We didn’t get to this yesterday but let’s do it now because it’s one of the funnier bits of spin to come out of Trump’s first two years. A few days ago his intel chiefs went before Congress for a hearing and either contradicted or qualified some of his biggest foreign-policy boasts. Is ISIS defeated? Well, they’ve lost almost all of their territory, said Dan Coats and Gina Haspel, but they still command thousands of fighters and we need to stay on top of the problem. Not a great talking point for Trump’s withdrawal from Syria. How about North Korea? Is there in a fact a “decent chance of denuclearization,” as Trump now says? (Last summer after his summit with Kim he flatly declared that North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat.”) Coats and Haspel each claimed that the NorKs remain committed to retaining their WMD capabilities and developing a long-range missile that would target the U.S.
And how about Iran? Trump’s position is that Obama’s nuclear deal wasn’t worth preserving since Iran wouldn’t comply with it. Haspel told the Senate panel, though, that Iran *is* “technically” in compliance with the agreement, although there are signs that that might be changing soon.
All of this testimony was given in public, on camera. There are long videos posted at YouTube (and surely at CSPAN) of the entire hearing if you want to watch. For a quick-and-dirty version, Politifact compiled key quotes from Trump on Iran, ISIS, and North Korea and laid them side by side with what Coats and Haspel said this week for comparison. They don’t disagree with him on every point. But there are some obvious differences, and their own assessments are naturally far more nuanced than Trump’s I-saved-the-day sloganeering.
Somehow — and that’s the key question, “how?” — Trump found out about their testimony and made his displeasure known on Wednesday.
He was sufficiently pissed off, according to the Daily Beast, that he canceled Wednesday’s intelligence briefing, choosing to get that day’s picture of what’s happening in the world from “Fox & Friends,” I assume. But then, late yesterday afternoon, the clouds parted and the sun shone again. The rift was healed.
It was public testimony. Some of it happened on live TV. The passages in which they contradicted Trump were quoted verbatim in news reports. How was it “mischaracterized”?
He was asked about it in a photo op and said it was a “fake news” problem:
Q: "Did you talk to your intelligence chiefs today about the displeasure you had with their…"
President Trump: "I did. They said that they were totally misquoted, and they were totally – it was taken out of context…The said it was fake news." pic.twitter.com/odd6tVSxfY
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 31, 2019
Then he was asked again in an interview with the NYT:
Why report that Trump says intelligence chiefs agreed with him? All they did was tell him that his mischaracterization of the media’s correct characterization of their remarks was not accurate. pic.twitter.com/e1L3KrrZEJ
— Dan Froomkin/PressWatchers.org (@froomkin) February 1, 2019
Read the Iran section of Politifact’s piece. Nowhere do Coats or Haspel imply that Iran is a “wonderful place,” whatever that means. I can’t imagine that any media outlet characterized it that way either, notwithstanding their interest in promoting conflict between Trump and his intel chiefs. The written report prepared for the Senate explicitly said of Iran that it “almost certainly will continue to develop and maintain terrorist capabilities” and that “Iran’s regional ambitions and improved military capabilities almost certainly will threaten U.S. interests in the coming year.”
So, the question: What happened here? How did we go from Coats and Haspel cautiously contradicting some of Trump’s most outlandish boasts to Trump flying off the handle on Twitter to Trump shrugging it all off and dismissing media reports about their testimony as fake news in less than 48 hours? How did he even arrive at his initial impression of their testimony?
Here’s the best-case scenario: He really did run across a media report somewhere that exaggerated the extent of the disagreement between him and the CIA. But rather than check the transcripts or watch the video of what Coats and Haspel said or just call them up and try to clarify, he embarrassed them on Twitter by telling them to go back to school. Then he checked the transcript, realized that the points of disagreement were limited, and decided that he’d been misled. Shoot first, ask questions later — that’s the best-case scenario. Which makes his admonition to the public to read the entire testimony before jumping to conclusions in his tweet above even funnier.
The worst-case scenario is that the entire “mischaracterized” thing is an out-and-out lie concocted by Trump, Coats, and Haspel after the fact as a way of simply putting this behind them. They said what they said at the hearing, they meant what they said, it obviously deflates the Trump foreign-policy balloon a bit, but they’re not going to quit. Maybe Trump even said to them in the Oval Office, “You need to take all of that stuff back!” To which Coats and Haspel would have said, “No way. We’d be laughingstocks. We’re not trying to undermine you but we’re not going to lie to protect your foreign-policy campaign talking points either.” Result: Stalemate, with Trump unwilling to fire them knowing that it would mean two new confirmation battles in the Senate and devastating testimony by Coats and Haspel before House committees that Trump asked them to distort their intelligence findings. The rift had to be papered over, so the convenient whipping boy of the media was invoked in the form of “fake news” to explain it.
Or maybe this is the worst-case scenario: He still hasn’t actually read or watched their testimony for himself. He saw some reports that they contradicted him before the Senate, hauled Coats and Haspel in to explain themselves, they assured him that they hadn’t contradicted him, and he was instantly mollified. Which scenario is the correct one?