Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the president of the United States, modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the president almost daily.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
Now that Trump’s longtime friend and informal adviser Roger Stone has been indicted, both our enemies and allies around the world can see that special counsel Robert Mueller has evidence to believe that senior Trump campaign officials spoke with Stone about Wikileaks and that a senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases from Wikileaks, an organization that published information that Russia stole from Americans.
The President’s “witch hunt” response to the special counsel’s indictment – especially when considered along with his response to previous ones – will likely be interpreted by many around the world as a sign that when it comes to Russia, he’s conflicted. By crying witch hunt louder than he decries Russia’s attack, he’s setting us up for another very dangerous election season. His failure to condemn illegal Russian behavior, especially when it involves his own associates and family, will probably be interpreted as condoning it. That opens the US to a lot of risk going forward.
Presidents are expected to rely on their team to go through policy processes so that they can make a decision that’s based on one thing and one thing only – what’s best for the national security of the United States. Conflicts of interest aren’t supposed to enter the Situation Room. Neither ethical issues and personal business goals nor criminal activity and counterintelligence concerns should impact a president’s decision-making process. If other considerations permeate presidential thinking, Americans’ national security becomes hostage to a president’s personal agenda.
The President’s failure to take a few basic steps to protect our country can cause America great harm.
Condemn working with Russia
The charges against Stone are serious unto themselves – obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and making false statements are felonies. But the President seems intent on saying there is “no collusion,” rather than addressing the allegation that a member of his campaign was directed to contact Stone about additional data drops from Wikileaks, an organization that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called a “non-state hostile intelligence service.”
And it’s not just this most recent indictment. Getting the President to clearly state that he believes his own intelligence community over Vladimir Putin on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has been a Herculean task. According to officials who spoke to the Washington Post, an interpreter who was present during a meeting in July 2017 in Hamburg said Putin denied Russian involvement in the US election. Trump reportedly responded by saying, “I believe you.”
Even at the Helsinki Summit last July, Trump couldn’t articulate five simple words: Russia interfered in our election.
An unconflicted president would at a minimum refrain from undercutting the law enforcement professionals who are working to keep America safe by conducting the special counsel’s counterintelligence investigation. And, while it is appropriate to refrain on commenting on Roger Stone’s guilt while he awaits trial, an unconflicted president would reaffirm that Russian cyber attacks and information laundering to help any candidate is illegal (we’ve indicted and sanctioned Russians for it). He would also clearly articulate that Americans who engage with foreign countries who are attacking us during our elections will be punished regardless of whose campaign they’re on.
Lay it all out there: Educate
It’s been more than two years since the Director of National Intelligence issued an unclassified report laying out why and how Russia is attacking our democracy. But the President discounts much of this January 2017 report, which includes the conclusion that Russia preferred Trump as a candidate. He has continuously discounted the intelligence community’s assessments on Russia.
If the President was unconflicted, he would ask the DNI for an updated report so that he could keep the American people informed. It’s unclear whether the President censors his intelligence community’s analysis, discounts it, or simply dislikes what they say, but the American people are not fully aware of what’s happening. An unconflicted president would want the American people to know as much as possible so that each and every one of us can be more vigilant, especially as the 2020 election cycle gets into full swing.
Arm your team: Put up a fight
With the 2020 presidential election cycle already underway, we know that our democracy is vulnerable. The intelligence community has assessed that Russia, Iran, and China tried to interfere with our 2018 midterm elections, and we also know that Russia tried to help get President Trump elected back in 2016 because they thought he would pursue policies that helped them.
After Trump’s first two years in office, the Russians have probably found that they bet on the right horse, and it’s likely they’ll take steps to support his candidacy in 2020.
Identifying a threat is just the first step in protecting our country. Once assessments are made, presidents review and decide on policy responses.
For all of those reasons, an unconflicted president would do a thorough assessment of where and how foreign actors have tried to attack us before, maintain up to date assessments, and devote real resources to defending our country. This involves mitigating any vulnerabilities in our election infrastructure (including campaign officials who may be vulnerable to manipulation by foreign countries) and helping all candidates protect themselves.
But defense is just part of the response – actively deterring foreign interference is just as important. When the administration does things like lifting Russia sanctions prematurely (and faiingl to include all the details surrounding the agreement in a letter to Congress) or just not implementing sanctions at all, we’re only encouraging all kinds of bad behavior because the costs associated with attacking us appear to be minimal.
An unconflicted president would ensure that our response to illegal Russian activity of all kinds, including election interference, is as aggressive as possible as we head into another election cycle.
Get our free weekly newsletter
While speculation abounds as to whether President Trump’s Russia policy is in fact driven by something other than what he thinks is best for our country, the administration’s oft-repeated and oft-discounted claim that President Trump has been tougher on Russia than his predecessors misses the point – we are still under live attack by Russia. An unconflicted president would do everything he could to stop that attack. President Trump’s failure to do so is a likely signal to Russia – and others – that conflicts of interest are penetrating the President’s decision-making.
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the title of Director of National Intelligence.