Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the CIA, has come under fire during her confirmation fight due to questions about the extent of her involvement in the George W. Bush-era torture program. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, even some in Trump’s own party, have been openly skittish at the prospect of her ascension to the top spy post. Scores of civil liberties advocates and human rights groups have been more appalled than skittish. Haspel even considered yanking her own nomination amid the mounting scrutiny.
One person isn’t buckling, however.
The president has thrown his support both publicly and privately behind Haspel, despite the torture allegations. In fact, he considers them a draw.
Over the past several days, the president has expressed as much to officials and others close to him, according to three people familiar with the discussions. One source, a White House official, said President Trump has leaned “into it” when the topic is brought up. Another source who spoke to Trump about the nomination told The Daily Beast that the president has said Haspel “could have gone [even] further” than what she has been accused of and it wouldn’t have fazed him.
And she went far. Haspel oversaw the so-called black site in Thailand where the terror suspect Abd Al Rahim al-Nashiri was waterboarded, and according to a book by former top CIA lawyer John Rizzo, she “r[a]n the interrogation program.” (Rizzo, without explanation, later withdrew that account.) In November 2005 Haspel drafted a cable for her then-boss, clandestine-service chief Jose Rodriguez, ordering the destruction of videotapes showing evidence of brutal interrogation. Her defenders, and Trump administration officials, argue that everything she did was done in a legal framework at the time and routinely promote their docket of bipartisan support for her nomination. Her critics stress that she was a willing party to gross human rights violations, and that that should at the very least disqualify her from leading the U.S. intelligence service.
On Friday, Haspel flirted with the idea of pulling her nomination because, sources say, she didn’t want to re-litigate the CIA’s past history and, in the process, damage the the agency’s image again. But the president, among others, talked her out of it, saying that she shouldn’t shy away from confronting her critics, according to a source familiar with their talk. The president, the source added, views Haspel as “a fighter.” And on Monday morning, Trump took to Twitter to underscore his feelings on the matter.
“My highly respected nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists,” the president tweeted. “Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!”
Trump’s assessments of Haspel—that she was merely being “tough” on some folks—is an extension of his years-long public endorsement of U.S.-sanctioned torture, long after the CIA ditched the practice under intense political and legal pressure. “If America was under the threat of imminent attack, would Obama use torture or a kiss?” Trump tweeted mockingly in December 2014.
Trump more succinctly summarized his philosophy on counterterrorism in an April 2013 tweet reading, “NO MERCY TO TERRORISTS you dumb bastards!”
During the 2016 presidential race, Trump was emphatic about his desire to, if elected president, bring back torture in an even bigger way than Bush allowed. “Frankly, the waterboarding, if it was up to me, and if we changed the laws or had the laws, waterboarding would be fine,” Trump said in early 2016, referencing the method President Barack Obama banned in 2009. “I would do a lot more than waterboarding. You have to get the information from these people.”
Some spooks were taken aback. “[I]gnoring if you can the immoral aspects of torture, if you do torture someone, you get nothing of value from them,” a former senior CIA operations officer told The Daily Beast at the time. “You get what they think you want. And if you take that information as gospel you are a fool.”
As the Trump era got underway, the president retreated rhetorically on the issue. Shortly after his inauguration, Trump said that Defense Secretary James Mattis could “override” him when it came to whether the U.S. will revive the euphemistically branded methods of “enhanced interrogation.”
More than a year later, President Trump is gearing up for a confirmation campaign on behalf of a central figure in the Bush-era scandal over torturing terror suspects. But it’s not just Haspel’s association with enhanced interrogation techniques that drew him to her.
According to several sources in and outside the administration, Haspel enjoys strong champions throughout the White House and in high level Trump orbits. In particular, former CIA chief Mike Pompeo has been a committed advocate, having felt immense gratitude to Haspel for her help in ingratiating him to staff at Langley when he started. Haspel, an officer of 30-plus years, helped diffuse the cynicism that many others in the building felt about the Trump administration when it first took office, two sources familiar with the nomination said.
One of those sources suggested that Pompeo also wanted Haspel running the CIA in order to ensure that he had an ally in the post. Months prior to her nomination, it was rumored that Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) would be a potential nominee. That could have resulted in competing power structures between Langley and Foggy Bottom, though a senior administration official cautioned that such talk was overblown, noting that Cotton and Pompeo are close friends from their days in the House of Representatives.
Haspel also has earned kudos inside the White House for handling the presidential daily briefing, which, as one source familiar with the nomination noted, “can be a bear.”
“She found herself down at the White House with some regularity for the PDB,” the source said. “I think overtime people thought she was solid and no nonsense and was trusted.”
But what Haspel has in internal allies she lacks in public political support. White House aides say that they are confident they will secure the 50 votes needed to get confirmation. But they expect the margin to be close, perhaps closer than Pompeo’s own vote to take over state.
The Central Intelligence Agency, for its part, has embarked on an unusual public relations and social media blitz to ardently defend and exculpate Haspel—and also to try to humanize her by selectively offering biographical details on the former undercover officer, including her encounter with Mother Teresa and her love of Johnny Cash.