With President Trump, it’s often difficult to locate the point where his utter lack of self awareness blends into sheer shamelessness. This poses an urgent problem with the spin he is now offering amid revelations that U.S. intelligence indicated Russia may have paid bounties to Taliban-linked militias for the killing of U.S. troops.
Trump is now defending himself not just by claiming he wasn’t briefed on that intelligence, or just by contesting the significance of that intelligence. Instead, he’s declaring that the entire story simply doesn’t exist — that is, he’s suggesting no intelligence ever actually indicated anything like this.
Yet this defense is itself deeply self-incriminating. It only underscores what critics are saying — that at minimum, Trump should be taking this intelligence seriously and trying to get to the bottom of what it actually does indicate, even if the worst interpretation proves wrong.
Trump just tweeted:
The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party. The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself. If the discredited @nytimes has a source, reveal it. Just another HOAX!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 1, 2020
Amusingly, moments later Trump reposted a tweet vowing to veto the Defense Authorization Bill if it renames military installations named after Confederate generals. This juxtaposed Trump’s defense of monuments to traitors alongside his blithe unconcern about a foreign power potentially paying for the killing of Americans.
That, too, is either profoundly un-self-aware or deeply shameless — take your pick. But on the Russia story in particular, the line between the two is not just blurry, but dangerously so.
There is a great deal we don’t know about the Russian bounties, and we should be exceptionally cautious. But one thing we can state right now is that the president of the United States should be taking a lot more of an interest in this and should be saying publicly that he is doing so.
Instead, Trump is denying that the story has any significance of any kind. In a second tweet, Trump noted he was “never briefed” on intelligence about the bounties, because “any info that they may have had” wasn’t corroborated. He again claimed the story is a “made up Fake News Media Hoax.”
Note the “may have had.” His only instinct is to cast doubt on the very existence of any such intelligence, not to further explore what it might indicate.
Yet the latest revelations from the New York Times tell us this:
American officials intercepted electronic data showing large financial transfers from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account, evidence that supported their conclusion that Russia covertly offered bounties for killing U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, according to three officials familiar with the intelligence.
Crucially, the Times says this information both “bolstered the findings” gleaned from interrogations of detainees that had led officials to worry about the bounties, and that the info helped “reduce an earlier disagreement” among analysts over the reliability of their info.
That’s important, because any such increased confidence in the info could undermine the notion that Trump would not have been briefed by intelligence officials due to lack of corroboration.
A new level of denial
Reports have indicated that Trump actually was provided with a written briefing on this intelligence — which he probably didn’t read. The White House has cagily said Trump wasn’t directly briefed without saying whether he was given a written briefing, while insisting that of course he reads what’s presented to him.
But Trump is now taking this denial to a new level, suggesting any intelligence indicating this may not exist.
Yet the existence of such intelligence simply isn’t in doubt. Republican lawmakers who have been briefed on it confirmed its existence while saying it needs further review. A handful of Republicans have even said revelations of its existence actually make it more urgent to get to the bottom of what it really indicates.
Why doesn’t Trump agree with this? Why isn’t he saying publicly that he will not rest until he learns everything there is to know about these assessments? Making this more glaring, officials are investigating possible links between bounties and specific lethal attacks on U.S. troops.
“A real president would have said, ‘These reports are highly disturbing, and we’re doing everything we can to get to the bottom of them,'” Ned Price, a former National Security Council and CIA official, told me. “That is not what we’ve heard.”
Every interpretation looks bad
Even the most charitable interpretation here is incriminating. If you stipulate that Trump is merely demonstrating an instinct to protect himself politically — and is just lashing out at the “deep state” or whatever — then this instinct is itself preventing him from seeking a full accounting. Such a narcissistic reflex itself ensures that Trump won’t act for the good of the country.
The less charitable interpretation is worse. Fears are rising of another round of Russian interference in the 2020 elections — after the Trump campaign eagerly benefited from the last round while he largely pretended it never happened.
Trump, who is also pushing for the Group of Seven to readmit Russia, refuses to say outright that his administration will do everything it can to protect the integrity of our elections from outside interference that might help him. As Price pointed out to me, failure to take a hard public stand on the alleged bounties might further embolden Russia on other fronts, such as on electoral interference.
Given all this, you’d think that at a minimum, Trump would use this bounties story as an occasion to send the message that he does, in fact, have our country’s best interests at the top of his mind. But he simply feels no obligation of any kind to signal this.
“I can’t think of a better occasion to have stressed something like that,” Price said.
The full story of why Trump won’t put the national interest first has yet to be told. But Trump has once again made it absolutely clear that this is very much not where his true loyalties lie.