The gulf between President-elect Donald Trump and U.S. intelligence agencies has grown so wide that the two camps can’t even agree on the scheduled date of a briefing Trump is supposed to get about Russian hacking.
Trump said on Twitter it had been delayed till Friday; U.S. intelligence officials and other Obama administration officials say it was always scheduled for Friday. A senior U.S. intelligence official who was not toeing the official line told NBC News the Trump transition team was told it would happen "early this week," which might explain the confusion. But Sean Spicer, Trump’s spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday it would be "later this week."
All of which would seem to add up to a mundane dispute, but the fact that it is playing out in public represents what is shaping up to be an extraordinary breach between Trump and the intelligence agencies he is poised to lead--one that threatens to expose rifts between Trump and Congressional Republicans.
In addition to the flap over the briefing, Trump doubled down on his skewering of U.S. intelligence officers Wednesday, appearing to grant more credibility to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange than to American spy agencies.
"Julian Assange said `a 14-year old could have hacked Podesta’ — why was DNC so careless?" Trump said on Twitter. "Also said Russians did not give him the info!"
Trump was referring to Assange’s dismissive comments about the U.S. conclusion that Russia was behind the hacking and leaking of Democratic information, including the emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chief. Assange, who lives in the Ecuadoran embassy in London to avoid extradition over a sexual assault charge, is widely loathed within the American national security establishment.
Assange appeared on Fox News Tuesday night with host Sean Hannity, a Trump supporter, to restate his claim that WikiLeaks, which distributed Podesta’s hacked emails, did not get them from the Russians.
The president-elect’s tweet came as part of a series of 140-character missives that appeared to cast doubt on the findings of the CIA, the FBI and other agencies regarding Russian interference in the presidential election campaign. The hope among some American national security officials that Trump would eventually accept the conclusion of the intelligence community on the matter has so far not been realized.
Many intelligence officials have been concerned about Trump's skepticism regarding the Russia hack intelligence for some time.
But several current and former officials told NBC News they believed Trump’s stance was mainly driven by his fear that a finding of Russian interference in the election would impugn or undermine his victory — and they understood that.
They assumed, however, that he would eventually come around and find a way to thread the needle, accepting their findings while disputing any notion that the Russians affected the outcome of the race. They find it hard to believe that Trump's foreign policy advisers, including retired Gen. James Mattis and Rep. Mike Pompeo, will not accept the intelligence case that Russia was behind the hacks and leaks.
Not only have the CIA, the FBI, the ODNI and DHS fingered the Russians, many private cyber security researchers have as well.
But Trump hasn't come around — he has continued to voice expressions of skepticism, as have some of his allies in Congress. A Trump tweet reminding people about the mistaken conclusion that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was seen as a mean-spirited swipe.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence told reporters Wednesday that Trump has merely been expressing "healthy skepticism" about the intelligence.
But intelligence officials are increasingly disturbed by Trump's approach. There are many Republicans in the spy agencies and a lot of Trump supporters, but there are few if any who support Julian Assange.
To be sure, some spies are also concerned that the front offices of their agencies, run at the moment by Obama appointees, are playing politics and attacking Trump in anonymous press leaks.
But most intelligence officers work in a world far from D.C. politics. They realize that Trump will soon be their elected leader, and that their job is to provide him the best intelligence they can to help him make good decisions, current and former officials say.
Some of those people worry their work could become less relevant when Trump takes office. The CIA, in particular, likes to think of itself as serving the president above all, and CIA officers become very concerned about any notion that the White House does not trust or does not value the agency's work.
Democrats who help oversee the intelligence agencies pounced on Trump’s latest comments.
"Today, Trump sided with Julian Assange – an alleged sex offender who has hidden out in the Ecuadorian embassy for years and has dumped millions of classified State Department documents that put U.S. persons at risk — rather than our country's own intelligence professionals," said Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "That he would accept the transparently self-serving denials of the Kremlin is alarming enough, but that would now cite people like Assange who have demonstrated universal hostility to the United States and its interests takes him into new and even more treacherous territory."
Schiff said that when Trump "belittles the reputation of the brave and hard-working professionals in the Intelligence Community, he impairs our national security and the prospects for the success of his own Administration."
Other Republicans were quick to bash Assange on Wednesday, even as Trump was quoting him.
House Speaker Paul Ryan told MSNBC analyst Hugh Hewitt on his radio show that "I think the guy is a sycophant for Russia…He leaks, he steals data and compromises national security."
And Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican who served as an undercover officer in the CIA for nine years, added, "Julian Assange is not a credible source… The same people who condemned Secretary Clinton for making sensitive and classified information vulnerable by using an unsecure server, should be equally outraged that Assange continues to carelessly leak sensitive documents."
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC: "I have a lot more faith in our intelligence officers serving around the world and the very smart and experienced analysts that we have here in the nation’s capital than I do in people like Julian Assange, I can tell you that much."
A spokesman for Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the committee, declined to comment.