Those two things are related, of course. By attacking U.S. intelligence services so relentlessly, he’s made it more likely that they will go along with his new demand.
Funny how that works, isn’t it?
“On Jan. 23, I was told that there could be a virus coming in but it was of no real import,” Mr. Trump said. “In other words, it wasn’t, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to do something.’ It was a brief conversation, and it was only on Jan. 23.”
Trump also tweeted that intelligence officials briefed him only in late January and portrayed the virus as “non-threatening.”
Even if this claim were true, it would not be exonerating in the least.
First, as The Post reported, intelligence agencies were issuing “ominous” classified warnings all throughout January and February about the “global danger” posed by the pandemic. Those warnings “increased in volume toward the end of January,” which is to say, at precisely the time Trump claims officials told him it was no biggie.
Keep that timeline in mind as you watch the emerging public spin. After Trump made this claim, a spokesperson for the director of national intelligence told CNN that Trump is correct about at least the timing — he was briefed on Jan. 23 and was told “the virus did not appear that deadly,” as CNN put it.
But this says nothing. It could easily mean intelligence officials were merely telling him the virus had not yet killed many people, which of course was the case at that moment. It says nothing about what he was told about the threat it would pose in coming weeks and months.
Given The Post’s reporting about the urgency of intel warnings, one strongly suspects public statements from intelligence services will continue dancing around the substance of what Trump actually was told in that regard, never mind when he was told it.
“This seems like retrospective cherry-picking of intelligence,” Joshua Geltzer, a senior National Security Council official from 2015 to 2017, told me.
Geltzer said Trump’s claim comes across as if he instructed top intelligence officials to “find me something in the record that looks like I was told things weren’t as bad as they might otherwise have seemed.”
“Once the intelligence community dutifully found that thing, Trump is now trotting it out,” Geltzer continued, even though the reporting indicates that in an overall sense, the intelligence provided to Trump did warn that the coronavirus posed an “extraordinary threat."
Step up the oversight, Democrats
We have a way of getting to the bottom of this claim: Democrats can and should investigate what intelligence officials concluded about the coronavirus threat and when, and what Trump was told about it.
Indeed, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) recently told me that the House Intelligence Committee, which he chairs, is reviewing what was said about the threat in early intelligence briefings to Congress. The Post has reported that in early February, intel officials briefed the House and Senate intelligence committees that the threat was “serious."
It’s hard to imagine those officials told Trump in late January that the coronavirus threat was no big deal and then told Congress in early February that it was serious.
Regardless, now that Trump has made this claim, such investigatory work by Schiff is critical. Democrats can indicate to the public — without compromising classified information — how urgent the warnings really were. If they were urgent — and Trump is now lying about it — we deserve to know. And if intelligence did underplay the threat, we deserve to know that, too.
Either way, none of this gets Trump off the hook. On the same day intelligence officials supposedly told Trump the threat was no biggie — Jan. 23 — the World Health Organization was already warning that the coronavirus could “appear in any country.” On Jan. 30, the WHO declared an international public health emergency.
What’s more, Trump’s own officials privately warned him of the true scale of the threat as early as Jan. 30. Given that Trump refused to take it seriously for weeks and weeks after this, with monumentally catastrophic consequences, this latest spin isn’t remotely exonerating.
There’s still another layer of depravity to all this.
Recall that Trump disastrously downplayed the coronavirus in part because he saw official warnings about it as a continuation of the “deep state” plot to bring him down, which he raged at intelligence officials about all throughout the Russia investigation and impeachment.
Now that history of attacks, perversely enough, will make it more likely that intelligence officials prop up his latest spin.
“Given this president’s history of berating them, intelligence leaders will feel pressure to find some way to claim that Trump was at least sort of right in saying the coronavirus threat was downplayed to him by the intelligence community,” Geltzer told me.
So, to recap: First the official warnings about the coronavirus coming from his own government were all about harming him. Now the intelligence services are a useful foil to shift blame away from him for getting that so catastrophically wrong, with horrifying consequences we can still only guess at.