President Trump’s obsession with maintaining that he really is, and should be, president—his refusal to believe that Russia meddled in the 2016 election and crusade to discredit those who claim it did—is taking a toll on American security.
The connection was made explicit by Trump’s communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, on Sunday. Asked on CNN why his boss continues to dispute the U.S. intelligence community’s unanimous verdict that the Kremlin interfered in the election in order to help defeat Hillary Clinton, Scaramucci explained Trump’s thinking on the matter: “The mainstream media position on this—that they [the Russians] interfered in the election—it actually, in his mind, what are you guys suggesting? You’re going to delegitimize his victory?”
As Chris Cillizza put it in CNN’s online analysis of this statement, “And there you have it. To Trump, any acknowledgment that Russia actively meddled in the 2016 election with the express purpose of helping him to win is the equivalent of saying he didn’t win fair and square and maybe shouldn’t have won at all.”
How is this self-serving denialism harming national security? Scaramucci also supplied the answer to that question, perhaps unwittingly, in the same interview. “Once I have cleared my security clearances and I have looked at the stuff,” Scaramucci said, “if I think it’s true, behind closed doors, I will turn to the president very directly and say, ‘Sir, I think this stuff is true.’ ”
Scaramucci may have meant his words to be reassuring, but in fact they’re the opposite. The “stuff,” which he said he’d look at, consists of some of the government’s most sensitive intelligence material. White House communications directors generally aren’t cleared to see it. More to the point, someone like Scaramucci—a fund-of-funds manager and media pundit with no background in intelligence—would have no ability to understand or interpret the material. In fact, the whole notion of Scaramucci reviewing the intelligence community’s work is a massive dis of the entire national-security apparatus.
The fact is Trump is already regularly briefed by people who are trained to interpret this material; he even has access, if he wants it, to the people who gathered it. The intelligence agencies are far from infallible, and a president should question their findings and the logic behind them. But in this case, all of the pertinent intelligence agencies reached the same conclusion with very high confidence and no dissenting footnotes. Trump has been told this not only by career intelligence officers but by his own handpicked director of national intelligence and CIA director.
Yet Trump has greeted this conclusion with not only doubt but contempt. He has likened it to the intelligence reports alleging that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The WMD debacle was a dark chapter in the intel community’s history, but much of the cherry-picking in that assessment was force-fed by Vice President Dick Cheney—and, even so, some of the agencies did file dissenting footnotes.
Trump receives daily intelligence briefings on myriad topics pertaining to conflicts, crises, leaders, and trends all over the world—yet he’s publicly complained, much less raged, only about the reports on Russia’s election meddling.
Why is that? This is the question that has even die-hard Republicans scratching their chins. Part of Trump’s resistance may stem from his personal connections with Russia that the special counsel and a few congressional committees are investigating. But Scaramucci’s explanation is also plausible: If Trump acknowledged that Russia helped him win the election, he would also be acknowledging—or might appear to be acknowledging—that, without Russia’s help, he would have lost. That is his deepest horror.
This same dread accounts for his assertion that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote only because of massive voting fraud. When critics countered that the claim lacked a shred of evidence and seemed wildly implausible—Clinton’s margin amounted to more than 2.8 million votes, after all—Trump was so enraged that he doubled down, appointing a commission to investigate voter fraud. The commission has since sparked widespread backlash, even from Republican governors, leaving many to conclude that its real purpose is to suppress the Democratic vote in elections to come.
The related denial of Russian meddling is also backfiring. From the standpoint of Trump’s self-aggrandizing interests, it has re-energized the investigations into his own affairs with Russia, as his behavior suggests he must be hiding something.
But from the standpoint of the national interest, the damage is graver. So far, the only crises Trump has faced are those of his own making. Our luck may not persist for much longer. At some point, a real crisis may erupt in which he needs to have very good intelligence about the actions, capabilities, intentions, and internal politics of Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, or some other country, faction, or militia. Like all presidents, Trump doesn’t need to believe every intelligence report—he should ask questions, challenge assumptions, probe for alternative views—but he does need to have a decent working relationship with the intelligence agencies. He needs to assume they’re offering their best judgment. They need to know that’s what he wants from them. If he takes action, or decides not to, on the basis of what they’ve told him, we need to know that the effort—whether it turns out to be right or wrong, for good or ill—was honest and professional from the outset.
If Trump is ragging on the agencies for no apparent reason besides his insecurity, if he cites their worst mistake as if it were typical of their performance, if it’s very clear that—as a matter of routine—he rewards those who make him look good and punishes those who don’t, then we’re not going to pull through a real crisis in good shape except by luck. The agencies will think Trump wants politicized intelligence (and may comply). Trump may work himself into a “fake news!” lather if their findings don’t comport with his preferences. Or, even if the process works smoothly, millions of Americans—and possibly a news network or two—won’t believe the findings because Trump has convinced them that they’re not worth believing.
To Trump, everything is about Trump, his interests are the nation’s interests, l’état—c’est Trump. We’ve never had a president quite so tightly wound, so insecure and narcissistic (two sides of the same coin). When he’s finally tested, the way all presidents are tested, we are in serious trouble.