On his first full day in the White House, President Trump went to the CIA presumably to try and offer an olive branch to members of the intelligence community he often maligned over their conclusions that Russia had conspired to influence the U.S. elections.
Instead, he falsely denied that he had ever criticized the agency, falsely inflated the crowd size at his inauguration on Friday, attacked the media and told intelligence officers gathered to, “Trust me. I’m like a smart person.”
It was a rambling speech that was reminiscent of many of his campaign rallies. But Trump did begin by praising the work that CIA officers do and the danger they put themselves in every day, saying they would be instrumental in “making us safe” and “making us winners again.”
He made the speech in front of a wall of 117 stars representing those in the agency who had lost their lives in service. He called the memorial “very, very special” and said he had enjoyed touring the building prior to the speech.
“There is nobody that feels stronger about the intelligence community and the CIA than Donald Trump,” the president boasted, referring to himself in the third person.
He said that the agency sometimes hadn’t gotten the backing they deserved from the White House, and promised that “you’re going to get so much backing, maybe you’re going to say, ‘please don’t give us so much backing'” — adapting a line he said many times during the campaign.
He ended his remarks by telling those gathered that, “I love you. I respect you. There’s nobody I respect more. You’re going to do a fantastic job. We’re going to start winning again, and you’re going to lead the charge” in helping combat ISIS.
He praised his pick of Rep. Michael Pompeo, R-Kan., to lead the CIA, who is slated to get a confirmation vote by the full Senate on Monday. Trump called Pompeo a “total star” and a “gem” and said he may have been his most important Cabinet pick.
Referencing his “running war with the media” and calling them “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” — a line which got laughs and applause from the crowd of CIA officers — he claimed that the press had misreported what he’s said in the past.
“They sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community,” Trump said. “And I just wanted to let you know, the reason you’re the No. 1 stop, it is exactly the opposite, and they understand that.”
In the wake of the intelligence community’s findings that Russia engaged in cyberattacks intended to influence the elections in favor of Trump, he’s accused them of leaking information to the press, likening it to “Nazi Germany.” He’s repeatedly cast doubt on their findings, and after a Washington Post story in December reported the CIA conclusions, he said in a statement that, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
But Trump continued bashing the media, launching into a tirade claiming that the crowd sizes during his inauguration yesterday were being misrepresented.
“We had a massive field of people. You saw that. Packed,” he said. “I get up this morning, I turn on one of the networks, they show an empty field. I said, wait a minute, I made a speech. I looked out, it looked like a million, a million and a half people. They showed a field where there were practically nobody standing there.”
“It went all the way back to the Washington Monument,” Trump claimed.
There are no official crowd estimates available for Friday’s inauguration; the National Park Service stopped doing so after inaccurate estimations of the Million Man March in 1995.
But according to aerial photos and multiple NPR reporters on the ground, the crowd was nowhere near the Washington Monument. The mall area near the monument was sparsely populated, and Trump didn’t offer any verification for where the 1 million to 1.5 million estimate came from, or for knocking down one news report’s estimate that there were only 250,000 people in attendance.
Trump also claimed that the rain should have scared people away, “But God looked down, and He said, ‘We’re not going to let it rain on your speech,'” and that, though he “got hit by a couple of drops” when he started his speech that the rain “stopped immediately …and then it became really sunny.”
In fact, neither of those claims is true, and it was raining during Trump’s speech and remained overcast and cloudy.
Trump also touted his electoral win, saying that he had tremendous support from the military and said he would “guarantee a big portion” of people at his CIA speech voted for him. In fact, the military and the intelligence community are two separate entities.
Several CIA veterans tell NPR they’re unconvinced that the speech can undo months of bitter relations.
“CIA’s employees are professionals and will serve the First Customer to the best of their ability, but they certainly aren’t fools,” said former CIA analyst Aki Peritz. “They’ve all heard the hostile rhetoric directed at them from Donald Trump… and one prepared kumbaya speech isn’t going to change the real concerns CIA’s workforce — from the 7th floor to the greenest trainee — have with their new boss.”
Paul Pillar, the CIA’s former top analyst for the Middle East, seconds that view. He says his former colleagues will welcome the gesture of a Presidential visit, “but a single visit and a few nice words will not outweigh prior public disparagement. Unwarranted accusations about leaking and comparisons to Nazis are not the sort of attack that is easily forgotten.”
“Much depends on whether Mr. Pompeo sees and performs his role as the White House’s envoy and overlord, or instead as the leader of the agency with everything leadership implies, regarding identifying with the institution,” Pillar said. “All that remains to be seen.”