The fact that this is even a question could only happen under this president. But the particular circumstances of this disturbing development raise another, perhaps even more important question: What if the president not only can’t be trusted to always do what is in the interests of the United States as any president should, but can never be trusted to do so? What if he only acts in America’s interests by coincidence, when those interests happen to line up with his own?
When the story about the Russian bounties broke on Friday, the White House insisted that Trump knew nothing about it, though they never denied that Russia may have done this. Yet within days, one report after another described how the information has been known — and sent his way — for some time.
The Associated Press reported that White House officials knew about the bounties in early 2019. CNN reported that the information was included in one of Trump’s “daily briefings on intelligence matters sometime in the spring.” The Post also reported that it was included in the president’s daily intelligence brief, or PDB.
But for now, anyway, the position of the White House is that the president had no idea about any of this.
“Neither the President nor the Vice President were briefed on the alleged Russia — Russian bounty intelligence,” said press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Monday. She claimed this was because the intelligence wasn’t “verified,” as though the president is only told about intelligence for which there is incontrovertible proof.
Asked whether the president had a message for Moscow in response, McEnany said, “A specific message for Moscow? No, because he has not been briefed on the matter.”
If true, this would mean that days after these reports had come out, Trump still had not been informed of what the intel community knows about the Russian bounties.
But one must understand the context, which is that Trump’s intelligence briefings are a kind of surreal comedy routine in which professionals try to figure out some way to inject vital information into the brain of a president determined not to hear it, no matter what it’s about.
Early in his presidency, it was reported that Trump is essentially incapable of reading anything much longer than a page or two, so briefers put in fun pictures and graphs to hold his attention (yet even now he still prefers to get information from conservative media).
Briefers also learned to repeat his name in “as many paragraphs as we can because he keeps reading if he’s mentioned,” as one source told Reuters. In addition — and most important when it comes to Russia — he grows angry if he’s told anything that contradicts what he believes or what he has said in public.
So the answer to the mystery of what Trump knew and when he knew it is one of the following:
- Intelligence officials, knowing that Trump would react negatively to information that cast the Kremlin in a bad light, decided not to tell him about the bounties.
- Trump was informed in his written PDB that Russia was offering these bounties, but didn’t read it.
- He read it, but promptly forgot it.
- He was told verbally, but forgot it.
- He was informed in the written PDB and/or verbally, but didn’t like what he heard so he decided to ignore it, and is now having aides lie about it.
While all of these are at least theoretically possible, the last option is the one that lines up most closely with the information we have as of now.
Now let’s turn to a remarkable CNN story by Carl Bernstein. In his calls with foreign leaders, Bernstein reports, Trump is unprepared, easily manipulated, abusive to allies and simply idiotic, to the point where senior officials believe he is “delusional” and “a danger to the national security of the United States.”
Some of the stories are merely vulgar, such as when he told German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who happens to have a PhD in quantum chemistry, that she’s “stupid.” But when it comes to Vladimir Putin, aides describe Trump as “inordinately solicitous of Putin’s admiration and seemingly seeking his approval.”
Particularly relevant is an early call with the Russian dictator, after which Trump ignored the assessment of those who actually knew Putin — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russia expert Fiona Hill and national security adviser H.R. McMaster — preferring instead to bask in praise from his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner about how gloriously he had performed:
McMaster viewed that early phone call with Putin as indicative of the conduct of the whole relationship between Russia and the Trump administration, according to the sources — a conclusion subsequent national security advisers and chiefs of staff, and numerous high-ranking intelligence officials also reached: unlike in previous administrations, there were relatively few meaningful dealings between military and diplomatic professionals, even at the highest levels, because Trump — distrustful of the experts and dismissive of their attempts to brief him — conducted the relationship largely ad hoc with Putin and almost totally by himself. Ultimately, Putin and the Russians learned that “nobody has the authority to do anything” — and the Russian leader used that insight to his advantage, as one of CNN’s sources said.
As Rep. Hoyer said at the news conference, the question is whether the relationship of the United States to Russia “is compromised by the relationship between the president and Mr. Putin.” Is there a single person who could honestly say otherwise? That Trump’s decisions about Russia are based solely on the best interests of the United States and not on his pathetic desire to ingratiate himself with Putin?
If there was ever any doubt, we know now that Trump’s attempt to strong-arm Ukraine into helping him win reelection, an action for which he was impeached, wasn’t an aberration. It was the pure expression of the way he conducts foreign policy. And it will be some time before we understand the full extent of the damage.