President Donald Trump has previously declared that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat, touted the defeat of ISIS, doubted the effects of climate change and railed against the Iran nuclear deal as “defective at its core.”
But the most senior intelligence officials in the Trump administration suggested Tuesday that many of the President’s sweeping assertions related to national security are inconsistent with their own assessments.
When pressed by Senate lawmakers during a hearing about the most urgent global threats facing the US, Trump’s intelligence chiefs, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA director Gina Haspel, appeared to contradict several claims made by the President to justify core tenets of his foreign policy.
The apparent gap between Trump and his own intelligence agencies has been a persistent theme over the last two years, and Tuesday’s testimony illustrates just how stark the divide is between what the President says and the information he is being presented.
What Trump has said: On December 19, the President announced that US troops would withdraw from Syria. In making his announcement, Trump declared in a video released on Twitter: “We have won against ISIS. We’ve beaten them and we’ve beaten them badly. We’ve taken back the land and now it’s time for our troops to come back home.”
Since then, members of the Trump administration have repeatedly sought to downplay ISIS’ reach and impact in Syria.
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo touted the gains the US and its partners have made in the fight against the terrorist organization.
“It should not go unnoticed that we’ve also defeated the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq alongside more than six dozen nations in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS,” Pompeo said in remarks to the World Economic Forum delivered via satellite.
Pompeo noted “there’s a lot more work to do,” but told those at the Davos, Switzerland, forum that “with your help I know we’ll achieve it.”
What intelligence officials said on Tuesday: “ISIS is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria,” Coats testified.
Despite repeated claims by the Trump administration, and the President himself, that ISIS has been defeated, US intelligence assesses that the terror group “very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States,” Coats added.
The Worldwide Threat Assessment, released by Coats on Tuesday, also says that with the recent loss of territory, “ISIS will seek to exploit Sunni grievances, societal instability, and stretched security forces to regain territory in Iraq and Syria in the long term.”
Coats told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that ISIS “has returned to its guerrilla warfare roots while continuing to plot attacks and direct its supporters worldwide.”
But he also clearly stated that the group maintains a presence in Iraq and Syria.
What Trump has said: On June 13, the President wrote on Twitter: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” The message came as he concluded a historic first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
Since then, Trump has not repeated that claim. But he has said that negotiations with North Korea over ending its nuclear program are progressing well, and he has committed to meeting with Kim again at the end of February (though a date, location and agenda have not been revealed).
This month Trump has touted progress with North Korea as evidence of a successful administration.
“We have made a lot of progress as far as denuclearization’s concerned, and we’re talking about a lot of different things,” he said on January 19.
On January 6, he told reporters: “North Korea, we’re doing very well. And again, no rockets. There’s no rockets. There’s no anything. We’re doing very well.”
What intelligence officials said on Tuesday: “We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival,” according to Coats
At the hearing, Coats said the intelligence community’s “assessment is bolstered by observation of some activity that is inconsistent with full denuclearization.” And his CIA counterpart, Haspel, said Pyongyang “is committed to developing a long-range nuclear-armed missile that would pose a direct threat to the United States.”
Still, Coats acknowledged that North Korea seems to have halted, for now, its missile and nuclear tests, a development Trump has touted as evidence of successful diplomacy. Haspel indicated that Kim does “value dialogue” with the United States, and the US sees “indications” that he is “trying to navigate a path for some kind of better future” for the North Korean people.
Asked about Coats’ comments on Tuesday, a White House spokesman said: “Our goal is to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of the DPRK as Chairman Kim committed to in Singapore.”
What Trump has said: When the President announced last May that the US was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal he argued that remaining in the 2015 agreement would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
“It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement,” Trump said from the White House Diplomatic Room, calling the deal “defective at its core.”
In announcing his long-telegraphed decision, the President said he would initiate new sanctions on the regime, crippling the touchstone agreement negotiated by his predecessor. Trump said any country that helps Iran obtain nuclear weapons would also be “strongly sanctioned.”
“This was a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made,” the President said in remarks that, at times, misrepresented the international agreement’s provisions. “It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.”
What intelligence officials said on Tuesday: “We do not believe Iran is currently undertaking the key activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device,” Coats told lawmakers.
More than eight months after the President announced the US would withdraw from the pact, US intelligence officials testified that there is no indication Iran is currently attempting to develop a nuclear weapon and told lawmakers that Tehran remains in compliance with the agreement despite the US withdrawal.
“While we do not believe Iran is currently undertaking the key activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device, Iranian officials have publicly threatened to push the boundaries of JCPOA restrictions if Iran does not gain the tangible financial benefits it expected from the deal,” Coats said.
When asked by Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, if Iran has continued to abide by the terms of the agreement since the US departure, Haspel answered, “Yes,” but added a caveat.
“At the moment technically they are in compliance but we do see them debating amongst themselves as they fail to realize the economic benefits they hoped for from the deal,” she said.
While Coats and Haspel raised additional concerns Tuesday about issues that were not specifically addressed by the nuclear deal, including Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal and support of regional military groups that could pose a threat to the US, their testimony regarding Tehran’s nuclear ambitions offers little evidence to support Trump’s previous claim about the agreement itself.
What Trump has said: Before he became President, Trump claimed climate change was a “hoax.” He’s since backed off, telling “60 Minutes” in October that he believes “something’s happening” but it wasn’t necessarily caused by human activity and could reverse.
He’s also questioned an administration assessment of the potential consequences of climate change on the US. “I don’t believe it,” he said in November of the report, which predicted dire risks of climate change.
He’s also appeared to make light of extreme cold, suggesting frigid streaks were evidence that climate change is an overblown threat.
“In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming? Please come back fast, we need you!” he wrote on Monday.
What intelligence officials said on Tuesday: In its written assessment of worldwide threats, the US intelligence community laid out the potential security challenges posed by climate change, including “threats to public health, historic levels of human displacement, assaults on religious freedom, and the negative effects of environmental degradation.”
The report said those effects could spur “competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent” in the years ahead.
“Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security,” the assessment read. “Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution.”
By Zachary Cohen and Kevin Liptak, CNN