None of those theories was definitive, but the evidence tying Russia to various efforts to influence American voters seems to have been. In February and in July, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III released indictments his team had obtained against two dozen alleged Russian agents, detailing for the first time how and where Russia had allegedly tried to amplify the country’s divisions and steal information from the Democratic Party and the campaign of Hillary Clinton.
But Trump knew more detail well before that, according to reporting from the New York Times, even before he took office. He’d been shown texts and emails that intelligence agencies had collected from high-ranking Russian government officials and had seen intelligence from a source close to Putin as early as January 2017.
Publicly, though, Trump continued to cast doubt. Was it Russia trying to interfere and doing the hacking? “No one knows. No one knows.” As recently as last week, Trump trotted out the long-debunked claim that the FBI hadn’t adequately investigated the hacking of the Democratic Party.
This week, we have seen the same pattern in defense of a different autocratic country.
On Tuesday, Trump released a statement — in his own name — broadly defending Saudi Arabia against questions about its role in the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, a legal resident of the United States but a citizen of Saudi Arabia, visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in early October to obtain documentation for his upcoming wedding. Stories vary about what happened next, but a short time later, Khashoggi was dead, killed by agents of the Saudi government who had apparently flown to Turkey for the purpose of confronting him.
This week, The Post reported that the CIA’s analysis of what happened to Khashoggi broadly matched the story offered by the Turkish government: The journalist was murdered at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. There was no accident, no struggle during which Khashoggi met an unfortunate demise. There was, instead, a team dispatched to Turkey to kill him. Mohammed’s brother told Khashoggi to go to the consulate to get his marriage documents.
The Saudis resisted acknowledging any involvement for weeks after Khashoggi went missing. (His body has not been located and may have been disposed of by being dissolved in acid.) Eventually, they admitted a role in Khashoggi’s death but stopped short of asserting that Mohammed had ordered the assassination. They reportedly told the White House that Khashoggi had links to terrorism and was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Khashoggi’s family denied the government’s alleged claims.
Over the weekend, Trump seemed hesitant to accept the CIA’s formulation of what had happened. In the statement Tuesday, he was more explicit, echoing the alleged Saudi disparagement of Khashoggi — which, The Post’s John Hudson noted, the Saudis had denied saying — and failing to mention that Khashoggi was an employee of an American news organization who lived in Virginia.
“Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump wrote. “We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. ... The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”
He made clear that he intended to take no other action against the Saudis.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who until earlier this year led Trump’s CIA, spoke with reporters about the subject shortly after the president released his statement. He noted that “it’s a mean, nasty world out there” — echoing the Trump statement’s introductory “the world is a very dangerous place!” — and stated that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is “a long, historic commitment, and one that is absolutely vital to America’s national security.”
In late July, The Post reported that another Trump assertion — that North Korea was taking steps to denuclearize — seemed to be at odds with intelligence agencies' analysis. The country was apparently working on new missiles potentially capable of carrying nuclear warheads to the United States. Moreover, North Korean leaders were intending to “deceive Washington about the number of nuclear warheads and missiles they have” and might assert “that they have fully denuclearized by declaring and disposing of 20 warheads while retaining dozens more.”
Trump publicly continued to take North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s vague commitment to denuclearize at face value.
There have been other, less significant points at which those administering the government have contradicted or clashed with Trump’s preferred framing for a situation. Trump was advised against congratulating Putin on his electoral success earlier this year, but he did so anyway. He bucked the State Department under Pompeo’s predecessor by criticizing a deal on refugees with Australia that the department had just reinforced to the Australian press. He told immigrants protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that none would be deported, contrary to what the Department of Homeland Security was saying.
When it comes to the Khashoggi killing and Russian interference, though, the stakes and the contradictions are much higher. Why Trump insists on defending the positions of those countries' leaders over his own intelligence agencies remains murky.
That he does so is perfectly clear.