WASHINGTON - As Congress again dives into concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 election with two hearings Wednesday, worries persist that President Donald Trump's handling of the issue is driving a wedge between him and the country's intelligence agencies.
Trump's relationship with the intelligence community has been fragile from the start as he continually downplayed or dismissed intelligence asserting that Russia waged an unprecedented "influence campaign" to help swing the election in his favor.
Yet the back-and-forth of recent weeks, highlighted by what one former U.S. law enforcement official described as a “running street battle” between the president and fired FBI director James Comey, may have taken the relationship to a new low.
Former FBI officials say colleagues still active in the bureau have grown distrustful of Trump after hearing him repeatedly demean and belittle their work.
Show of support welcomed
One spoke of getting a text from a former colleague, describing how she was relieved that Comey stood up against the president and for the FBI's work force at the start of his June 8 appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The administration “chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray,” Comey told lawmakers that day, calling such allegations “lies, plain and simple.”
And there are those who think last week's tweet storm by the president served only to again increase existing tensions.
“After 7 months of investigations & committee hearings about my “collusion with the Russians,” nobody has been able to show any proof.” Sad” the president tweeted Friday, describing the ongoing probe a "phony Witch Hunt."
After 7 months of investigations & committee hearings about my "collusion with the Russians," nobody has been able to show any proof. Sad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 16, 2017
‘A growing concern’
“I think there is very likely a growing concern about where this is going and where it stops, or if it does,” said Ronald Hosko, a former assistant director of the FBI who has worked with Comey.
“I had hoped there would be some very quick healing as the president was inaugurated and took ownership of the intelligence community, and put some of his own people in there," Hosko added, noting that despite appointments like former Congressman Mike Pompeo to head the Central Intelligence Agency and former Sen. Dan Coats to serve as director of national intelligence, it hasn’t happened.
“He (Trump) still looks at the intelligence community as being owned by [former president] Barack Obama,” Hosko said.
Putting country above politics
Others with close ties to the intelligence community, however, are quick to point out that the community, as a whole, prides itself on putting country and mission above politics, and that most employees will continue to do their jobs regardless of how they may feel personally about Trump.
“Listen, the FBI and the intelligence community would have to admit the president's team has been solid on Iran, ISIS, al Qaida, countries that support terrorism and North Korea,” said Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer now with the Hudson Institute. “The cloudy area remains Russia, and the administration should do more to clarify.”
While Pregent believes there is a basis for some sort of reconciliation, other former intelligence officials see little reason to think anything will change for the better.
“The main things Donald Trump could do Donald Trump definitely isn't going to do because it would involve acknowledging mistakes on his part,” said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer now with Georgetown University.
Instead, some fear the administration's approach will continue to create an atmosphere in which many in the intelligence community will continue to believe they and their work are under attack, with a few resorting to more drastic measures.
“I think the various aspects of how the Trump administration and the president himself have approached things has encouraged an environment that increases the odds there will be leaks,” Pillar said.
Although he praised WikiLeaks for publishing information critical of his campaign opponent Hillary Clinton, since the election, Trump has called on the FBI and intelligence agencies to crack down on leaks and leakers.
“Do some people get to that conclusion, that we need to tell someone to get his attention? It is a very reasonable hypothesis,” added Ron Hosko, a former assistant FBI director.
Hire of Mueller brings hope
Both Pillar and Hosko said they believe the vast majority of employees within the intelligence community understand the dangers of leaking classified information and will not cross that line.
They also say the appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the Russia allegations will help, giving intelligence officers who believe their work on Russia is being minimized somewhere to turn.
Still, there is an overriding worry that in an already politically charged environment, it is just too easy for those in or near the intelligence community to let go of the facts and get carried away.
“We're getting away from reasonable arguments,” said Pregent, noting “there's an immediate overreaction to his tweets, but the president doesn't help himself when he casts a wide net.”