The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s attempt to clean up the Putin event was an insult to America’s intelligence

Over the course of three days, President Trump commented on Russian election interference in ways that repeatedly contradicted his own intelligence officials. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday, President Trump drew a large rhetorical equals sign between the assertions of American intelligence officials and claims presented by Putin.

“My people came to me, Dan Coats, came to me and some others they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said, referring to his director of national intelligence. “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia.”

“I will say this,” Trump continued, “I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

In assessments of Trump’s performance that followed the news conference, that assertion was one of the most cited: Standing next to Putin, Trump both treated Putin’s claims as valid and said that the evidence presented by the American intelligence community didn’t outweigh what the Russian president had said.

Condemnation was swift, unrelenting and bipartisan. So, on Tuesday, Trump offered words of clarification.

“Let me be totally clear in saying that — and I’ve said this many times — I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” Trump said, then adding, “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”

Trump claimed to have not understood what all the negative response was about.

“I have to say, I came back and I said, ‘What is going on? What’s the big deal?’ ” he said. “So I got a transcript, I reviewed it, I actually went out and reviewed a clip of an answer I gave, and I realize there is a need for some clarification. It should have been obvious, I thought it would be obvious, but I would like to clarify, just in case it wasn’t.”

“In a key sentence in my remarks,” he continued, “I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ … The sentence should have been — and I thought it would be maybe a little bit unclear on the transcript or unclear on the actual video — the sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative. So you can put that in, and I think that clarifies things pretty good by themselves.”

This attempt to clean up his mess is an insult to America’s intelligence.

First of all, Trump undercuts his assertion that he accepts the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s culpability about 10 seconds after he makes it. There is no indication from the intelligence community that anyone other than Russia was involved in the interference effort, one that U.S. intelligence agencies believe was conducted by Russian intelligence with the aim of boosting Trump’s campaign. There is no one who has been indicted following an investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III who is not a Russian: 13 Russian nationals were indicted over their efforts to change voters’ minds on social media; and another 12 Russian intelligence officers were indicted last week for hacking the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of Hillary Clinton.

Saying that you accept the findings of the intelligence community but that “other people” might have been involved is like saying you accept that the world is round but you also worry about sailing off the edge of Earth. The findings of the intelligence community are that no other people bear responsibility.

Second, consider Trump’s comments in their original context. When Trump said “I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he immediately followed that with assertions meant to undermine the investigation into interference in the campaign.

Trump said:

“I don’t see any reason why it would be. But I really do want to see the server, but I have, I have confidence in both parties.”
“I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC?”
“Where are those servers? They’re missing. Where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails? Thirty-three thousand emails gone, just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily.”

That stuff about the servers and the “Pakistani gentleman” and Clinton’s emails are all meant to cover the findings of the intelligence community in doubt. For what it’s worth, all of those efforts to distract from the central finding — Russia’s culpability — have themselves been debunked. Here’s why the server didn’t need to be turned over to the FBI. Here’s what happened to the Pakistani gentleman, who was convicted of bank fraud and cleared of any involvement in the DNC hack. Here’s the deal with Clinton’s emails.

Even if Trump did mean “wouldn’t” instead of “would,” it doesn’t detract at all from his equating Putin’s assertions with Coats’s findings. It doesn’t detract at all from his following that equivalence with various random reasons he wants America to doubt what Coats and his team have alleged. Trump actively tried to undercut Coats’s findings while standing next to Putin, “would” or “wouldn’t” notwithstanding.

Third, Trump has played this game before. Over the past year or two, he’s refined, expanded and changed his assertions on Putin and Russia numerous times. He’s claimed to accept the intelligence community’s findings and then quickly turned around and cast doubt on them. Repeatedly.

What’s more, he has done this same dance with other issues. The most obvious was his response to the racist protest in Charlottesville in August. He seesawed from accepting to rejecting to accepting the premise of the far-right, white nationalist groups that originated the event, depending on how the winds were blowing. He created just enough space for supporters who were critical of him on the subject to believe that he was holding an acceptable position that many of them did so.

That’s the strategy here. It’s not complicated: He has done it any number of times before when faced with sharp criticism from his own supporters. He’s creating just enough doubt to allow people to give him the benefit of it.

If you are inclined to support Trump but were worried about his comments, boom. Trump just explained away the most obvious way in which he undercut the intelligence community’s assessment. It’s the flip side to Trump’s whataboutism: Just as Trump often seizes upon one little thing that Barack Obama or Clinton did to justify his more egregious actions, he leverages one tiny point of light to give his supporters the ability to see something other than shadows.

The problem for Trump is that it will be hard for him to clean up his comments further. If you believe that he didn’t understand what the fuss was about until he spotted the “error” in the transcript, you have to believe that he has no more changes to make. By not clarifying his various efforts to undermine Coats and the intelligence community’s findings, he’s saying that he’s fine with them.

And those comments make clear what was obvious Monday: Trump rejects the findings of the intelligence community.