President-elect Donald Trump’s inexplicable insistence on denying the unanimous conclusion of the intelligence community regarding Russian interference with our election forces his surrogates into fits of incoherence. Kellyanne Conway tried to worm out of his declaration that her boss knows “things that other people don’t know.” She told Anderson Cooper on CNN:
COOPER: But even people who weren’t supporting Hillary Clinton would understandably be concerned about any foreign entity hacking into anybody’s e-mails here, whether it was the Sony hacks, believed to have been done by North Korea — I mean, it’s not necessarily all political.
CONWAY: Well, Anderson, what you just described, we share your view. In other words, of course, we are concerned about a foreign government hacking into our information. But you and I are agreeing on a principle. We’re not agreeing on an actual set of facts.
What facts does Trump have? “He didn’t say, he didn’t necessarily say he’d announce it. What he’s saying is that we’ll find out, he’ll find out,” she insisted. “I think it’s all very contingent on what these intelligence officials reveal in their briefing, Anderson, and everybody should be very happy that the president-elect is open to receiving that briefing. He’s very much looking forward to that.” He’ll find out? We thought he said he already knew something we didn’t. Hmm.
This sort of double talk — which the Trump team imagines is sufficient to get by (his cult followers including Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly will buy anything, but the rest of the country does not) — needs to end. Otherwise Trump becomes isolated politically and puts his nominees in a position in their confirmation hearings of either contradicting him or getting blocked for spouting nonsense. We are in a rare moment of bipartisan accord and agreement on a robust response — with the president-elect virtually alone in his non-factual insistence that there is nothing here to be concerned about. Democrats, freed from the burden of defending Obama’s missteps and weakness, are unified in demanding tougher action. (Their return to a more responsible, tougher national security line reminiscent of Democratic presidents from FDR through JFK, as well as Bill Clinton, is one of the few bright spots in our post-election political environment.) One way or another Congress is going to pass sanctions legislation. Should Trump continue to oppose action, he risks the humiliation of an early veto override on a tough, bipartisan Russia sanctions bill.
The best analogy to Trump’s irrational denial would be if Jimmy Carter, who scoffed at what he called the “inordinate fear of communism,” had not woken up to Soviet motives after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan — or worse, denied that the Soviets had invaded at all. One would have questioned Carter’s sanity or loyalty, or both. (To his credit he got much tougher on the USSR, demanded a raft of sanctions and began the military buildup. Trump risks being more clueless than Jimmy Carter.)
Trump’s last chance to get himself out of the corner into which he has painted himself is the intelligence briefing that Conway referenced. He is out of excuses (e.g. the FBI didn’t agree, there was no written report, he knew some set of facts). All of the intelligence agencies are on board. Moreover, if Trump refuses to recognize reality, or worse, lies about what he is told, President Obama has the option to declassify most or all of the information, outing Trump as either a Russian stooge or as intellectually incapable of grasping intelligence analysis. (He also faces the very real possibility that intelligence officials will leak the information to embarrass him.)
Trump’s post-briefing rhetoric will be informative. He either is so stubborn — or so completely under Vladimir Putin’s sway — that he cannot act in defense of American interests or he is educable, albeit after weeks on denial, prevarication and angry accusations. For the good of the country, let’s hope it is the latter. Should he receive the briefing and still maintain his unsupportable position, he will begin his presidency with his already weak favorability ratings considerably weakened and with genuine doubts about his fitness as commander in chief.