I don’t know how else to read this except as a pure test of credibility between Vladimir Putin and the entirety of the U.S. intelligence community, with the president choosing to believe Moscow over his own people. Literally every current and former top intel official in the federal government, including ones appointed by Trump himself, is on record as believing that Russia interfered in the campaign — Pompeo, Rogers, Coats, Comey, Brennan, Clapper. The NSA operates the most sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus on Earth, and the feds reportedly have human intelligence implicating Putin himself in the hacking operations conducted last year. Trump has no reason to doubt the bipartisan unanimity in the top ranks of natsec pros that this was a Russian operation.
And yet. Watch Anthony Scaramucci on CNN yesterday recounting what Trump told him about the hacking. Those Russians are so smart and wily, if they hacked us our cloddish intelligence pros would never have found out:
As that clip started circulating online yesterday afternoon, a suspicion began to grow:
Going to go out on a limb and say while he probably believed this already, this is exactly what Putin told him. https://t.co/Y6t5vCyao1
— Drew McCoy (@_Drew_McCoy_) July 23, 2017
Critics like to (half-)joke that Trump is prone to repeating whatever was whispered in his ear by the last advisor he met with, even when the “advisor” is a foreign head of state who’s transparently feeding him self-serving propaganda. But surely he’d be skeptical of a line pushed by the president of Russia about hacking operations inside the U.S., right?
[W]hen Mr. Trump met Mr. Putin in Hamburg, Germany, two weeks ago, he did not utter similar suspicions, at least in public. In fact, he emerged to tell his aides that the Russian president had offered a compelling rejoinder: Moscow’s cyberoperators are so good at covert computer-network operations that if they had dipped into the Democratic National Committee’s systems, they would not have been caught.
Another Twitter pal reminded me that the president’s actually been saying this for upwards of two weeks, and hasn’t been shy about noting who handed him this talking point. From a Reuters story dated July 12:
“I said, ‘Did you do it?’ And he said, ‘No, I did not. Absolutely not.’ I then asked him a second time in a totally different way. He said absolutely not,” Trump said…
About Putin, he added: “Somebody did say if he did do it, you wouldn’t have found out about it. Which is a very interesting point.”
The Kremlin says we’d never know it was them if they were behind it. If you can’t trust the Kremlin to tell you the truth, who can you trust?
Scaramucci’s right that Trump probably views this subject wholly through the lens of his own legitimacy. If Russia engaged in hacking and that hacking helped him to victory — which is a big if, unproved even by his fiercest critics — then he didn’t win fair and square and his glorious upset was tainted. I can sympathize with that concern up to a point, but when his obsession with it becomes so overweening that he’s giving Putin’s talking points cover at the price of delegitimizing his own intelligence bureau’s universally held opinion, something’s gone badly wrong. It’s another self-defeating measure, like firing Comey was: Even some who aren’t otherwise inclined to believe the sweaty theories about collusion are bound to pause and wonder why Trump is taking sides with Putin against the CIA. He’s spraying gasoline on the Russiagate fire, somehow not realizing that he’d do more to shore up his legitimacy as president by being tough on Putin than by futilely trying to convince the public that it was some other shadowy agents who hacked Podesta and the DNC.
The best thing you can say about this, I gues, is that at least he’s being true to himself. This is a guy who was briefed in January by Comey on the dubious “British dossier” that was circulating so that he wouldn’t be blindsided by it if/when it became public and who concluded that Comey was actually threatening to blackmail him by letting him know that the FBI had a copy of it. Trump may be processing every bit of unfavorable news he receives about Russiagate as part of a conspiracy to sabotage him. If so, it’s a lead-pipe cinch that he’ll end up firing Bob Mueller. Sooner rather than later.