In a rare White House briefing room appearance, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, National Security Agency Director General Paul Nakasone and National Security Adviser John Bolton on Thursday insisted their boss was fully aware of the threat of Russian interference in the midterms and was insistent everyone do whatever was needed (minus any additional funding, I suppose) to secure the election.
Things got dicey when Coats was pressed on the disconnect with his boss:
Q: Let me take you back, if I could, to Helsinki. The President seemed to indicate that he may believe Vladimir Putin, when he says he doesn’t — didn’t have any influence in the 2016 election. What is your belief about the Russian government involvement in meddling in 2016? And if, as you say, Russia continues to try to influence our electoral process, does that mean that nothing much came of the meeting with Putin? Or is it other-than-government actors who are involved here?
DIRECTOR COATS: Well, in relationship to the 2016 election — of course, none of us were in office at that particular time — but both the President, the Vice President, and I think everyone on this stage has acknowledged the fact that the [Intelligence Community Assessment] was a correct assessment of what happened in 2016.
We have subsequently made the determination to make this a top priority, that it doesn’t happen again. And we’re throwing everything at it. And we will have and will be discussing that here today.
Relative to my discussions with the President on whatever issue it is, those — I do not go public with that. I don’t think that’s the right — the proper thing to do. So our focus here today is simply to tell the American people: We acknowledge the threat, it is real, it is continuing, and we’re doing everything we can to have a legitimate election that the American people can have trust in.
In short, he ducked.
Then it was Wray’s turn:
Q: Thank you. I have a question for Director Wray. Thank you. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicted more than 20 Russian officials based on work by the FBI for meddling in the 2016 elections.
Now the President has tweeted that that investigation by the Special Counsel is a hoax and should be shut down. I know you’ve said that you don’t believe it is a hoax. But why would the American people believe what you’re saying about the FBI when the President says that the investigation by the Special Counsel is a hoax, and when the Press Secretary, yesterday, said that there was a lot of corruption within the FBI? Do you have any response to those statements coming from the White House?
DIRECTOR WRAY: 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.
Umm. They are doing their jobs and following their oaths, but he made no excuses for Trump.
Once more, Coats and then Bolton had to play defense:
Q: — and perhaps Ambassador Bolton could weigh in this as well. But in the run-up to the Helsinki Summit, U.S. officials, ambassadors to NATO, ambassadors to Russia said that the President would raise the issue of malign activity with President Putin. But he didn’t discuss that, at least, at the press conference.
You’re saying, today, that the President has directed you to make the issue of election meddling a priority. How do you explain the disconnect between what you are saying — his advisors — and what the President has said about this issue?
DIRECTOR COATS: I’m not in a position to either understand fully or talk about what happened at Helsinki.
That’s some refreshing candor! Bolton carried on:
AMBASSADOR BOLTON: The issue was discussed. And, in fact, President Putin said — I thought at the press conference, but certainly in the expanded bilateral meeting when the two leaders got together with their senior advisors — President Putin said the first issue that President Trump raised was election meddling.
Q: I guess the question is, at the press conference, the President didn’t highlight any of the malign activities that you have and that his advisors have. And so, should Americans believe that he is listening to your advice, or that he is going his own way when he’s having meetings like he did with the President of Russia?
AMBASSADOR BOLTON: 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.
Actually he hasn’t made it abundantly clear to the Russian or the public. And hours after that briefing, he once more undercut the claim that he was 100 percent behind the effort to thwart Russian tampering. By the way, this raises real concern why in the context of putting off another Russian summit Bolton himself called the investigation a “witch hunt.” So Bolton was being disingenuous then?
In a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Trump declared, “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?”
No matter how hard Coats, Wray, Bolton and others sidestep or try to put words in Trump’s mouth, Trump never fails to embarrass them and communicate his true feelings. He has never accepted that he got elected with Russian help, and he is not about to make a personal, all-out-push to stop it in 2018.