In the extraordinary public dispute between Donald Trump and the CIA, one man finds himself in a particularly tricky position: the president-elect’s nominee to lead the agency, Rep. Mike Pompeo.
The tea party Republican from Kansas, who is expected to win Senate confirmation, will have to repair a relationship between Trump and the CIA that has been battered by the president-elect’s repeated disparagement of the agency’s capabilities and competence.
“I think that we’ve never quite seen a moment like this in agency history where an incoming president was so openly critical and questioning of the agency’s integrity,” said Dennis Wilder, a former senior CIA official who retired this year. “I think Pompeo’s on a bit of a hot seat going into this job because he’s going to have to bridge both sides of this, and he’s going to have to convince President Trump that agency reporting and analysis is both valuable and has integrity to it.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly dismissed the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic Party institutions.
The already testy relationship then took a nosedive following a Washington Post report last week of a CIA assessment that Russian-orchestrated hacking during the U.S. elections aimed to help Trump win.
The Trump transition team responded with a blistering statement, saying “these are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
The president-elect doubled down on Sunday, telling Fox News that the reports were “ridiculous” and that intelligence officials “have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody. It could be somebody sitting in a bed some place.”
Seemingly for good measure, Trump then tweeted on Monday: “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!”
Those statements have not gone over well at the agency, which views itself as a nonpartisan institution that delivers clear-eyed analysis without a political bent.
Leading the CIA is a challenging, all-consuming job at any time. Leading the agency when the president has publicly disparaged its work for months adds an additional twist.
John McLaughlin, a former deputy director and acting director of the CIA, said Pompeo should focus on the basics to win the agency’s trust and confidence.
“All a CIA director needs to do to succeed is to approach the issues dispassionately, make sure all the evidence is taken into account, lay out what is actually known, what is less certain, and what conclusions logically come out of that,” McLaughlin said in an email.
“It’s up to Trump then to decide whether that approach merits trust. This may take some time and experience with success and failure — all administrations experience both — before the pattern and dynamics become clear,” he said.
One of the concerns from the CIA’s perspective is whether the director has the president’s ear and can get the agency’s work on the executive’s desk.
“We want our director to have that personal link with the president because we know that’s how we get our information into the decision-making process,” said Wilder, who now teaches at Georgetown University. “So people will have expectations that Pompeo can get over this hurdle with the president. And so there will be high expectations on it. He’s not in a comfortable position.”
Periods of history when the CIA felt it was out of the loop are etched into the agency’s institutional memory. One of the most notable instances occurred during the Clinton administration, when CIA Director James Woolsey never had a one-on-one meeting with the president.
Woolsey, who now serves as an occasional adviser to the Trump team on national security, said his relationship with President Bill Clinton gnawed at CIA morale over time because “it began to give people the impression that there was some distance between the agency and the president.”
One way for Pompeo to demonstrate access is through the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB, a highly classified daily briefing that gives the commander in chief a rundown of the most important national security items.
“They’re not long,” said Wilder, who edited the PDB for six years. “The goal is to be very concise, pack it with really good information but not overdo it.”
Trump has been eligible to receive a PDB since winning the election. So far, however, he has received only a few classified briefings.
“I get it when I need it,” he told “Fox News Sunday” last week. “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.”
The agency will look to Pompeo to get Trump to agree to take the daily briefing, “and if he’s not able to do that, there will be disappointment in him,” Wilder said.
Over the years, the intelligence community has tweaked the briefing to the tastes of the president, and it will do the same to cater to Trump’s preferences.
President George W. Bush, for example, had a long briefing book that would often include individual pieces of raw intelligence from the field. Bush would gather his national security team in the Oval Office to watch him as he read, and he would often turn to someone in the room to discuss a particular item.
President Barack Obama, in contrast, prefers a shorter book with bottom-line information that has been fully vetted. His average PDB has around a half-dozen articles, each of which averages a couple of pages. Obama tends to read it on his own and then discuss it later with his team.
Many congressional colleagues believe that Pompeo, who finished first in his class from the U.S. Military Academy and served as a tank commander in Germany at the end of the Cold War, has the temperament and skills to serve as the bridge between Langley and the White House.
Even Democrats who have worked with Pompeo on the House Intelligence Committee have praised him as a smart, hardworking man who is, in many ways, a good fit for the job.
But Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the top Democrat on the intelligence panel, has also expressed reservations about what he says is Pompeo’s proclivity for partisanship and strong policy views, such as his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.
“He’s going to have to put that completely aside,” Schiff said.
Woolsey, who spent two years at the helm of the CIA, agreed.
“You shouldn’t let your political views interfere with your intelligence assessments. Whether it’s your political views or someone else’s political views,” he said. “I think Mike has that instinct.”