President Trump returned from Helsinki having broken a pledge he made before the memorial wall at CIA headquarters during his very first on full day in office.
“I want to just let you know, I am so behind you,” our new president had told an agency gathering back in January of 2017. “And I know maybe sometimes you haven’t gotten the backing that you’ve wanted, and you’re going to get so much backing… But you’re going to have that. And I think everybody in this room knows it.”
The white marble behind him was inscribed with words in gold letters.
“IN HONOR OF THOSE MEMBERS OF THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE SERVICE OF THEIR COUNTRY”
Beneath that inscription were 117 black stars, each representing somebody who had made the supreme sacrifice. Trump did not mention any of them. He instead spoke at great length about himself.
The percentage of people at this gathering who must have voted for him.
The number of occasions he had been on the cover of Time magazine.
The number of campaign stops in the final months.
The size of the crowds at the rallies.
The size of the crowd at his inauguration.
How he had felt a few raindrops at the start of his inaugural address, but “God looked down and he said, we’re not going to let it rain on your speech.”
How the rain had stopped until he was done and a downpour commenced.
The dishonesty of the media who questioned his crowd estimate and his account of the rain and so much else.
His love of honesty.
He spoke of his first White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, as a “superstar” and of his newly appointed CIA Director Mike Pompeo as “a real star.” But he still uttered not a word about the black stars behind him.
At the end of his remarks, he did return to the living agency folks who stood before him. He spoke very differently than he had during the campaign and immediately after his surprising victory, when he had accused the intelligence agencies of leaking a report that the Russians had gathered compromising information about him.
He had tweeted as president-elect—just a week before his CIA visit—that “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 now said, on day one of his new job: “I just wanted to really say that I love you, I respect you. There’s nobody I respect more. You’re going to do a fantastic job. And we’re going to start winning again, and you’re going to be leading the charge.”
Trump then set off to begin his presidency, having demonstrated in his very first appearance that it was essentially all about him, that he put self before country.
The CIA added eight more black stars to the wall later that year, followed by another four just last month, for a new total of 129. All of those who were memorialized had put country before self. None had been motivated by money or fame. A dozen were so un-famous that their very names remain secret.
The agency’s continuing work included a role in the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. One result of the overall effort involving the entire intelligence community was the extraordinary detail in the indictment that the Justice Department secured against 12 Russian military intelligence officers, specifying exactly who had done what..
Rather than praise the investigators for their remarkable effort and excoriate the Russians for seeking to sabotage American democracy, Trump saw it only in terms of Trump. He continued to view the whole investigation as an effort to challenge the legitimacy of his victory.
“Witch hunt!” he tweeted, as he had often before.
He tweeted a step further as his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin approached, blaming America for the troubles between the two countries.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”
Then came the joint press conference with Putin in which Trump famously took the Russian thug’s word over the findings of U.S. intelligence.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said.
Trump also offered, “[Putin] just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be.”
But on Tuesday, Trump made a kind of take-back, insisting that upon reviewing a transcript and a video of the press conference he had really meant to say “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be,” which, he explained, would have been “sort of a double negative.”
Hours after that, he appeared in an interview with Fox host Tucker Carlson in which he attacked his domestic enemies as “bad people” who are being “exposed for what they are” and have “really hurt our country.” He had no such harsh words for Russia.
As that aired, he tweeted a kind of take back of his take back: “The meeting between President Putin and myself was a great success, except in the Fake News Media!”
And the people of the intelligence agencies were out there, seeking neither fortune nor fame, putting country before self, even when a commander-in-chief obsessed with wealth and with putting his name on everything broke a pledge he made to them on his first full day in office at a place made sacred by sacrifice.