President Donald Trump says ISIS is defeated in Syria. He’s said North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat” and that Kim Jong Un is committed to giving up his country’s nuclear weapons. He’s repeatedly bought Russia’s claim that it didn’t interfere in the 2016 presidential election. He regularly mocks the idea that climate change is a threat and has called it a hoax. And he said staying in the Iran nuclear deal would lead to that country acquiring nuclear weapons in “just a short time.”
But according to Trump’s own senior intelligence officials, none of that is true. Zero. Zilch.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and other top intelligence officials presented their annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” report to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. That document “reflects the collective insights of the Intelligence Community” — including the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, and many other federal agencies — about the biggest threats currently facing the United States.
And the picture this latest report paints makes one thing stunningly clear: Trump’s major foreign policy positions are not based in reality.
Here are some of the key findings of the report that directly contradict Trump’s claims:
- ISIS still has “thousands” of fighters in Syria (and Iraq).
- North Korea is “unlikely to give up all of its [nuclear] stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities.”
- Russia will meddle in the 2020 elections via social media “to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians.”
- The US will have to contend with the security challenges posed by “the negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change” around the world.
- “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device” — in other words, Iran is still abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal that Trump pulled out of — and its “continued implementation” of the deal “has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about one year.”
- What’s more, the report warns that “Iranian officials have publicly threatened” to “resume nuclear activities that the [nuclear deal] limits — if Iran does not gain the tangible trade and investment benefits it expected from the deal.” (Though, again, it notes that Iran isn’t “currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activity.”)
CNN’s Jim Sciutto summed up the remarkable contrasts in a single tweet on Tuesday:
The nation's senior-most intel officials are making clear many of Trump's claims are not based on intelligence:— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) January 29, 2019
- ISIS is not defeated
- North Korea is not denuclearizing
- Russia still interfering in US elections
- Climate change is real & endangers US national security
As president, Trump has every right to make foreign policy decisions as he sees fit, and he’s not required to listen to what the US intelligence community tells him. Intelligence is meant to help him and his advisers make the smartest, best-informed decisions possible based on the facts.
If Trump chooses to completely disregard those facts and make foreign policy decisions based solely on his gut instincts, that’s his prerogative.
“There are often differences between the intelligence and policy communities, if only because the former is describing the world as it is, and the latter is working to change that reality,” Eric Brewer, who spent time in Trump’s White House and in the intelligence community, told me.
But not only is it dishonest to sell those decisions to the American people based on lies, it’s also potentially dangerous to make policy that way.
Trump’s North Korea policy is illustrative
The Trump administration is currently in the midst of months-long negotiations with North Korea in pursuit of a deal that would see the country give up its nuclear weapons and dismantle its nuclear and missile production facilities.
But those negotiations are entirely predicated on the belief that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is at least open to the idea of giving up his nuclear weapons. And indeed, both President Trump and top administration officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continue to insist that North Korea has agreed to give up its missiles and nukes.
Yet the intelligence assessment — which, again, represents the consensus view of different US agencies involved in collecting and analyzing intelligence — clearly states that the country “is unlikely to give up all of its [nuclear] stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities,” and adds that “North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival.”
That fits with the publicly available evidence experts and researchers have found showing that North Korea has continued to improve its weapons programs throughout the negotiations and is hiding military sites from the US. Those certainly don’t seem like the actions of a country planning to give its weapons up anytime soon.
Trump’s miscalculation here, therefore, is potentially dangerous. Should he and his administration continue to pressure North Korea to do something it likely will never do, then the diplomatic effort is doomed to fail. That, sadly, could potentially put both countries back to threatening each other with nuclear annihilation.
And pursuing an unlikely diplomatic goal keeps the Trump administration from trying other policies, like containing a nuclear North Korea. The current method, so far, has only led to an even more capable Kim regime.
Trump’s statements about key foreign policy issues aren’t just wrong, then. They have the potential to make the country he leads — and the world — less safe.