Just 38 days before the inauguration, Donald Trump has given the intelligence community what amounts to a slap in the face, according to current and former intelligence officials.
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From refusing briefings to publicly questioning CIA assessments of Russian election hacking, the president-elect has entered a spat with the intelligence agencies he will rely upon for critical information related to national security.
“It’s unprecedented that a president-elect should be denigrating the CIA, refusing to read their intelligence and disagreeing with them on a major substantive issue even before he is inaugurated,” said former White House cybersecurity official Richard Clarke, now an ABC News consultant.
At the heart of the matter is the issue of cybersecurity, with intelligence officials saying that hackers directed by Russia engaged in covert activities intended to interfere with the U.S. election.
Trump and his transition team have disputed these conclusions, claiming that they are politically motivated.
“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the Trump transition team said in a statement on Friday night, apparently responding to reports in The New York Times and Washington Post that Russia may have directly aided Trump’s White House bid with their cyber activity.
And on Monday, the president-elect tweeted, “Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!”
The statement and the tweet were the latest salvos in a battle that has been waged in the press since late last week.
The acrimonious relationship between Trump and the intelligence agencies spilled out into the public over the weekend with the two sides engaging in a war of words that has played out in the pages and programs of national media outlets.
Over the weekend, Trump confirmed earlier press reports that he had been skipping regular intelligence briefings, which have been a fixture in the presidential schedules for decades.
“You know, I'm, like, a smart person. I don't have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years,” he said in an interview that aired on Fox News on Sunday.
A senior career U.S. official told ABC News, "He's not just taking a shot at an old CIA assessment from 14 years ago, he's disparaging and insulting every analyst currently in the intelligence community working hard to protect the United States.”
The incoming president’s remarks could be hurting the very people he will rely on when he assumes office in just over a month’s time.
“I think it would be devastating to hear that the incoming president doesn't value the intelligence that will come out of the agency. I am concerned that many of the analysts and some of the operations officers will be feeling as if there work isn't going to be valued or be heard,” Nada Bakos, a former CIA officer, told ABC News.
The public fracas has also pitted Trump against key members of Congress.
“It’s unfortunate because it undermines confidence both between the president elect and the agencies, it's not a good way to start out the relationship because this is an important relationship going forward,” Sen. Angus King (I-ME) told ABC News. “This is the president's eyes and ears.”
King, who caucuses with Democrats, was hardly alone in backing the CIA.
Referencing Trump’s pick for CIA Director, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), a senior Republican in Congress told ABC News, “Can you imagine what it is going to be like for Pompeo walking in to the CIA? He’s taking a shot at everyone in the CIA.”
Some career officials worried that CIA briefers would walk out of White House meetings after Trump is sworn-in and be criticized in tweets by the incoming president.
Among others, the CIA also received support today from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
“The Russians are not our friends,” McConnell said in a public press conference. “Let me say that I have the highest confidence in the intelligence community and especially the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA is filled with selfless patriots, many of whom anonymously risk their lives for the American people.”
ABC News’ Paul Blake contributed to this report.