National security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, cast doubt Sunday on Russia’s preference for Trump. Each said they hadn’t seen intelligence to suggest that Russia was actually doing anything to benefit his reelection.
“I haven’t seen any intelligence that Russia is doing anything to attempt to get President Trump reelected,” O’Brien said on ABC News’s “This Week.”
Short added on “Fox News Sunday” that “there’s not intelligence that suggests that they’re trying to help Trump.”
It bears emphasizing that both of them seemed to carefully tailor their denials. Reports like The Post’s have indicated that Russia prefers Trump, not that it has actively been supporting his candidacy. They denied only the latter. And as the New York Times’s David Sanger wrote Sunday, that’s a key but very real distinction:
The difference between actively backing Mr. Trump and preferring his reelection is a subtle nuance, officials say, but an important one: It is probably too early for the Russians to begin any significant move to bolster a specific candidate. In 2016, they at first sought to cause chaos and hurt Hillary Clinton, intelligence reports released later that year said, but only in the last few months before the election did they actively work to elect Mr. Trump.
Sanders, on the other hand, is engaged in a Democratic primary in which efforts to assist his candidacy would have more currency.
But even as O’Brien and Short were trying to downplay Russia’s alleged preference for Trump, they were only so happy to suggest that the reporting about Sanders was correct. And they also took it a big leap further, positing that Russia would prefer Sanders over Trump, for which there is no known or reported intelligence.
“There are these reports that they want Bernie Sanders to get elected president,” O’Brien said on ABC. “That’s no surprise. He honeymooned in Moscow. President Trump has rebuilt the American military to an extent we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan. So, I don’t think it’s any surprise that Russia or China or Iran would want somebody other than President Trump.”
Again, this is not what the intelligence said.
O’Brien added on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” that “what I have heard from the FBI, you know — well, what I have heard is that Russia would like Bernie Sanders to win the Democrat nomination. They’d probably like him to be president, understandably, because he wants to spend money on social programs and probably would have to take it out of the military.”
That’s a remarkable contention — O’Brien citing some kind of information from the FBI and linking it to the idea that Russia wants Sanders to not only win the Democratic nomination, but also defeat Trump. There is no such reporting that that is the case.
This seemed to be the talking point, though, because Short was trafficking in this idea, too.
Later, on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” Short said: “I think the reality is, it’s hard to suggest that when this administration has taken steps time and again to sanction Russia harder than any president since Reagan, this president actually took steps and actually killed Russian mercenaries on the battlefield in Syria, that Russia would prefer to have Donald Trump than a person who, Bernie Sanders, who honeymooned in the Soviet Union and still seems to prefer Marxism over capitalism.”
This, again, is a false dichotomy. The intelligence reportedly shows that Russia prefers both Trump’s reelection and Sanders in the Democratic primary. But Short and O’Brien are each suggesting that it’s an either-or proposition and that a Sanders presidency is the real goal. As we learned in 2016 — when Russia preferred both Sanders and Trump, according to U.S. intelligence — that’s not always the case. Both can be deemed as useful for similar or different reasons at any given juncture.
Even if we’re to accept that either-or framing, though, it’s a highly suspect claim. The Trump administration has certainly taken some tough steps on Russia, but they often seemed to come over the objections of Trump himself. And Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on Russia’s election interference in 2016.
What’s more, whatever those actions may have been, the intelligence has long shown that Russia is most interested in sowing discord in the United States, and, in that respect, Trump is an almost ideal conduit. Likewise, Russia may want Sanders to win the nomination because it views him as similarly shaking the foundations of the American political system or because it views him as easier for Trump to beat in a general election.
Apart from that, O’Brien and Short suggest the reports about Russia preferring Sanders make sense but that those about Trump don’t. They are happy to speculate and cite alleged intelligence about Sanders but warn against drawing too many conclusions about Trump. That’s a tremendous double standard.
And it also shouldn’t be ignored that Trump’s national security adviser is citing nonpublic FBI intelligence about Sanders and Russia in a way that’s difficult to describe as anything except a political hit by a White House official — one who isn’t supposed to be engaged in the president’s reelection campaign.