This casts all of his public hedging on Russian culpability since taking office in a new light. The evidence of interference was described to him in detail, including highly sensitive evidence of Putin’s direct involvement, since before he was sworn in. He wasn’t kept in the dark for months, left to wonder what the IC really had on Russia. It was shared with him, as it was of course with all of his own handpicked intelligence guys, from Coats to Pompeo to Wray. Every one of them has publicly supported the conclusions of Russian meddling drawn from that evidence yet Trump remains unsold, even qualifying his statement of support for the findings a few days ago by adding that “it could be other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.” Why?
Here’s the Times describing the briefing at Trump Tower by Comey, Clapper, Brennan, and Mike Rogers on January 6, 2017:
According to nearly a dozen people who either attended the meeting with the president-elect or were later briefed on it, the four primary intelligence officials described the streams of intelligence that convinced them of Mr. Putin’s role in the election interference.
They included stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee that had been seen in Russian military intelligence networks by the British, Dutch and American intelligence services. Officers of the Russian intelligence agency formerly known as the G.R.U. had plotted with groups like WikiLeaks on how to release the email stash.
And ultimately, several human sources had confirmed Mr. Putin’s own role.
That included one particularly valuable source, who was considered so sensitive that Mr. Brennan had declined to refer to it in any way in the Presidential Daily Brief during the final months of the Obama administration, as the Russia investigation intensified.
They also explained similarities between the hackings of Democrats in 2016 and known Russian hacking operations against U.S. government departments earlier. As for the “particularly valuable source” mentioned in the excerpt, the Times goes on to say he was “close to Mr. Putin” and “had described to the C.I.A. how the Kremlin decided to execute its campaign of hacking and disinformation.” Quite an intelligence coup. Trump was reportedly “grudgingly convinced” at the meeting that Russia was responsible — but kept on diluting blame in public statements afterward. Again, why?
The best spin you can put on it is that he thought there were so many upsides to detente between the U.S. and Russia that he couldn’t in good conscience let Russian malfeasance in 2016 spoil the chance for better relations. So he settled on a compromise: He’d take some anti-Russian actions to punish them for interfering, like signing Congress’s new sanctions bill and selling arms to Ukraine, while also trying to preserve some space for diplomacy by casting doubt on Russia’s culpability in public statements. The problem with that theory, though, is that there were obviously better ways — certainly ways that were less destructive to Trump’s credibility — to preserve that space than to undermine his own intelligence community. He could have said from day one that he accepts the IC’s findings and impose new sanctions as punishment while reminding the public that great powers have to get along. That means dialogue, just like Reagan and Gorbachev. Framed that way, detente might have been seen as a way of turning the corner from Russia’s bad behavior during the campaign rather than as a reward for it.
The other spin available is to point out that it’s no surprise Trump was skeptical of the evidence about Russia considering that he was also briefed on the dubious Steele dossier by Comey at that same meeting. Upon discovering that the FBI was interested in “evidence” about him which he personally knew to be untrue, he might have reasoned that the evidence about Putin must be suspect as well. Remember, though, that the dossier wasn’t presented to him with anything like the same degree of confidence as the findings about Russia were. It wasn’t even mentioned at the main briefing; Comey held it back and briefed Trump about it one-on-one afterward, just to let him know (so he says) that the document was circulating on Capitol Hill so that he wouldn’t be blindsided by it if it leaked. Comey himself called the allegations in the dossier “salacious and unverified” months later in congressional testimony, contra the official DNI report of “high confidence” that Russia interfered in 2016. His resentment about the FBI’s interest in the dossier is understandable, but if you think that should render him incapable of trusting high-confidence conclusions based on hard evidence gathered by U.S. intel from multiple sources through multiple methods then I’m not sure how he’s supposed to function as president. If you want an apples-to-apples comparison, you’re better off saying that official IC conclusions can’t be trusted in light of their mistake about Iraqi WMDs 15 years ago. And if you feel that way, you should probably support shutting down the intel bureaus altogether. No sense paying them if everything they say should be discounted, especially if it fits your political narrative to do so.
Plus, let’s be real. If Comey had decided *not* to brief Trump on the dossier because it was dubious, and then it had leaked to the media from one of the other people on the Hill who had it (which it would have), and then it turned out that the FBI had had it all along and never bothered to let Trump know, would Trump fans be thanking Comey for declining to brief him on it? Of course not. His failure to mention it would be cited as further proof of a “deep state” conspiracy. Comey wanted Trump to be blindsided by it! The president had every right to know as head of the executive branch what dubious leads the FBI was chasing about him, but Comey hid it. It’s insubordination! Comey disclosed it and, according to him, made clear to Trump that the FBI wasn’t accusing him of anything mentioned in the dossier. That’s why he waited to mention it until after the official briefing, to distinguish it from the quality of intelligence about Russian interference. Oh well.
What’s arguably even more ominous in the NYT piece than the idea that Trump has had the goods on Putin all along but keeps ignoring them for his own strange reasons is the fact that this stuff is leaking, including/especially the hair-raising detail about a source “close to Putin” who ratted him out to U.S. intelligence. Why now? Is the IC so pissed about Trump’s dissembling over Putin and Russia that someone finally decided it was worth risking the life of a highly valuable source to expose Trump this way? If so, why didn’t this leak earlier after one of Trump’s many previous “It might be Russia, but it might be someone else” statements? Almost certainly, it’s leaking now because that source is somehow no longer in play for the U.S. I saw a few hardcore Trump-haters on Twitter last night speculate that that might be because Trump himself outed the source to the Russians, but there’s no evidence of that, needless to say, and … I’m reasonably sure it would have been mentioned to the Times for this article if that were the suspicion. More likely it’s that the source was sniffed out and “neutralized” by Russia sometime between now and January 2017 instead. As chance would have it, quite a few high-ranking Russian officials turned up dead in the first eight months of 2017. Maybe Putin figured out who the snitch was and dealt with him, leaving the IC free to tell the Times what Trump knew from the beginning.
I’ll leave you with this, from a Russian media analyst who pays attention to state TV there. If Trump isn’t the world’s greatest troll, Putin certainly is.
#Russia's state TV host:
"It is very bizarre, you can't bash your own country like that – especially when you're the President."
Female host: "When Trump says our relations are bad because of American foolishness and stupidity, he really smells like an agent of the Kremlin." ©️ pic.twitter.com/8fRLrZbUul
— Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) July 18, 2018