From the Start, Trump Has Muddied a Clear Message: Putin Interfered
July 18, 2018
WASHINGTON — Two weeks before his inauguration, Donald J. Trump was shown highly classified intelligence indicating that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had personally ordered complex cyberattacks to sway the 2016 American election.
The evidence included texts and emails from Russian military officers and information gleaned from a top-secret source close to Mr. Putin, who had described to the C.I.A. how the Kremlin decided to execute its campaign of hacking and disinformation.
Mr. Trump sounded grudgingly convinced, according to several people who attended the intelligence briefing. But ever since, Mr. Trump has tried to cloud the very clear findings that he received on Jan. 6, 2017, which his own intelligence leaders have unanimously endorsed.
The shifting narrative underscores the degree to which Mr. Trump regularly picks and chooses intelligence to suit his political purposes. That has never been more clear than this week.
On Monday, standing next to the Russian president in Helsinki, Finland, Mr. Trump said he accepted Mr. Putin’s denial of Russian election intrusions. By Tuesday, faced with a bipartisan political outcry, Mr. Trump sought to walk back his words and sided with his intelligence agencies.
On Wednesday, when a reporter asked, “Is Russia still targeting the U.S.?” Mr. Trump shot back, “No” — directly contradicting statements made only days earlier by his director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, who was sitting a few chairs away in the Cabinet Room. (The White House later said he was responding to a different question.)
Hours later, in a CBS News interview, Mr. Trump seemed to reverse course again. He blamed Mr. Putin personally, but only indirectly, for the election interference by Russia, “because he’s in charge of the country.”
In the run-up to this week’s ducking and weaving, Mr. Trump has done all he can to suggest other possible explanations for the hacks into the American political system. His fear, according to one of his closest aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is that any admission of even an unsuccessful Russian attempt to influence the 2016 vote raises questions about the legitimacy of his presidency.
The Jan. 6, 2017, meeting, held at Trump Tower, was a prime example. He was briefed that day by John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director; James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence; and Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency and the commander of United States Cyber Command.
The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, was also there; after the formal briefing, he privately told Mr. Trump about the “Steele dossier.” That report, by a former British intelligence officer, included uncorroborated salacious stories of Mr. Trump’s activities during a visit to Moscow, which he denied.
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.
Instead, to keep the information from being shared widely, Mr. Brennan sent reports from the source to Mr. Obama and a small group of top national security aides in a separate, white envelope to assure its security.
Mr. Trump and his aides were also given other reasons during the briefing to believe that Russia was behind the D.N.C. hacks.
The same Russian groups had been involved in cyberattacks on the State Department and White House unclassified email systems in 2014 and 2015, and in an attack on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They had aggressively fought the N.S.A. against being ejected from the White House system, engaging in what the deputy director of the agency later called “hand-to-hand combat” to dig in.
The pattern of the D.N.C. hacks, and the theft of emails from John D. Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, fit the same pattern.
After the briefings, Mr. Trump issued a statement later that day that sought to spread the blame for the meddling. He said “Russia, China and other countries, outside groups and countries” were launching cyberattacks against American government, businesses and political organizations — including the D.N.C.
Still, Mr. Trump said in his statement, “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.”
Mr. Brennan later told Congress that he had no doubt where the attacks were coming from.
“I was convinced in the summer that the Russians were trying to interfere in the election,” he said in testimony in May 2017. “And they were very aggressive.”
For Mr. Trump, the messengers were as much a part of the problem as the message they delivered.
Mr. Brennan and Mr. Clapper were both Obama administration appointees who left the government the day Mr. Trump was inaugurated. The new president soon took to portraying them as political hacks who had warped the intelligence to provide Democrats with an excuse for Mrs. Clinton’s loss in the election.
Mr. Comey fared little better. He was fired in May 2017 after refusing to pledge his loyalty to Mr. Trump and pushing forward on the federal investigation into whether the Trump campaign had cooperated with Russia’s election interference.
Only Admiral Rogers, who retired this past May, was extended in office by Mr. Trump. (He, too, told Congress that he thought the evidence of Russian interference was incontrovertible.)
And the evidence suggests Russia continues to be very aggressive in its meddling.
In March, the Department of Homeland Security declared that Russia was targeting the American electric power grid, continuing to riddle it with malware that could be used to manipulate or shut down critical control systems. Intelligence officials have described it to Congress as a chief threat to American security.
Just last week, Mr. Coats said that current cyberthreats were “blinking red” and called Russia the “most aggressive foreign actor, no question.”
“And they continue their efforts to undermine our democracy,” he said.
Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, also stood firm.
“The intelligence community’s assessment has not changed,” Mr. Wray said on Wednesday at the Aspen Security Forum. “My view has not changed, which is that Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.”
The Russian efforts are “aimed at sowing discord and divisiveness in this country,” he continued. “We haven’t yet seen an effort to target specific election infrastructure this time. We could be just a moment away from the next level.”
“It’s a threat we need to take extremely seriously and respond to with fierce determination and focus.”
Almost as soon as he took office, Mr. Trump began casting doubts on the intelligence on Russia’s election interference, though never taking issue with its specifics.
He dismissed it broadly as a fabrication by Democrats and part of a “witch hunt” against him. He raised unrelated issues, including the state of investigations into Mrs. Clinton’s home computer server, to distract attention from the central question of Russia’s role — and who, if anyone, in Mr. Trump’s immediate orbit may have worked with them.
In July 2017, just after meeting Mr. Putin for the first time, Mr. Trump told a New York Times reporter that the Russian president had made a persuasive case that Moscow’s cyberskills were so good that the government’s hackers would never have been caught. Therefore, Mr. Trump recounted from his conversation with Mr. Putin, Russia must not have been responsible.
Since then, Mr. Trump has routinely disparaged the intelligence about the Russian election interference. Under public pressure — as he was after his statements in Helsinki on Monday — he has periodically retreated. But even then, he has expressed confidence in his intelligence briefers, not in the content of their findings.
That is what happened again this week, twice.
Mr. Trump’s statement in Helsinki led Mr. Coats to reaffirm, in a statement he deliberately did not get cleared at the White House, that American intelligence agencies had no doubt that Russia was behind the 2016 hack.
That contributed to Mr. Trump’s decision on Tuesday to say that he had misspoken one word, and that he did believe Russia had interfered — although he also veered off script to declare: “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”
Trump has been involved in a disinformation campaign and a cover up of the truth since before his inauguration. He is unfit for office and should be removed.