It’s not yet clear if or when President Donald Trump heard or read the intelligence report that Russia was paying bounties to Taliban militias for killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. But whichever version of the story is true, he and his senior advisers come off looking very bad—immoral, vaguely traitorous, astoundingly incompetent, or all three.
The most hideous version of the story is that Trump heard the report—it is well established that the finding was included in the president’s daily intelligence briefing sometime in February—and, apparently, didn’t care.
A somewhat less heinous, but still appalling, variation is that Trump asked Russian President Vladimir Putin if the report was true, Putin denied it, and Trump took Putin’s word over that of his own spy services. (The two did talk on the phone at least five times in the weeks after the intelligence report.) This wouldn’t be unprecedented. Trump believed Putin when he denied interfering in the 2016 presidential election—and that meant believing the accused over the unanimous verdict of the entire U.S. intelligence community. Since there was reportedly at least one dissenting view of the intel about Russian bounty, Trump may have been even more likely to dismiss the finding.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that Trump hadn’t been briefed because there was “no consensus within the intelligence community on these allegations.” This is nonsense. Few intelligence findings are 100 percent sure things; many include dissenting footnotes; some inspire lengthy minority reports. But if the subject affects national security in some big or urgent way (and Russia plotting to pay the Taliban to kill U.S. troops would meet that criterion), the president would be notified.
There is another possibility, which would reflect the dysfunctional chaos reported in several accounts and memoirs of the Trump White House. U.S. intelligence chiefs have learned that it does them no good—it only wrecks their influence, which they might need in a real crisis—to tell Trump news he doesn’t want to hear. In January, they wriggled out of their annual briefing to Congress on worldwide threats so they wouldn’t have to appear on TV disagreeing with Trump. Their reluctance made sense. At the previous year’s hearing, the chiefs testified that Iran was abiding by the nuclear deal, that North Korea would never give up its nuclear weapons, that ISIS continued to stoke violence in Iraq and Syria, and that Russian hackers still posed a threat to America’s elections—as a result of which Dan Coats, the national intelligence director at the time, was fired.
Since then, Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, has often opened interagency meetings by passing around printouts of Trump’s latest tweets on the subjects under discussion. The message is clear: The group’s purpose is not to offer professional advice to the president but rather to justify and implement Trump’s prejudices.
The New York Times, which first reported this story, noted that the intelligence about Russian bounty payments was mentioned in the written version of the president’s daily briefing. A former senior CIA official and a former senior White House official affirmed to me that intelligence chiefs would have discussed an issue of this magnitude with the national security adviser during one of their weekly meetings—and that, afterward, if not before, it would have been included in the president’s briefing.
However, it is well known that Trump rarely reads this document and relies instead on an orally delivered summary. It is possible, then, that the briefers duly noted the intelligence about Russia in the written document—so that, if the facts were ever publicized, they could show that they’d informed the president—but skipped over it in the oral presentation to avoid arousing his wrath.
Finally, it is possible that Trump was told about the bounty payment in the oral and written versions of the briefing—and the fact just hop-skipped in and out of his brain. John Bolton’s recent memoir and Carl Bernstein’s CNN story about Trump’s phone calls with world leaders provide ample anecdotes suggesting that the president has the attention span of a fruit fly, that he flits from one subject to another with abandon, and that, during briefings, including intelligence briefings, he often does more talking than the briefer does. Those who talk more than they listen often forget what they are told.
So, on one level, the question to ask—and many in Congress, including some Republicans, are asking it—is the old saw from the Watergate inquiry: What did the president know, and when did he know it? But on another level, the answer is almost irrelevant. We have a president who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what’s happening in the world—and a gaggle of senior advisers whose main job is to comply with his whims and cover up his inadequacies.
And all the other leaders in the world know it. That’s the peril we face, as a nation, for as long as Trump is still in power.
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