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Can the Rift Between Trump and the Intel Community Be Healed?

After a brief ceasefire, the war between Donald Trump and U.S. intelligence agencies appears to be back on — with a vengeance.
Image: President-elect Trump Press Conference
President-elect Donald Trump talks with Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence during a press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on Jan. 11.Justin Lane / EPA

After a brief ceasefire, the war between Donald Trump and U.S. intelligence agencies appears to be back on — with a vengeance.

Earlier this week, current and former intelligence officials were speaking in hopeful tones about how the breach that had developed between their profession and the president-elect was repairable.

"Certainly fixable," is how Michael Morell, a Trump critic and former acting director of the CIA, put it on Tuesday afternoon, after several days without a single Trump tweet disparaging intelligence officers.

"He may be getting a sense that these are serious people who have studied their mistakes and who are careful about what they say," said John McLaughlin, another former acting CIA director.

But over the last 24 hours, the news broke that supporting material for the highly classified intelligence report on Russian hacking included passages about salacious but unproven personal allegations about Trump. The president-elect, in his first news conference in months, accused "the intelligence agencies" of "disgraceful" leaking, and compared the behavior to something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do."

This is happening just as Trump’s nominee to be CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday morning, answering questions in a confirmation hearing. Pompeo will have to walk a careful line between loyalty to his boss and expressions of respect for the workforce he would lead.

"I think the relationships between the president-elect and the current leadership of the CIA, the NSA and indeed the director of national intelligence are irreparably broken at this point," retired Admiral James Stavridis told Cynthia McFadden of NBC News. "So let's get a new director of national intelligence, let's get a new head of the CIA in place."

"Let's have a clean slate of relationships and then we can have the president, after he's sworn in, take a new approach to the intelligence community. We've got to have that because otherwise we're going to have complete dysfunctionality in our national security."

What about the career officers, who aren’t leaving, and who have been in the receiving end of a steady stream of negative Trump tweets?

Trump "CAN fix (the breach). But today he took a huge step back from fixing it," Morell wrote in an email on Wednesday.

Trump and the intelligence community do seem to agree on their criticism of the way the media has reported on these issues, and that leaks are bad.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper extended an olive branch to Trump Wednesday night. He said he spoke to Trump and "expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press, and we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security."

Clapper said he emphasized that the 35-page memo is not an intelligence community document "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."

Clapper said the president-elect "again affirmed his appreciation for all the men and women serving in the Intelligence Community, and I assured him that the IC stands ready to serve his Administration and the American people."

'I think it was Russia'

From the perspective of career intelligence officers, at least one good thing did happen during Wednesday's press conference: Trump, for the first time, appeared to accept the unanimous finding of the intelligence community that Russia was behind the hacking and leaking campaign designed to interfere with the U.S. presidential election."

"As far as hacking, I think it was Russia," Trump said.

But he also accused the intelligence community of targeting him with leaks.

"I have many meetings with intelligence," Trump said. "And every time I meet, people are reading about it. Somebody’s leaking it out…It’s very unfair to the country."

Trump added that it was "disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out."

It’s not public who disclosed to news organizations that a summary of damaging personal information about Trump was included in the Russia hacking briefing materials. But the briefing papers circulated beyond the intelligence agencies, to Congress and the White House.

In any event, current and former intelligence officers say that despite the bad start, intelligence professionals will do what they can to regain Trump’s trust.

"There’s an overwhelming desire to actually serve any president as best you can," McLaughlin said. "Yes, they will want access to and influence in the White House, but the only way you get it is to know your stuff. To actually have some expertise on the issues that they are trying to decide."

McLaughlin, Morell and other former officials said intelligence insiders were deeply disturbed by Trump’s approach to the findings on Russian hacking. For weeks, he cast doubt on them, and on the intelligence officers who reached them.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow last week that Trump was "being really dumb" by doing that.

"Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you," Schumer said.

Trump may have since learned, McLaughlin said, that "this community is not as easily cowed by snarky tweets and verbal barbs as some of his other targets. They are used to that. It goes with the territory."