On Thursday, the White House made a show of force. National security adviser John Bolton, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen all appeared in the White House briefing room to make one thing very clear: Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 election and they are already working to do so again in 2018.
“Russia attempted to interfere in the last election and continues to engage in malign operations to this very day,” Wray said.
“Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs,” Nielsen said.
“We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Coats said.
Russia’s active interference campaign in 2016 – a fact that the intelligence committee unanimously concluded last year – has triggered a heightened awareness and vigilance across the US government for foreign threats to our democracy. Case closed!
Like what you're reading?
Except, well, not exactly. Because there’s one person in the White House who has publicly disagreed with the sentiments offered on Thursday by Nielsen, Wray, Coats and others. And his name is President Donald Trump.
Since the revelations of Russia’s attempts to interfere in the election surfaced in the summer of 2016, Trump has publicly voiced his skepticism about not only the source of the efforts but whether they are real at all. He has speculated that a “400-pound” kid could be behind it. He has tweeted – relentlessly – about how special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is a “witch hunt” and a “total hoax.”
But, the coup de grace came earlier this month in Helsinki, Finland, when, standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin after a summit between the two men, Trump was asked directly whether Russia was to blame for the election meddling. “I hold both countries responsible,” Trump said. “I think that the United States has been foolish. We’ve all been foolish. We’re all to blame.”
In the wake of the uproar caused by those comments, Trump tried to clean up his mess once he arrived back in Washington. “I have a full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies,” he said, reading slowly from a page of written remarks. “Could be other people also.”
Then, this on Thursday night at a campaigbn rally in Pennsylvania – just hours after his administration’s show of force: “In Helsinki, I had a great meeting with Putin. We discussed everything. … We got along really well. By the way, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Now we’re being hindered by the Russian hoax – it’s a hoax, OK?”
The truth is that Trump has been telling us that for a very long time. He’s been extremely resistant to acknowledging Russian interference from the start – even after everyone in a position to know has made abundantly clear that there is simple not two sides to this debate. Russia interfered. The end.
Trump doesn’t say what Wray, Nielsen and Coats said on Thursday for a simple reason: He doesn’t totally believe it. And that lack of full faith in what smart people in his administration are telling him (and telling him) that badly undermines what his administration was trying to do today.
Consider it in your own life. Three vice presidents hold a company-wide meeting where they announce that market research has unanimously concluded that plastic widgets are the future. And so, the company will now only make plastic widgets. Then, a day later, the president of the company does an interview with a trade publication where he says: “Many people say plastic widgets are the future. Maybe they are. But maybe metal widgets are…”
Would you be convinced that the company’s full force is behind making plastic widgets? Of course you wouldn’t. (If you did believe that, you would be, um, dense.)
Same goes for the Trump administration. No matter how many times Wray and Coats insist that Russia interfered and broadly assert that Trump agree with them, there’s just too many statements from the President out there that directly contradict that assertion. And when the boss isn’t sure about something, it’s impossible to say his administration is totally convinced of it.
(By the way, the President tweeted five times – not counting deletions – after his top national security officials took to the White House briefing room, and none of those tweets were on the topic of election interference, CNN’s Jeremy Diamond pointed out. Instead, Trump tweeted about his approval rating, an upcoming rally in Pennsylvania, the farm bill and his support for an Ohio congressional candidate.)
Which made Thursday a nice photo op for an administration trying to get beyond a debate over whether Russia interfered in the election and what the government is doing to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Unless and until the President of the United States – via Twitter and in public pronouncements – can say what the likes of Nielsen, Coats and Wray did on Thursday, there will always be some doubt and confusion about exactly how big a threat Russia represents and what the US is doing to combat the threat. And that uncertainty is exactly what Russia wants.