On January 29, 2019, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and other intelligence agency leaders appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee to present their findings on the major security threats facing the United States, particularly Russia’s ongoing efforts to influence U.S. elections. The next day, in a show of disapproval, President Donald Trump tweeted, “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”
This exchange between the president and the national intelligence community is just a snapshot of the tension, conflict, and outright antagonism that has characterized their relationship since President Trump was elected in 2016. While it is certainly not uncommon for U.S. presidents to disagree with or even ignore the information provided by their intelligence agencies, Trump’s approach to national intelligence should sound alarm bells for those concerned about the possibility of democratic erosion.
One of the most pressing threats to American democracy is Russia’s ongoing efforts to interfere in our elections, which include targeting voter registration databases, hacking over 200 groups tied to elections, and spreading disinformation on social media. The U.S. intelligence community is clearly in agreement about both the threat and the need to take it seriously. In January 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published a report, informed by the C.I.A., the F.B.I., and the National Security Agency, confirming that Russia did interfere in the 2016 presidential election. In July 2019, the National Intelligence Estimate, a top-secret document reflecting the consensus of the intelligence community on national-security matters, highlighted Russia’s ongoing efforts to influence U.S. elections in the future, particularly in 2020.
Furthermore, investigating this threat to our elections is absolutely critical for measuring the risk of democratic erosion in the U.S. Democratic scholars unanimously view free and fair elections as a main pillar of democracy . If the American electorate is no longer able to participate in elections that are not influenced by the efforts of foreign adversaries, it becomes impossible to form a government that can be viewed as accountable, legitimate, or representative. In turn, it becomes difficult to definitively identify the U.S. as a democracy.
Despite the urgency of this threat, President Trump has repeatedly downplayed and outright denied the concerning reality of Russian interference in U.S. elections. The starkest example of this was at a press conference in Helsinki, when, in response to a question on intelligence findings on Russia, President Trump stated, “They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.” In effect, the president expressed greater trust and confidence in the words of Vladimir Putin than those of his own intelligence agencies.
The answer President Trump gave in Helsinki is indicative of his deep distrust of the intelligence community. Since before he was inaugurated, President Trump has made it clear that any intelligence findings that he finds disagreeable or unflattering will be met with suspicion and censure. For instance, in 2016, after the C.I.A. concluded that Russia had indeed interfered in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf, his transition team released a statement that said, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” referring to the later-disproven justification provided for the Iraq War under George W. Bush. This past August, the president defended his suspicion of the intelligence community, tweeting, “[I]f the first people you met from so called American Intelligence were Dirty Cops who have now proven to be sleazebags at the highest level like James Comey, proven liar James Clapper, & perhaps the lowest of them all, Wacko John Brennan who headed the CIA, you could perhaps understand my reluctance to embrace!”
President Trump’s suspicion and discrediting of the intelligence community has been the driving force behind a deeply concerning trend: the gradual and institutional gutting of the U.S. intelligence community. As a result of the president’s distrust, intelligence officials have found themselves caught between two opposing forces: the need to protect the legitimacy and independence of intelligence agencies, and the pressure to demonstrate loyalty to the president. Those who choose to stand their ground often face ridicule, criticism, and quick replacement by loyalists with questionable credentials. For instance, on July 28, 2019, Trump announced the resignation of his first Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who had held steadfast against pressures to downplay the threat posed by Russia. Coats was replaced by Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas, a Trump loyalist with no experience in intelligence.
The scholarship on democratic erosion is clear on the dangers of weakening the civil service, particularly if the agencies in question serve as a check on executive power. Nancy Bermeo’s concept of executive aggrandizement, defined as the process in which an elected executive weakens checks on their power via a series of institutional changes, is particularly salient . While these changes may be completely legal and constitutional, they nonetheless enable the executive to expand his power and take undemocratic actions that would otherwise be restricted.
While President Trump’s firing of intelligence officials is certainly not illegal, it is a clear symptom of an administration-wide culture of intolerance towards dissent, viewed as “disloyalty,” and a trend towards the formation of a partisan, loyalist intelligence community. By ensuring that intelligence officials are in line with his own agenda, or are at least unable to express dissenting views, President Trump effectively cripples U.S. intelligence and endangers American democracy. He primes his supporters to immediately discredit intelligence findings if they conflict with the president’s views. He prevents intelligence agencies from dedicating sufficient resources to the investigation of national security threats that he perhaps would rather not address, such as Russian interference in U.S. elections, and inoculates himself from findings that may be adverse to his re-election efforts. He deconstructs an intelligence community long considered to be beyond partisanship, as an ever-present protector that transcends presidential terms, and rebuilds it in his own image. American national security and democracy will ultimately suffer the consequences. Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” The American Political Science Review, 1959.  Robert Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, 1971.  Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy, 2016.