If it had not already been one of the most extraordinary and dramatic American Presidential elections in modern political history, the 2016 Trump v Clinton contest continues to become even more surreal, even though the vote was held over two months ago. The final twist in this epic piece of political theatre which students of politics are bound to analysis for generations to come, just weeks before the Inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States, sees the incoming President embroiled in one of the most unbelievable plot twists imaginable, at war with the very intelligence agencies he will soon be charged with. Setting aside the claims of the United States CIA, FBI and Director of National Intelligence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a cyber campaign of disruption to support Donald Trump, what has been even more remarkable is President-elect Trump's open rejection of the US intelligence communities assessment of the hacking claims and his and his team's open scepticism and denigration of American intelligence.
Donald Trump has broken with many political and diplomatic precedents during his successful run for both the GOP Presidential nomination and then the Presidency itself. In many ways he has broken nearly every political rule and taboo there is. Where more conventional politicians fear to tread, President-elect Trump has shown no such inhibitions. Such is the situation now as Trump takes on the collective might of the American intelligence community. To see an incoming President engaged in a war of words with America's spies is highly unusual. According to the outgoing President, Barack Obama, and the CIA, FBI and Office of Director of National Intelligence the Russian Government engaged in a cyber-hacking campaign during the United States Presidential election aimed at boosting the chances of Donald Trump becoming President and discrediting his rival Democrat Hillary Clinton. It is claimed by the various US intelligence agencies that the Kremlin designed a plan to hack into the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and top Clinton campaign aides such as Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta, then passed the hacked emails to third party intermediaries such as WIKILEAKS for publication during the election campaign to undermine Hillary Clinton's chances.
President Obama has been giving various media interviews recently where he has lambasted his Russian counterpart President Putin and stated he told Mr. Putin at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China back in September to "cut it out", a reference to the alleged cyber-hacking by Russian agents of the Democratic Party's National Committee computer server and also the email accounts of Clinton campaign officials. The Obama administration has even gone so far as to place sanctions on the Russian Government regarding this imbroglio and the President commissioned the intelligence services to write up a report detailing the hacking interference. Whether or not the allegations are true – and at the moment they are pure allegations given the lack of evidence contained within the official report – what is most striking about this episode is the fact that the incumbent US President (Obama) and the incoming President (Trump) hold such radically different views on whether to accept the conclusions of the intelligence world or to rubbish them. When the news began to gather momentum back in late November and December the Trump camp reacted furiously and questioned the credibility and veracity of the CIA and FBI stating that these were the same people who told the American public that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Trump continued to rage and fulminate against American spies, refusing to accept the collective assessment of 17 US intel agencies and taking a more cautious approach to the subject than other members of his party such as Cold War warrior Senator John McCain and national security hawk Senator Lindsay Graham. While the soon to be defunct Obama administration has seized upon the situation to slap further sanctions on Russian officials and entities, President-elect Trump has repeated his calls to attempt a rapprochement with Moscow and "reset" the relationship with President Putin for closer US-Russia ties. All of this reveals what had been lurking beneath the surface and simmering away with tension – that is – the distrust and criticism President-elect Trump holds towards the US intelligence services.
It has been widely commented upon that the President-elect does not take the Daily Presidential Briefing of intelligence and receives it as and when information is updated. In some ways it is an efficient innovation given that the DPB largely covers the exact same ground over and over again until new information is added. It also however signals a lack of deference on the part of the President towards American intelligence. President Trump is not starry eyed about the Washington DC power nexus of the CIA, FBI and NSA. He is all too aware that American intelligence can get a great deal right, but also a great deal wrong, as over the case of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme. So, for the first time in living memory, an American President will take charge of the White House and with it the US intelligence apparatus with a well known strand of scepticism evident towards America's spies and spy masters. How this mistrust will play out in the Oval Office and beyond will have significant ramifications for Trump's foreign policy and American interests globally.