In the past few days, President Donald Trump has revealed that he does not know the definition of “collusion,” doesn’t understand what intelligence agencies do, and draws no distinction between the interests of national security and the protection of his own power.
The first revelation is the most head-thumping. George Stephanopoulos, ABC News’ chief political correspondent, asked Trump in an interview what he would do if a foreign power offered him dirt on a political opponent in the upcoming election. Would he take it, or would he call the FBI? Trump said he’d take it.
“It’s not an interference” in our election process, Trump said. “If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI.” But, he went on, there was nothing wrong with it. It’s “oppo research,” and nobody calls the FBI about these things. “The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it,” he went on, and “when you go and talk, honestly, to congressmen, they all do it, they always have, and that’s the way it is.”
Stephanopoulos then quoted FBI Director Christopher Wray saying that the FBI would want to know, and should be informed, about any foreign meddling. Trump replied, “The FBI director is wrong.”
And so the bar of standards, which has been steadily lowered since special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation began, has hit rock bottom. First, Trump denied that he or his campaign colluded with the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee’s emails. Then he denied that this collusion was illegal. Now he’s saying that it’s normal—and sending a signal to Russia, China, or any other foreign power with cyberoffensive capabilities that it’s fine with him if they do it again.
The second revelation, Trump’s apparent indifference to the workings of U.S. intelligence agencies, occurred on Tuesday when the Wall Street Journal reported that Kim Jong-nam—Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, whom the North Korean leader very likely had murdered in February 2017—had been a CIA asset. Asked about the report, Trump told journalists that such an arrangement “wouldn’t happen under my auspices.”
We all know of Trump’s odd fondness toward the world’s most murderous dictator. Shortly after their Singapore summit last year, Trump told a crowd of supporters at a rally that he and Kim “fell in love,” and at the impromptu news conference on Tuesday he mentioned another letter, containing positive news, that he’d just received from the chairman. But all intelligence agencies gather information on foreign powers (that’s what intelligence agencies do). It’s remarkable that the CIA managed to recruit any human sources from that sealed-off country, much less as well-connected a source as Kim’s half-brother (who, though he’d left his homeland some time ago, retained many connections and insights). It’s equally remarkable that the president of the United States essentially apologized for the intrusion and promised not to do it again.
This wasn’t the first time that Trump has sided with authoritarian foreign leaders over the findings of his own government’s intelligence agencies. When Russian President Vladimir Putin told Trump that he’d had nothing to do with hacking Hillary Clinton’s email, Trump publicly said he believed the former KGB officer, even though U.S. intelligence agencies had unanimously concluded the contrary. When the Saudi royal family said they’d had nothing to do with the murder of U.S. resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump took them at their word—again, contrary to overwhelming evidence that they did.
The third revelation—Trump’s conflating his own interests with those of U.S. national security—isn’t so much a revelation (there have been countless instances of Trump’s “l’etat, c’est moi” attitude) but rather an extension of the syndrome into new and dangerous territory. This is detailed in a front-page story in Thursday’s New York Times reporting that Attorney General William Barr wants to interview the CIA’s counterintelligence analysts about precisely how they concluded that Putin ordered the hacking of the 2016 election.
That conclusion—reached by the entire U.S. intelligence community and affirmed by several oversight panels, including bipartisan committees on Capitol Hill—is probably based on “human intelligence” (high-level Russian officials spying for the United States) or “communications intelligence” (intercepts by the National Security Agency): in short, the most sensitive, highly classified information in the U.S. government.
Barr is requesting this information as part of Trump’s campaign to “investigate the investigators”—to find out whether the Mueller team was politically motivated in going after the Trump campaign (a claim that Trump has made repeatedly). To that end, the president has authorized Barr to gain access to all relevant material and declassify it if he chooses. Clearly Trump has the legal authority to do this; the president can classify or declassify whatever he wants. But what are he and Barr really after here?
Let’s say that Mueller’s team was politically motivated—that they set out on what Trump calls a “witch hunt” to bring him down. Quite independent of that, well before Mueller became special counsel (even before Trump was elected), U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the Kremlin had hacked the Democratic National Committee’s emails and directed a vast social media campaign against Clinton’s candidacy. Mueller’s team relied, and built on, those findings. Let’s say the agencies were wrong. (They’ve been wrong before.) That wouldn’t mean Mueller’s team was part of some conspiracy; it would only mean they erred in believing the agencies—unless you believe that the intelligence agencies, their overseers on Capitol Hill, the FBI, and Mueller’s team (which hadn’t been formed yet) were all part of a grand conspiracy to overthrow Trump. Trump has suggested he does believe this, with his talk of a “coup” by the “deep state.”
Whatever you want to believe, there is nothing to be gained—no theory about Mueller’s team would be confirmed or disputed—by giving Barr the “sources and methods” behind the intelligence community’s conclusions. On what basis—with what training as an intelligence analyst—would Barr determine that the sources were unreliable or that the methods didn’t justify the conclusions?
“This is a troubling direction that the Justice Dept. is taking,” Loch Johnson—former senior staff member of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, now Regents professor emeritus at the University of Georgia and the author of several books about the CIA and oversight—wrote me in an email on Thursday. “It smells like a political effort to aid and abet the President’s ongoing desire to discredit the Mueller report and the [congressional intelligence committees’] bipartisan conclusions.”
Finally, there is another distressing factor to consider. I do not buy the theory that Trump is a longtime Russian asset, a “Siberian candidate” recruited to burrow his way into the White House and serve the Kremlin’s interests. The notion doesn’t make sense on a lot of levels. But Trump has been careless with top secrets. There was the time he casually gave Russian officials information that disclosed Israel as the source of intel on ISIS and Syria. From the time he entered office, some intelligence officials have nervously discussed what they should do if Trump asked for the name of a spy inside a foreign government. Trump surely has the right to such information, but the officials’ concerns stemmed from their knowledge that at least some people around Trump had discomfortingly close ties to foreign governments, including Russia.
This is the bottom line on Trump’s suitability as president: It is an active debate—and no one can be certain—whether he can be trusted with the secrets on which presidents rely to do their job.
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