By Eli Watkins, CNN
Updated 11:53 AM EST, Wed January 30, 2019
Washington (CNN) President Donald Trump chastised his own intelligence officials Wednesday morning for being soft on Iran a day after they contradicted numerous administration claims of foreign policy success.
On Tuesday, the nation’s top intelligence official, who was appointed by Trump, told Senate lawmakers that the US intelligence community does not believe Iran is currently undertaking “key activities” needed to produce a nuclear bomb — an assessment at odds with longtime administration claims that Iran is an immediate nuclear threat.
Trump, in a remarkable rebuke that was reminiscent of his past criticisms of law enforcement officials, said the intel chiefs were “extremely passive and naive” on the matter.
“The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!” Trump tweeted. “When I became President Iran was making trouble all over the Middle East, and beyond. Since ending the terrible Iran Nuclear Deal, they are MUCH different, but a source of potential danger and conflict. They are testing Rockets (last week) and more, and are coming very close to the edge. There economy is now crashing, which is the only thing holding them back. Be careful of Iran. Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”
In a series of tweets, Trump also touted “tremendous progress” against ISIS, a recently announced framework for talks with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan and his attempt at a rapprochement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Notably, Trump said Wednesday there was a “decent chance of denuclearization” on the Korean Peninsula, a step back from his previous demands that the longtime US foe end its nuclear program.
Trump made no mention of Russia, which was specifically mentioned by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on Tuesday as likely to target 2020 elections. Also left unmentioned was a response to intelligence officials’ warnings about the threat of climate change.
Trump was scheduled to receive an intelligence briefing later Wednesday morning.
In announcing last May that the US would withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, Trump argued that remaining in the 2015 pact would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
But more than eight months later, 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 Tuesday.
Officials contradicted Trump
Coats’ remarks were made as he released the intelligence community’s 2019 worldwide threat assessment and appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee along with the heads of key intelligence agencies.
At the hearing, the Trump-appointed officials suggested the President’s assertions about ISIS, Iran, North Korea and climate change were off base. Coats warned further that Russia and other foreign countries would seek to target the US political system in 2020.
Trump said Wednesday morning that the “caliphate” would “soon be destroyed,” a step back from his claim last month that the US had already “won against ISIS.” Coats testified on Tuesday that “ISIS is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.”
Trump’s comments on ISIS also compared progress against the terror group under his tenure favorably to the end of the Obama administration — at one point he claimed Wednesday that “ISIS was out of control in Syria” when he took over — though by the time Trump’s presidency began, ISIS was already on the decline, with the US declaring 75% of ISIS fighters killed by December 2016.
Trump’s defense on Wednesday also serves to push back against wider criticism of some recent major foreign policy decisions.
Earlier this week, the US special representative for Afghanistan said the US and the Taliban had agreed in principle for a framework to talks that could end the nearly 20-year war. The plan has been criticized by some who call for a different approach or sustained US presence there, and former US ambassador Ryan Crocker wrote a Washington Post op-ed saying the framework for talks had “delegitimized” the government of Afghanistan. In a rare break with Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled an amendment on Tuesday rebuking Trump’s attempts to pull the military away from both Afghanistan and Syria, where Trump’s claims of ISIS’s defeat have been the subject of widespread skepticism since abruptly announcing the US withdrawal last month.
On North Korea, Trump has made no secret about his optimistic view of his approach to Kim and recently announced a second summit with the dictator in a bid to negotiate nuclear disarmament. Intelligence officials, however, said Tuesday that they believed North Korea was “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability.” Coats said likewise that they had observed activity “inconsistent with full denuclearization.”
Trump’s direct rebuke of his intelligence officials echoed his past criticism of his top appointees on Twitter, including his regular mocking of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, condemnation of former high-ranking FBI officials and conflicting statements about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether any of his associates conspired with Moscow. Trump has vehemently denied any connections and has frequently called the investigation a “witch hunt.”
And Wednesday’s tweets are not the first time he’s used harsh words against US intelligence officials.
Days before he took the oath of office, Trump lashed out at the intelligence community under the Obama administration after CNN first reported he was briefed on potential Russian efforts to blackmail him.
“Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” he tweeted in January 2017.
Trump also clashed with Coats on the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia last July, when Coats issued a statement reaffirming the conclusion that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election. Trump had earlier said he doubted the assessment while standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, though he later chalked up his statements to misspeaking.
CNN’s Zachary Cohen and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.