In October 2016, I wondered aloud on Lawfare why then-candidate Donald Trump did not believe the intelligence community’s assessment that the Russian government conducted an intelligence operation intended to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. I offered two hypotheses:
[T]he more likely explanation for his rejection of the Intelligence Community’s assessment is one of two things: either he i) simply has an extreme inherent skepticism about any information that originates from the Intelligence Community; or, ii) he affirmatively chooses not to accept this particular assessment that Russia is behind the attacks, but he won’t explain to the public why he does not accept it.
My view at the time was that a president who rejects everything presented to him by the intelligence community would be a president who would make foreign policy and national security decisions that were uninformed or even reckless. Now, almost one year in to Trump’s presidency, we are closer to knowing which of those theories is correct.
The president has been consistent in his rejection of the intelligence community’s Russian influence assessment. He may be softening, ever slightly, however, on his rejection of the legitimacy of some work done by the intelligence community, even while he hardens his verbal attacks on the FBI and the special counsel. The takeaway is that the president’s rejection of specific intelligence community assessments appears to be based on how they personally affect him, his administration, and those close to him, and not on a fundamental belief that the intelligence community and its work is not credible.
If my read of his current relationship with the intelligence community is correct, this development is both good and bad.
The upside is that the president is willing to receive intelligence briefings. We can quibble over whether his briefings are too pictorial or dumbed down, but the practice that has emerged over the past year to receive intelligence briefings is better than the alternative, particularly given his verbal attacks on the intelligence services and less frequent briefings during the transition period after the 2016 election. Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker published last spring that Trump receives briefings most days, asks questions, and otherwise engages with the professional intelligence briefers and senior intelligence agency heads like CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who attend the morning meetings regularly.
Moreover, recent reporting on international events tends to indicate that the briefings—and the president’s accompanying understanding of some world events—might be informing and influencing at least some foreign policy and national security positions or actions. For example, in April, the president launched limited military strikes in Syria following a chemical attack perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. More recently, the president urged Saudi Arabia to allow humanitarian goods into Yemen, a position that was likely informed by intelligence information he received.
On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that intelligence briefings provided to the president would support his continuing antagonistic public tweeting at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Other policy decisions such as the specific countries targeted in the travel ban, the decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in the current Middle East environment, and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, appear to an outside observer at least, to be disjointed from the type of information and analytic assessments probably communicated in presidential intelligence briefings.
The bad is that the president continues to reject the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia conducted an information operation and other active measures intended to affect the 2016 election, even though the community updated its assessment in January 2017. The consequences of this refusal are several, and meaningful:
First, the president continues to indicate publicly that he believes what Russian President Vladimir Putin tells him one-on-one over the advice of the U.S. intelligence community and friendly foreign intelligence services.
Second, his refusal to acknowledge that a hostile nation-state took active steps to influence the 2016 election presents risks that federal and local officials will similarly not take the threat of foreign meddling in elections seriously or devote sufficient time and resources to protecting election systems from malicious attack and interference in the 2018 elections, and beyond.
Third, his rejection of the intelligence assessment places additional and unnecessary strain on our partnerships with allies, particularly those with whom the U.S. maintains important intelligence-sharing arrangements. These partnerships are critical for a host of reasons, including but not limited to counterterrorism intelligence sharing. Trust among nations—at both the intelligence service level but also at the political leadership level—is critical to maintaining these important sharing relationships.
Fourth, the president’s refusal to acknowledge the Russian influence campaign adds to—not detracts from—a perception that he, his campaign and his inner circle have something to hide regarding their communications with Russian government officials and surrogates during the election. Had it been true, it would have been so easy for Trump campaign officials to present a narrative that they were the unwitting targets of a foreign intelligence effort. Had they reacted very differently for the past eighteen months, including having affirmatively reported the outreach from Russian affiliates to American law enforcement and intelligence agencies, they could have been logically assessed to have been victims of a sophisticated foreign intelligence operation. Instead, by failing to be transparent about communications and meetings, and by disparaging the ensuing investigations (not to mention firing the chief investigator), they have increased the skepticism with which a reasonable observer contemplates their denials.
Fifth, the denial only of intelligence pertaining to Russian influence efforts casts further doubt on the president’s assertions that he has no financial entanglements with the Russian government or Russian government-affiliated persons or organizations. Because the president now seems willing to accept some intelligence assessments, those that he refuses to accept stand out. After all this time, the president and his advisers still have not offered a reasonable explanation for his unwillingness to accept the community’s assessment. Financial entanglement has long been a counterintelligence red flag.
Looking forward, we can be hopeful that the president will continue to allow himself to be informed by intelligence information that his national security and intelligence advisers present to him. We can further hope that these institutional processes will improve his policy deliberations in the year ahead. But the president’s continued unwillingness to accept the considered assessment regarding Russian influence casts a long shadow over his national security and foreign policy choices by allowing a perception to remain that his decision-making may be clouded by interests other than the American people’s.