CIA's Haspel applauds during Trump's State of the Union speech, surprising some intel officials

In the Obama and Bush administrations, CIA directors did not attend the address. But Trump made the CIA director a Cabinet post, meaning Gina Haspel was invited.
Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP-SOTU
CIA Director Gina Haspel arrives for President Donald Trump's State of the Union address at the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.rendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

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By Ken Dilanian

WASHINGTON — When CIA Director Gina Haspel walked into the House chamber Tuesday night to attend President Donald Trump's State of the Union address, some former agency officers took note. When she began standing and clapping during what some considered a highly partisan speech, a few were surprised.

"She's applauding like a trained aquarium seal at every line, just like a member of the House GOP caucus, even on domestic stuff," a former officer said. "Holy crow."

In the mind of this former officer and others interviewed by NBC News, the CIA director should hold herself apart from a president's partisan rhetoric — especially the sentiments of a president who has frequently disparaged the intelligence community.

CIA Director Gina Haspel applauds during President Donald Trump's State of the Union address at the Capitol on Tuesday.NBC News

In the administrations of presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, CIA directors didn't attend the State of the Union. But Trump made the CIA director a Cabinet post, meaning Haspel was invited.

Her decision to stand and clap during applause lines, even on domestic matters, was consistent with the actions of other Cabinet officials, including the defense secretary and the director of national intelligence.

It was in contrast to senior generals, who mainly sat with their arms folded, except during clearly nonpartisan moments, such as when a soldier reunited with his family.

CIA Director Gina Haspel applauds during President Donald Trump's State of the Union address at the Capitol on Tuesday.NBC News

People close to former CIA directors John Brennan, David Petraeus, Leon Panetta and Michael Hayden told NBC News that they never attended a State of the Union speech.

The job of CIA director was removed from the Cabinet when the position of director of national intelligence was created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Former CIA Director George Tenet was the last director when it previously was a Cabinet post. A source close to Tenet said Tenet did attend State of the Union speeches during the second Clinton administration — but that he was careful about when to applaud.

"He was always a little uncomfortable," the former CIA official said. "He would follow the example of the Joint Chiefs — if they applauded, he applauded. He would try to blend into the wall."

Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff look on as President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address at the Capitol on Tuesday.Oliver Douliery / AFP - Getty Images

A spokesman for Haspel at the CIA declined to comment.

Cameras panning the House chamber Tuesday night captured Haspel only intermittently. In some cases, she is seen applauding generic if debatable lines, such as Trump's saying the state of the union was stronger than ever or that "wealthy people and companies are pouring money into poor neighborhoods or areas that haven't seen investment in many decades."

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In one case, Haspel can be seen standing and applauding a controversial proposition — Trump's touting of legislation that would allow victims of crime to sue so-called sanctuary cities, which generally decline to cooperate with federal authorities seeking to identify undocumented immigrants.

The CIA director is expected to be an independent actor who levels with the president about intelligence assessments, whether or not he wants to hear them. A line attributed to Jesus in the Bible is carved into the walls of the agency's marble lobby: "And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."

Haspel, a career CIA officer, has kept an extremely low profile as director, holding only a few public appearances open to the news media. But even inside the agency, she is a bit of a mystery. People who worked closely with her over the years say they aren't sure about her politics.

There is great speculation among former CIA officials and intelligence community observers about how she deals with a president who has openly questioned intelligence assessments, including the judgments that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and that North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons.

"She holds things close to the vest," said a former officer who worked with her. We always assumed she was apolitical and trying to keep the integrity of the agency intact."

Referring to Trump's election slogan, "Make America Great Again," the former officer asked, "What if she really is full-on MAGA now?"

Another former CIA official who knows Haspel said that is doubtful. What's more likely, he said, is that Haspel was cognizant of the fact that if she sat on her hands while others were cheering, Trump might have noticed.

"This is a guy who pays close attention to these things," the former official said.

Robert Windrem contributed.