The dramatic and unified comments Thursday from the nation’s top national security officials to warn of a pervasive Russian effort to undermine US democracy also highlighted one of the most puzzling contradictions of the current presidency.
Often, President Donald Trump’s own administration adopts rhetoric, positions and interpretations of facts that directly conflict with the views and stated beliefs of the President himself, raising doubts about the unity and coherence of White House strategy on key issues – including addressing election interference, broader foreign policy and domestic issues such as immigration or avoiding a government shutdown.
This strange duality played out Thursday as the intelligence and foreign policy chieftains mustered in the White House Briefing Room to promise what FBI Director Christopher Wray said would be “fierce determination and focus” to thwart Russian meddling in the midterm elections.
But the absence of the President and his relentless past efforts to undermine assessments of Russian interference by his own intelligence agencies, plus his failure to publicly confront President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month, cast a huge cloud over the gathering.
It was not the first time that doubts have arisen about Trump’s commitment to the policies of his own policy bureaucracy.
On key foreign and domestic issues, from Russia to NATO, to the dispute between Qatar and its neighbors to the origins of the Robert Mueller special counsel investigation, Trump has seemed to strike a course that flagrantly contradicts with positions of his own government often with his explosive tweets – though he’s also prone to do it in person on the campaign trail.
“In Helsinki, I had a great meeting with Putin,” Trump said at a rally in Pennsylvania just hours after his top national security officials decried Russian attempts to influence US elections. “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?”
From the Helsinki news conference to now
One source told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins that the decision to roll out the heads of the FBI, the National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Council and his Director of National Intelligence came from the President himself. The senior officials all praised Trump for his leadership.
But the President did not chose to show up and introduce them himself, depriving them of the kind of direct presidential endorsement that is crucial to the credibility of any major undertaking in Washington.
The President has also repeatedly undermined assessments by his own intelligence agencies that Russia intervened in the election.
Just last month, he favored the Russian leader’s denials of involvement in meddling over the joint assessments of US intelligence agencies.
As he stood side-by-side with Putin at a news conference, Trump said: “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that interfered in the election, before later insisting amid a furious political backlash to his remark that he had meant to say “wouldn’t.”
Earlier this week, Trump called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end Mueller’s special council investigation – even though part of its mandate is investigating Russian election interference and its indictment of 12 Russian nationals has offered a stunning view of the sophistication of the election meddling effort.
So it was not surprising that Trump’s key officials faced deep skepticism among reporters that their efforts had the full support of the President – an impression that national security adviser John Bolton worked hard to dispel.
“I think the President has made it abundantly clear to everybody who has responsibility in this area that he cares deeply about it and that he expects them to do their jobs to their fullest ability and that he supports them fully,” Bolton said.
The uncomfortable disconnect between the President and his top officials was also on display in an awkward moment involving Wray.
The FBI director was asked about Trump’s calls for an end to the Mueller investigation because he thinks it is a “hoax” – a word the President would use several times just hours later – and a comment by press secretary Sarah Sanders Wednesday that the probe started by the bureau was rooted in “corruption and dishonesty.”
Treading carefully, Wray tiptoed around the question, saying simply: “Well, I can assure the American people that the men and women of the FBI, starting from the director, all the way on down, are going to follow our oaths and do our jobs.”
Russia not the only disconnect
Doubts about whether the President is fully committed to battling Russian election meddling reflect concerns about his motivations that are felt across Washington, in other policy areas.
His hostility to NATO and claims that the alliance is simply a vehicle for US allies to raid the US “piggy bank” directly conflicts with the position taken by the entire US foreign policy and military establishment.
Trump’s recent warnings that he would embrace a government shutdown to get funding for his border wall seem to fly in the face of comments by his own officials and Republican leaders.
The contradictions inherent in Trump’s presidency are perhaps best illustrated by the often conflicting strands of policy towards Russia itself. While the administration has imposed sanctions on Moscow, condemned the annexation of Crimea and allowed the sale of arms to Ukraine, this tough approach has often been undermined by the President.
Trump has called for Russia to be allowed added back to the G7 group of nations, even though it was kicked out over Crimea, and has even raised the possibility that the annexation could be recognized – forcing his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo into damage control mode.
“You basically have two different foreign policies in the United States, you have the foreign policy of the Trump administration and you have the foreign policy of President Trump himself,” historian Max Boot told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin on Thursday.
“What the President says and does is ultimately more important that what people underneath him are doing,” he continued. “They are not getting a unity of purpose and they are not getting a consistent message out because the President is completely at odds with his own government.”
Administration officials dismiss such commentary, either denying there is a gap between the President and his subordinates or insisting that he alone sets administration policy.
Pompeo faced repeated variations of this question during a fiery Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last month.
“The President calls the ball. His statements are in fact policy,” Pompeo said. “This President runs this government. His statements are in fact US policy.”
But when the President’s statements so often conflict with what most people understand US policy to be, it’s no wonder the question keeps getting asked.
CNN’s Eli Watkins contributed to this report.