President Trump traveled to CIA headquarters Saturday to make peace. But as he spoke in front of a wall with 117 stars marking spies who died while serving, Trump quickly shifted back to campaign mode — boasting about his achievements, lodging grievances against the media and making off-the-cuff observations.
The new president bragged that “probably everybody in this room voted for me,” told agents, “Trust me, I’m, like, a smart person,” and said his many appearances on the cover of Time magazine surpassed those of quarterback Tom Brady. He warned that the television networks would pay a “big price” for coverage that showed empty fields on Inauguration Day.
He blamed the media for ginning up his fight with the intelligence community, though Trump had, a week earlier, compared agents’ tactics to those of the Nazis while accusing them of leaking an unsubstantiated report about him.
“There is nobody that feels stronger about the intelligence community and the CIA than Donald Trump,” he assured a crowd of about 400 employees at the CIA’s Langley, Va., headquarters in suburban Washington.
The free-form speech at such a location and occasion underscored that though Trump has taken the oath of office, he will not restrain his style to meet traditional expectations for presidential behavior.
His habit of bragging and lashing out at enemies helped Trump build loyal support in his election run, but may also have contributed to his record-low approval ratings for an incoming president.
But Trump was consistently applauded by rank-and-file CIA employees. Senior staffers sitting near the front became more subdued as the president began to veer from topic to topic and charge that the media underestimated the crowd size at his swearing-in.
“Maybe sometimes you haven’t gotten the backing that you’ve wanted,” he said at another point. “You’re going to get so much backing. Maybe you are going to say, ‘Please, don’t give us so much backing.’”
The CIA speech came on a day that started with Trump and his family attending a traditional ecumenical prayer service at the National Cathedral. He refrained from taking on millions of people attending women’s marches around the world during their protests Saturday, suppressing his tendency to retaliate against those he perceives as challenging his authority.
But Trump’s team has been obsessing over its own crowd sizes. Pictures of large crowds were placed in the White House briefing room as Press Secretary Sean Spicer chastised the media for what he labeled irresponsible, reckless and false reporting about the inauguration that he said sowed division. He pointed out that no official crowd estimates were given, yet insisted, improbably, that it was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.
Overhead photos and subway ridership statistics showed smaller crowds than in recent inaugurations, especially compared with former President Obama’s 2009 swearing-in as the nation’s first African American president.
Spicer did not take questions but issued a strong warning to the media that the new administration would be holding it accountable.
While Trump kept a handful of events on his public schedule, aides continued setting up the White House. Among the crucial housekeeping items: The Justice Department published an opinion stating that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, could work as a top White House advisor, notwithstanding a 1967 anti-nepotism law. The 14-page opinion, written by Daniel Koffsky, a career attorney in the Office of Legal Counsel with decades of experience, concluded that the law grants the president broad hiring authority.
Spicer said Trump had spoken with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. He said Trump would meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May in Washington at the end of the week and with Peña Nieto at the end of the month.
Trump’s visit to the CIA building’s white marble lobby followed months of mocking the agency and questioning its conclusions on Russian hacking during the election. In addition to sending a message to agents, Trump wanted to show his support for Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), his pick to run the CIA, who is expected to be confirmed by the Senate early in the week. Trump met with senior CIA leaders who highlighted the agency’s counterterrorism efforts before he spoke to the larger group.
The CIA is expected to play a major role in increasing attacks on Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, a top priority for Trump. During his inaugural address Friday, Trump promised to “eradicate from the face of the earth” Islamic terrorist groups like Islamic State and Al Qaeda. On Saturday, he told agents they would be at the forefront of those efforts and asserted that the intelligence community had not been fully used to help win wars.
“This group is going to be one of the most important groups in this country toward making us safe, toward making us winners again,” Trump said.
The CIA split with Trump last fall when the agency’s analysts concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered intelligence officials to launch an operation to influence the U.S. election to undermine Hillary Clinton and help Trump win.
Trump has acknowledged that Russia hacked Democratic files in an effort to interfere with the election. But he praised Putin, denied the effort was aimed at helping him win, and suggested the hacked information may have helped voters.
Top CIA leaders were eager to put the public spat with the commander in chief behind them Saturday. Meroe Park, who is leading the agency until Pompeo is approved, said Trump’s decision to visit on his first full day as president meant a lot. The hall was only able to accommodate 400 CIA employees, but hundreds more wanted to attend, Park said.
“CIA’s relationship with the president has been essential,” said Park, who has been at the agency for nearly three decades.
But Trump’s first appearance at the agency was panned by Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“While standing in front of the stars representing CIA personnel who lost their lives in the service of their country — hallowed ground — Trump gave little more than a perfunctory acknowledgment of their service and sacrifice,” Schiff said in a statement that criticized Trump’s speech as frivolous and meandering.
“He will need to do more than use the agency memorial as a backdrop if he wants to earn the respect of the men and women who provide the best intelligence in the world,” Schiff added.