As a Conspiracy Theorist, Trump Has It Out for the CIA
“There are a lot of killers,” President Trump replied when Fox News host Bill O’Reilly described Trump's friend Vladimir Putin as a killer.
“Do you think our country is so innocent?” Trump stated, looking like a newcomer at the Tony Soprano Poker Tournament.
"Take a look at what we have done too,” he went on. “We've made a lot of mistakes. I've been against the war in Iraq from the beginning.”
When O’Reilly tried to make a distinction between mistakes and murder, Trump wouldn’t have it.
“A lot of mistakes, okay?” the president went on. “But a lot of people were killed. So, a lot of killers around, believe me."
Trump was referring, once again, to the CIA’s erroneous 2002 finding on Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction that were used to justify the U.S. invasion. He was, once again, baiting the agency. The CIA was not mistaken; they were murderers.
The message: Lay off my friend Putin, already. He's no different than we are.
Trump’s tough guy pose betrayed some hard political realities.
The president’s hostility to the CIA is a mixed bag. He disdains the factuality of the Agency’s work. He dismisses the value of the Agency’s daily briefings. He doesn’t care for the Agency’s findings on the Muslim Brotherhood or Iran’s nuclear program.
Trump doesn’t much care about the morality of the CIA’s work. He says he would approve of torture of suspected terrorists—a violation of standing Agency policy and U.S. and international law—because he believes that “torture works.”
As a conspiracy theorist, Trump is more interested in demonizing and discrediting the CIA, a $15 billion-a-year agency and a possible check on his power. As an aspiring autocrat, Trump regards the Agency (whether it is liberal or illiberal or both) as a rival and a threat. Therefore the CIA must be humiliated.
When Trump likened CIA officials to “Nazis" even before he had been inaugurated, Americans wondered what the man could possibly be thinking.
The 45th president was thinking like a man at war. Not since Richard Nixon has there been a president so hostile to the CIA, but Trump is much more public than Nixon was. The president, of course, is correct that the U.S. government has its killers too. Some of them have worked for the CIA. This blunt truth can serve Trump as a blunt instrument in his war on the Agency.
To use a different metaphor, when it comes to playing the CIA, Trump has a trump card: the JFK card.
President Trump, like Natalie Portman and Oliver Stone, understands that the JFK story—how a president could be killed in broad daylight—still resonates in American culture, at least for the Baby Boomers. It never quite goes away. It is still with us in 2017, in the movie Jackie and in the politics of the Trump White House.
A federal law passed in 1992 requires the CIA and the FBI to release thousands of still-secret JFK files in October of this year. Time magazine and The Economist have flagged this upcoming data dump as one of the biggest expected news events of 2017.
For the older generation, JFK’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, was a Shakespearean tragedy that shaped everyone’s political consciousness. JFK was a popular liberal cruising toward reelection when he was shot and killed as his motorcade passed through a friendly crowd in Dallas. First Lady Jackie Kennedy, in her bloody pink suit, cradled her husband in her arms as he died on the way to the hospital. No one was ever brought to justice for the crime.
As a conspiracy theorist, Trump gravitates to the JFK story precisely because of its mass appeal and the way it evokes fear, especially fear of secret power. When rival Ted Cruz refused to drop out of the Republican presidential race last May, Trump smeared him with the JFK conspiracy brush, saying Cruz's father had associated with accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald a few months before JFK was killed.
Needless to say, Trump had no evidence to support this claim. It was a lie. But the talismanic power of the words “JFK conspiracy” and an old photograph of Oswald drove a cable news cycle or two, spurred massive internet traffic, and drove poor Ted Cruz right out of contention for power.
Now Trump has a JFK trump card to play with the CIA, and—this may come as some surprise—it is not conspiratorial flimflam, a bald-faced lie, a Cruz-like smear, or an Alex Jones Special. When it comes to JFK, Trump actually has real leverage over the Agency.
The 1992 JFK Records Act allows the CIA to continue keeping some or all of the most sensitive JFK secrets beyond this year, but only if the president agrees in writing. In other words, the CIA needs the president’s signature to keep some of its dirtiest linen out of public view.
There is probably no “smoking gun” revelation in the JFK files to come later this year, but there are hundreds of pages of secret material on CIA-linked killers such as Oswald, David Phillips and Bill Harvey. The current leaders and rank and file of the CIA would prefer some of this ancient material not be made public, for reasons of "national security."
If Hillary Clinton had been elected, the CIA would have received a sympathetic hearing from the White House. In the language of Washington policymakers, the Agency’s “equities" would have been protected. The CIA's last JFK secrets probably would have stayed secret.
Not so with Donald Trump. This president would love to see the Agency’s dirtiest secrets in his Twitter feed. So would his friend Putin, the former Russian intelligence officer.
The CIA is not likely to get any favors this fall, not from Trump, not when the president can bludgeon the liberal smartypants of Langley with the biggest conspiracy theory of them all. When it comes to JFK, the Agency is vulnerable, and Trump has the advantage.
The CIA is legally obliged to disgorge all of its JFK files for public viewing on Oct. 26, 2017. The president can’t wait.