In front of the Memorial Wall at the CIA, Donald Trump gave a rambling, unfocused speech that garnered harsh reactions from former agency personnel. And in a deeply unusual and worrying move, it appears that Trump brought along his own section of cheerleaders to applaud his utterly odd and falsehood-filled speech.
Had a great meeting at CIA Headquarters yesterday, packed house, paid great respect to Wall, long standing ovations, amazing people. WIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 22, 2017
President Donald Trump spoke at the CIA on Saturday, an event which was originally scheduled to welcome Mike Pompeo as the new director of the agency, but which was foiled by Senate Democrats delaying Pompeo's confirmation vote.
What happened instead was a bizarre speech in which Trump appeared to be talking about whatever came to mind, whether it was the media, his relationship to the intelligence agencies, ISIS, or whether or not the room they were in should have columns.
As Steve Benen noted, "Watching the speech was surreal, as if the lines between the actual president of the United States and a satirical caricature were effectively blurred out of existence."
And perhaps the strangest and most telling aspect of the event was that Trump appeared to have brought along an audience of his own to applaud and laugh at the right moments. Apparently, even after the long presidential campaign and the absurd post-election "Thank You" tour, Trump is still not ready to relinquish the adoring, cheering crowds of rallies and stump speeches.
Media personnel and pool reporters at the speech have reported that the continued applause was not coming from the area where agency personnel were seated, but rather from a group of people who appeared to have come in with Trump:
Authorities are also pushing back against the perception that the CIA workforce was cheering for the president. They say the first three rows in front of the president were largely made up of supporters of Mr. Trump’s campaign.
An official with knowledge of the make-up of the crowd says that there were about 40 people who’d been invited by the Trump, Mike Pence and Rep. Mike Pompeo teams. The Trump team expected Rep. Pompeo, R-Kansas, to be sworn in during the event as the next CIA director, but the vote to confirm him was delayed on Friday by Senate Democrats. Also sitting in the first several rows in front of the president was the CIA’s senior leadership, which was not cheering the remarks.
More from CNN Prod per pool: "...the persons who are on the side...are the ones clapping and reacting. We do not know who these people are."
— Robert Gifford (@robjgifford) January 21, 2017
It appears that Trump has brought his affinity for theatrics into the White House, as the cheering audience has become part of the official narrative about Trump's relationship to the intelligence agencies — in his first "official" press conference on Monday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer cited the applauding crowd as evidence that intelligence agencies support Trump.
Spicer's comment echoed Trump's attempt to rewrite history about his relationship to the intelligence agencies — the same intelligence agencies Trump appeared to liken to Nazi Germany in a tweet earlier this month.
And the reason you're my first stop is that, as you know, I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth. [Laughter and applause] And they sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community. And I just want to let you know, the reason you're the number-one stop is exactly the opposite — exactly. And they understand that, too.
And I was explaining about the numbers. We did a thing yesterday at the speech. Did everybody like the speech? [Applause] I've been given good reviews. But we had a massive field of people. You saw them. Packed. I get up this morning, I turn on one of the networks, and they show an empty field. I say, wait a minute, I made a speech. I looked out, the field was — it looked like a million, million and a half people. They showed a field where there were practically nobody standing there. And they said, 'Donald Trump did not draw well.' I said, it was almost raining, the rain should have scared them away, but God looked down and he said, we're not going to let it rain on your speech.
Trump's lies about his relationship to the intelligence community, as well as the speech as a whole, were not well received by some former agency officials, with one calling the speech "inappropriate" and another declaring that he was "appalled" by Trump's performance. Former CIA director John Brennan commented through his former deputy chief of staff that "Trump should be ashamed of himself."
And in a scathing statement, DNC Senior Adviser Zac Petkanas said:
After he finished ranting about crowd sizes on the National Mall, I hope President Trump sat down for an interview with the CIA to help with their investigation into his team’s possible collusion with the Kremlin to win the election. Next, he can sit down with the FBI who have sought warrants to monitor his team for the same reason.
The administration's continuation of this false narrative that Trump was being cheered by the CIA exemplifies the new White House's willingness to manipulate optics in order to flatter Trump and to refute criticism of his treatment of and relationship with federal agencies and personnel.
And Trump's stubborn refusal to shift away from the high of campaign rallies into the serious climate of the presidency may be amusing, but it is also an extremely troubling sign of his lack of readiness and maturity regarding the office. His blatant need to be fawned over and applauded — even to the point of manufacturing such a response — is simply not normal behavior for the President of the United States.