘I was right. They were wrong.’ It kind of shows that kind of vindictiveness of his personality,” Peritz said.

Although Clapper, in his statement, assured Trump that the intelligence community was ready to serve his administration, he also effectively confirmed reports in CNN, BuzzFeed and elsewhere of the existence of the private dossier. Clapper and other intelligence leaders shared the dossier with Trump during a briefing Friday on Russia’s broader role in the 2016 election. The dossier contained unsubstantiated claims that the Kremlin has salacious information about the president-elect and that Trump’s allies colluded with the Kremlin during the campaign.

In his statement, Clapper — who has some 50 years of experience in the intelligence world — pointed out that the dossier “was widely circulated in recent months among the media, members of Congress and congressional staff even before the [intelligence community] became aware of it,” a suggestion others could have been behind the leaks.

Clapper added that he told Trump that “this document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product and that I do not believe the leaks came from within the IC. The IC has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions. However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.”

Trump, on Twitter at least, stopped short of accepting Clapper’s assurances that the source of that leak was not the intelligence community. The president-elect’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, meanwhile, would not say during an appearance on NBC Thursday morning whether Clapper’s assurances were enough to assuage Trump’s concern that the intelligence community was conspiring against him.

“The president-elect was very happy to receive the call from Mr. Clapper. Very happy that Mr. Clapper agrees with him, Matt, that there should be no leaks,” Conway told NBC anchor Matt Lauer. “I mean, why intelligence officials or other people are leaking to the media, rather than making sure that the president-elect and indeed President [Barack] Obama himself, are briefed on sensitive information, I think is really the point here.”

Trump and Conway’s broadsides against leaks [including Trump’s description in his tweet of the “illegally circulated” report] are striking considering how often Trump, during the 2016 campaign, referred to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s emails and other material released by WikiLeaks and through alleged Russian hacking of various political entities. At one point, Trump urged Russia to track down even more of Clinton’s emails, drawing gasps from national security figures.

Trump spokesman Sean Spicer indicated that the president-elect is not planning on taking legal action against those who put together the dossier. “He’s moved on. He’s focused on policies that are going to put people back to work and create economic growth, keeping the country safe again,” Spicer told reporters Thursday morning.

Clapper and other top, politically appointed leaders of the intelligence community will be stepping down once Trump takes office on Jan. 20. Trump’s nominee for CIA director, GOP Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, faced his confirmation hearing on Thursday. Trump also has selected former Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana to replace Clapper as director of national intelligence.

Pompeo has a reputation of being an intense partisan, but during his confirmation hearing, he vowed to safeguard the integrity of the intelligence agencies.

The CIA director must “stay clearly on the side of intelligence collection and objective analysis of our national security challenges — presenting factual intelligence and sound judgments to policymakers,” he said.

John Sipher, another former CIA official, said intelligence veterans are familiar with political wars and expect Trump to be kinder to the people he appoints than those he views as cronies of the outgoing president.

“Once he is in charge and has his own people in place, I think that a lot of the charged statements will abate,” Sipher said. “However, if he continues his public attacks after he assumes ownership of the intelligence community, it will create a serious rift inside the various agencies.”

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