President Donald Trump’s White House can never, ever, get its story straight on Russia.
Reports that a Russian military intelligence agency put a bounty on the heads of US troops in Afghanistan launched the President’s team into a new cycle of confusion, apparent half-truths and contradictions as a fresh storm raged over Trump’s mysterious deference to Moscow and its strongman leader, President Vladimir Putin.
Conflicting messages from the President and his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, only deepened the intrigue about what is really going on.
None of what they are saying clears up an episode that comes as new reporting for CNN from veteran Washington reporter Carl Bernstein lifts the lid on Trump’s desperate flattery of Putin, his ignorance of basic world events, the way he was manipulated by smarter world leaders and his “near-sadistic” – according to one source – behavior toward female world leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Bernstein’s story, and Trump’s unfathomable relationship with Russia – a nation with which he had past business relationships and which he denies interfered in the 2016 US election – both boil down to the same foreboding question about Trump’s presidency: Does he act in America’s interests or his own?
Such uncertainty is underpinned by Trump’s foreign policy – whether it involves feuding with NATO or calling on the G7 to readmit Russia – which often seems to reward Moscow’s interests. It’s also offering an opening to Democrats, who warn that the commander in chief is either incompetent or unfit for office, only four months from a general election in which Trump is trailing Democrat Joe Biden in recent polling.
Less broadly, Monday’s confusing events left major questions unanswered. Specifically, whether the President had been briefed on such explosive intelligence about Russia and US troops in Afghanistan. If the President was not told about such a fundamental threat to US security and American troops overseas, why was the information not brought to his attention? Was it contained in his written intelligence briefs, which multiple reports say he disdains to read, or did he ignore it? And why has Trump not been more outspoken in vowing to keep American troops safe since the reports first started emerging three days ago?
More uncertainty surrounds what steps, if any, the US took to warn Russia off and to protect American troops – even if it was unsure of the provenance of the information that Russia’s GRU agency offered money to Islamic militants to find US targets.
The same Russia playbook
There’s one constant in each new twist of the drama over Russia that has overshadowed every day of Trump’s term in the Oval Office.
Each time there’s a damaging story on the issue, he makes exactly the same move – dumping on the US intelligence that lies behind it. It was a similar story when the President used a Helsinki summit with Putin to throw US intelligence agencies under the bus over their assessments that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election to help him win.
In a late-night tweet on Sunday, Trump insisted that “intel just reported to me they did not find this info credible, and therefore didn’t report it to me.”
McEnany, however, contradicted Trump’s certainty.
“There is no consensus within the intelligence community on these allegations and in effect, there are dissenting opinions from some in the intelligence community with regards to the veracity of what’s being reported, and the veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated,” she said.
McEnany’s phrasing about a lack of consensus about the intelligence reports appeared to grant the information far more credence than Trump’s declaration it was not credible but was another Russia “hoax.”
Several intelligence sources publicly and privately disputed that there needed to be consensus in the covert world before bringing such information to the attention of the President.
David Priess, a former CIA officer who wrote a book about the President’s Daily Brief, rejected McEnany’s reasoning.
“This is exactly the kind of thing that the President’s Daily Brief was created for, to make sure that the President had the most up-to-date analysis and assessment of what is almost always uncertain intelligence. You don’t put things in the President’s Daily Brief only when they are completely corroborated and verified,” Priess told CNN.
Two former senior intelligence officials told CNN’s Jamie Gangel that it was “inconceivable” in any previous White House that the president would not have been informed of such grave intelligence and that the commander in chief would be briefed with caveats included.
The idea that the intelligence was not sufficiently corroborated to take to Trump was further undermined by the fact that Washington appears to have discussed it with its foreign partners. Over the weekend, a European military intelligence official told CNN that the scheme by Russia’s military intelligence agency had caused coalition casualties.
McEnany’s careful wording in her briefing also left wide open the possibility that the warning was indeed included in written, classified material handed to Trump and that he missed or ignored it.
“He was not personally briefed on the matter. That is all I can share with you today, ” McEnany said.
But a US official with direct knowledge of the latest information said the intelligence was indeed contained in Trump’s daily briefings sometime in the spring.
The assessment, the source told CNN’s Barbara Starr, was backed up by “several pieces of information” that supported the view that there was an effort by the GRU to to pay bounties to kill US soldiers, including from the interrogation of Taliban detainees and electronic eavesdropping. The source said there was some other information that did not corroborate this view but that nonetheless, “This was a big deal. When it’s about US troops you go after it 100%, with everything you got.”
Multiple reports, and former national security adviser John Bolton in his new book, have said that Trump rarely reads or cares about written material.
“Almost never, according to CNN’s sources, would Trump read the briefing materials prepared for him by the CIA and NSC staff in advance of his calls with heads of state,” Bernstein reported.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wondered aloud in an interview with CNN why Trump was not briefed on the grave threats to US troops.
“If he was not briefed, why would he not be briefed?” Pelosi told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“Were they afraid to approach him on the subject of Russia?” Pelosi said. “Were they concerned if they did tell him that he would tell Putin? So there’s a lot that remains out there.”
Trump ‘should be briefed’
Suspicion over the motives of the White House is being exacerbated by the way it has handled the allegations. For one thing, Trump has not made a public on-camera statement vowing to do anything it takes to defend American troops – a step a US President would normally be expected to take as a matter of course.
The White House did brief a small group of Republican House members on the matter Monday in an encounter that looked more like an effort to bolster its political defense against the allegations on the issue rather than to pull key national security decision makers on Capitol Hill into the loop.
“It’s actually unfortunate the whole thing was leaked because it will actually serve to dry up that information,” Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois told reporters. “In terms of whether the President should’ve been briefed, from everything I’ve seen, I think it’s accurate to say it shouldn’t have risen to his level at that point because there was conflicting intelligence.”
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, who raised pointed questions about the latest Russia controversy, was also in the briefing and issued a statement along with Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, that appeared to give the intelligence far more credibility than the White House lends it.
“After today’s briefing with senior White House officials, we remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted US forces,” the two lawmakers said.
Amid a rising political showdown, a number of senior House Democrats, including Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff of California, are expected to get a briefing on Tuesday.
“It is frequently the case that the President will be briefed – should be briefed – on matters where there is no absolute certainty about the intelligence on a given topic,” Schiff said on CNN’s “The Situation Room.”
At the end of another day of Russia intrigue – as corrosive to US interests as ever – the same questions remained unanswered.
Why can’t Trump ever talk straight to the American people about Russia?