This story originally appeared at National Journal.
The U.S. intelligence community experienced a major shake-up in August as two top leaders left their posts: Dan Coats stepped down as director of National Intelligence and Sue Gordon resigned as the agency’s principal deputy director. Gen. Michael Hayden served as the first principal deputy in 2005, before becoming CIA director. Earlier in his career, he headed the National Security Agency. Hayden, who is recovering from a stroke he suffered in late 2018, spoke with Mackenzie Weinger at his home last week about the threat he believes President Trump poses for the intelligence community. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
General Hayden, how are you doing these days?
Well, good. This happened almost a year ago. I do lessons three or four times a week to help. I can do a lot of things now, but then again, it’s sometimes hard. But on Saturday, my family and I will go to the Steelers game. On a day like today, the first thing I do is get up and watch Morning Joe at 6 o’clock. I watch for two hours and then I go and do something else.
Over the summer, President Trump named Representative John Ratcliffe—a vocal supporter of the president with limited national security experience—as his pick for the next DNI, but that nomination was quickly dropped. What did you think of the president’s choice?
That was unbelievable. First of all, he’s a congressman, but he’s not very good in that part of the world. He didn’t do anything in that field. Fortunately, somebody said that’s not a good idea. I frankly think that [Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard] Burr said, ‘No, no, you won’t get my vote and you will lose.’ And now, what I think is happening is we won’t have a DNI. Period.
Do you think that’s the goal now, to keep someone acting in the position rather than get someone Senate-confirmed?
If you do something good in that position, then you’re a problem for the administration. I would not be surprised if there is no DNI named.
You served as the first principal deputy director of National Intelligence. Are you concerned about the lack of confirmed leadership at the ODNI with the departures of Coats and Gordon?
She’s a wonderful person. She could have been right up there as DNI. She was fired; there’s no question about it. Dan Coats was also good—he wasn’t an expert on this, by any shot, but he did the right thing. And that’s the right phrase: He did the right thing.
In terms of how he handled the president?
That’s right. That’s the job. And he did a very good job. But now, the administration doesn’t want that. With Dan Coats and the deputy gone, who’s in charge? The CIA? Not really, and I know because I was there, and I wasn’t doing the job of the DNI. Nobody does that now. And I think the president likes it. Think of a few weeks ago, with Alabama, when he [falsely stated that Hurricane Dorian threatened the state]. People were saying, ‘Bullshit, that’s not right at all.’ And now the president wants them gone.
And you’re saying that’s indicative of how he works with the U.S. intelligence community?
That’s exactly right.
Trump is very skeptical of the use of foreign intelligence from covert sources. What would you want to say to the president about that?
That’s unbelievable. That’s what intelligence is about. I don’t know that he knows what intelligence is, and that’s the problem. Listen, many presidents don’t know it. So you talk to them. I did this. And sometimes we would do all right, and sometimes the president would go, ‘Huh, really? No.’ But Trump doesn’t even want to.
How would you brief the president?
It’s really hard. Without going into detail, I talk to people, and sometimes it’s very, very hard. You do the best you can, and frankly, [the approach is], 'The president may not see this, but someone will—maybe later on, maybe another president.' But if we go two terms, it’s really going to be difficult to counter that. If it’s one term, we’ll be all right. But if it’s two terms … he has his own version, like Alabama. It’s not truth. It’s something else.
What’s the one national security issue you’re most concerned about right now?
I’ll give you two. The first one is the president getting two terms. I talk to people up the road, and they’re really, really worried. The most important part is getting America right again. As I wrote [in The Assault on Intelligence, about the U.S. intelligence community], “We are accustomed to relying on their truth telling to protect us from foreign enemies. Now we may need their truth telling to save us from ourselves.” With regard to adversaries, there are problems all of the time. It could be the Russians, or maybe it’s the Iranians, or North Korea. Now we’re almost three years in the administration. What’s gone right in this area? But, right now, the priority is us.