President Donald Trump assured employees at the CIA of his strong support and said he would unleash them to defeat Islamic terrorists after previous presidents had held the intelligence community back during the nation’s 16-year-old war with extremists.
“We have not used the real abilities that we have. We’ve been restrained,” Trump said in a rambling speech that strayed into criticism of the media, his performance during Friday’s inaugural speech and his belief that the U.S. should have “kept the oil” after invading Iraq.
Standing before the CIA Memorial Wall, which is engraved with stars representing employees who lost their lives in service to the country, Trump rejected the notion that he had been in a “feud” with the intelligence community over its investigation of the Russian government’s hacking of the presidential campaign.
He was not specific about what additional “abilities” the Central Intelligence Agency should use against terrorism, but during his presidential campaign, Trump openly suggested his predecessor, Barack Obama, was wrong to ban waterboarding and other “enhanced” interrogation techniques criticized as torture.
‘This is Evil’
“Radical Islamic terrorism, and I said it yesterday, has to be eradicated, just off the face of the Earth,” Trump said in his speech at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. “This is evil.”
Trump visited the agency on his first full day on the job to begin patching up relations strained by his public criticism of the intelligence community’s investigation of Russia’s hacks of Democratic Party officials’ e-mail accounts during the campaign. After winning election, Trump repeatedly questioned the community’s findings.
“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Trump’s office said in a December statement challenging the findings on Russian hacking.
In a later pair of tweets, Trump appeared to accuse Obama CIA chief John Brennan of being behind the leak of an unverified dossier purporting to contain compromising information on Trump and said the previous team “couldn’t do much worse.”
Trump was angered by comments Brennan made in a Fox News interview in his final week in office.
“What I do find outrageous is equating intelligence community with Nazi Germany,” Brennan, who served in the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, said in the interview. “I do take great umbrage at that, and there is no basis for Mr. Trump to point fingers at the intelligence community for leaking information that was already available publicly.”
Trump quickly retorted, saying on Twitter: “Oh really, couldn’t do… much worse – just look at Syria (red line), Crimea, Ukraine and the build-up of Russian nukes. Not good! Was this the leaker of Fake News?,” a reference to the dossier.
Now as president, Trump was more conciliatory.
“There is nobody who feels stronger about the intelligence community and the CIA than Donald Trump,” he said. He was accompanied by his National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, and his nominee to lead the agency, Mike Pompeo, who is awaiting Senate confirmation.
“Maybe sometimes you haven’t got the backing that you’ve wanted,” Trump said. “You’re going to get so much backing, maybe you’re going to say, ‘please don’t give us so much backing. Mr. President, please don’t give us so much backing.’”
After an introduction by acting CIA Director Meroe Park, Trump jokingly suggested that most of the audience had voted for him, but said he wouldn’t ask them to raise their hands. “The military gave us tremendous percentages of votes,” he said. “Probably almost everybody in this room voted for me. I would guarantee a big portion.”
The visit was planned with the expectation that Pompeo, a Kansas Republican, would be confirmed by the Senate on Friday and could be sworn in Saturday. Instead, objections from Democrats postponed the vote until next week.
“No CIA director in history has ever been confirmed on Inauguration Day,” Democratic Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said in a statement. “The importance of the position of CIA director, especially in these dangerous times, demands that the nomination be thoroughly vetted, questioned and debated.”