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2 things that seem to explain Trump’s ignorance about Russia’s bounties on U.S. troops

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on June 29 said President Trump had not been briefed on intelligence that Russia placed bounties on U.S. troops. (Video: The Washington Post)

The White House appears to be homing in on a defense of last resort for President Trump when it comes to the Russia bounties controversy: He doesn’t read.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Monday claimed Trump hadn’t been briefed on the intelligence that Russia placed bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But when pressed on whether the intel appeared in Trump’s written President’s Daily Brief, or PDB, she declined to directly respond.

There appears to be a reason for that. The Washington Post and others have confirmed the information has indeed appeared in the PDB. The Post reports two individuals say “the intelligence was considered significant and credible enough that it was included in the President’s Daily Brief.” The New York Times is also reporting that information appeared in the PDB in late February. The Associated Press reported it appeared in the PDB as far back as early 2019. And GOP lawmakers who were briefed Monday at the White House also appeared to grant the info was probably in the PDB. “I believe it may have been,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) told NBC News.

The first thing to note here is the semantic game the White House appears to be playing. They’re suggesting the President’s Daily Brief document doesn’t itself constitute a “briefing” — despite having “brief” in its name — but that a briefing must be done orally.

That’s quite the parse. And as longtime Times national security reporter David Sanger notes, it’s not how this works.

But aside from that, it’s worth distilling the White House’s apparent defense down to its basest form, which is Trump may have actually been provided the intelligence, but he didn’t actually consume it.

That makes complete sense, given everything we know about Trump and his approach to both detailed intelligence and — more importantly in this moment — to intel about Russia specifically.

The Post reported in early 2018 that Trump doesn’t read the PDBs:

For much of the past year, President Trump has declined to participate in a practice followed by the past seven of his predecessors: He rarely if ever reads the President’s Daily Brief, a document that lays out the most pressing information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies from hot spots around the world.
Trump has opted to rely on an oral briefing of select intelligence issues in the Oval Office rather than getting the full written document delivered to review separately each day, according to three people familiar with his briefings.

What’s more — and this would seem the most important point given the current imbroglio — even when it comes to oral briefings, aides have been reluctant to even bring up Russia, according to an extensive Post report in late 2017:

Current and former officials said that his daily intelligence update — known as the president’s daily brief, or PDB — is often structured to avoid upsetting him.
Russia-related intelligence that might draw Trump’s ire is in some cases included only in the written assessment and not raised orally, said a former senior intelligence official familiar with the matter. In other cases, Trump’s main briefer — a veteran CIA analyst — adjusts the order of his presentation and text, aiming to soften the impact.
“If you talk about Russia, meddling, interference — that takes the PDB off the rails,” said a second former senior U.S. intelligence official.
“If you say ‘Russian interference,’ to him it’s all about him,” said a senior Republican strategist who has discussed the matter with Trump’s confidants. “He judges everything as about him.”

To emphasize the most important sentence there: “Russia-related intelligence that might draw Trump’s ire is in some cases included only in the written assessment and not raised orally.” This was at a time when that Russia-related intelligence generally dealt with its 2016 election interference. But it’s logical to assume this tactic by intelligence briefers may live on today, too, given Trump’s unceasing desire to improve relations with Russia.

The White House’s suggestion is the intelligence not being raised orally with Trump is a testament to its lack of significance. McEnany said Monday such information must be “verified” first — despite that not being how the PDB generally works — and claimed there was “no consensus” on the intel.

The alternate explanation though, given the above reporting, is that perhaps the briefers knew this was something the president simply didn’t want to hear. That’s extremely plausible, given this intelligence is reportedly much more significant than the White House lets on. It was significant enough to share with British intelligence, after all, so how can it not be something worth bringing to Trump’s attention? That doesn’t make sense.

We’ll have to see how this all shakes out, but it’s certainly worth entertaining the possibility that Trump’s aversion to detail and to bad news about Russia have conspired to render him hopelessly uninformed about an issue of significant national interest — one involving the lives of U.S. troops, no less. (The intelligence has connected the bounties to actual deaths.)

Even if that doesn’t fully account for what happened here, it’s stunning the White House’s defense here seems to be Trump simply didn’t bother to learn about all of this, even though the information was provided to him.

As The Post reported in that late 2017 piece, “by not reading the daily briefing, the president could hamper his ability to respond to crises in the most effective manner, intelligence experts warned.”

Trump’s aversion to this kind of detailed intelligence already reared its ugly head early this year, when Trump downplayed the threat of the novel coronavirus for two months despite the dire warnings contained in his PDBs. Now, it appears to have happened again.

In case you were wondering, there was once a man who strongly criticized a president for being ignorant of important information and supposedly not reading his intelligence briefings: His name was Donald Trump.

Update: McEnany responded to questions about Trump’s consumption of intelligence Tuesday by saying, “This president is the most informed person on Planet Earth when it comes to the threats that we face.”