Campaign 2016

Why Doesn’t Donald Trump Believe the U.S. Intelligence Community?

By Carrie Cordero
Friday, October 21, 2016, 10:53 PM

As Lawfare readers surely know by now, during Wednesday's third presidential debate there was this exchange (Transcript via New York Times):

CLINTON: ... that the Russians have engaged in cyberattacks against the United States of America, that you encouraged espionage against our people, that you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up NATO, do whatever he wants to do, and that you continue to get help from him, because he has a very clear favorite in this race.

So I think that this is such an unprecedented situation. We’ve never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our election. We have 17 — 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.

WALLACE: Secretary Clinton...

CLINTON: And I think it’s time you take a stand...

TRUMP: She has no idea whether it’s Russia, China, or anybody else.

CLINTON: I am not quoting myself.

TRUMP: She has no idea.

CLINTON: I am quoting 17...

TRUMP: Hillary, you have no idea.

CLINTON: ... 17 intelligence — do you doubt 17 military and civilian...

TRUMP: And our country has no idea.

CLINTON: ... agencies.

TRUMP: Yeah, I doubt it. I doubt it.

Let’s take Trump at his word. Why, exactly, does he doubt that Russia is behind the recent election-related cyberattacks?

I posed a few questions on Twitter Thursday, exploring this question:

A few thoughts on Trump's debate position rejecting USIC assessment that Russia behind election-related cyber activities... #debate /1

Does he have actual info revealing why the USIC is wrong? #debate /2

Have his advisors told him there is a reason to be skeptical? Have reporters asked Gen. Flynn and others? #debate /3

Does he reject USIC assessments on other issues unrelated to Russia? Which ones? If not, why only Russia-related issues? #debate /4

Does he not believe the DNI because the DNI is an Obama Administration political appointee? #debate /5

Does he understand that the DNI-DHS assessment is the considered/consensus view of the USIC? #debate /6

Does he believe - as some might - that post WMD Iraq the USIC is simply unreliable? #debate /7

If he believes the USIC is unreliable or ineffective, does he plan to significantly reduce the USIC budget? #debate /8

To expand on these questions and points, briefly:

It seems unlikely that Trump actually has some specific information that contradicts what the Intelligence Community has stated publicly. If he did, there’s nothing about the manner in which he has conducted his campaign to suggest that he wouldn’t use that information to discredit U.S. government officials, particularly those that are appointees of the current administration.

So the 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.

It’s one or the other. And neither previews a presidency that would put America in a good place - let alone "first" - when it comes to national security. Instead, if he were to abandon intelligence collection, reject most or all intelligence assessments, or simply govern wholly based on his own experience and gut instincts, he would put America at risk.

A healthy skepticism of the intelligence assessments is a good trait in a policymaker. But willful ignorance is another thing.

Trump must be asked, and must be pressed to answer, whether he believes anything that originates from the Intelligence Community. The public deserves to know whether this is a man who is capable of receiving and processing information from professionals whose job it is to protect the country. Does he believe that the threats to the country are more or less in line with the annual threat assessment provided by the DNI to Congress and the public each year? Or, does he not believe that the DNI presents an accurate threat picture? Or, does he pick and choose among those assessments that are in line with his existing world view on certain topics?

If Trump accepts most of what the Intelligence Community reports except that which relates to Russia, then the questions regarding his motivations for a Russia-friendly foreign policy need further exploration. (Perhaps he simply admires Putin’s “strength.” Perhaps he aspires to reinvent the two-major-power global dominance. Or perhaps he knows pretty much he is going to lose this election, and desperately wants to preserve Trump Family Business market opportunities for building projects, infrastructure, hotels and consumer goods, beginning November 9.) If the only intelligence assessment he rejects is that which relates to Russia, then he has some explaining to do.

If, on the other hand, he does not believe or is highly skeptical of just about any Intelligence Community assessment, then one wonders just how exactly he plans to conduct his national security and foreign policy decision making. Perhaps he remembers watching on TV U.S. government assertions about WMD in Iraq, and he has internally vowed never to fall victim to bad intelligence.  But if that's the reason for his disbelief, he has never revealed it. Nor does it indicate an awareness of how the community has changed and adapted in the years since. Nor has he revealed what additional reforms he might offer to prevent such errors in the future.

But if he can't reasonably pin his rejection of the recent cyber assessment on Iraq war history, what logical explanation is there? Is it possible that he is so naïve about how war fighting, counterterrorism, diplomacy and many, many other aspects related to national security, foreign policy, and even peace are conducted and achieved amongst first world nations that he is simply unaware of the role that intelligence plays?

The purpose of the Intelligence Community is to provide policy makers with intelligence that informs their military, national security and foreign affairs policies and decisions. The President is the Intelligence Community’s number one customer. Does Trump plan to forego his intelligence briefings? If he finds the Intelligence Community’s role of little use, does he plan to recommend that Congress drastically cut the Intelligence Community’s $50 billion budget? (Intelligence and homeland security industrial complex, are you paying attention?)  

Trump may think that his refusal to accept the Intelligence Community’s assessment of the election-related cyberattacks is not particularly important. But, it is highly important. It’s a decision that speaks to whether he has any grasp about how world affairs work.  It’s a decision that impacts how he would carry out his Commander in Chief responsibilities. It’s a decision that impacts how he would manage the Executive Branch and be a steward of taxpayer funds. It’s a decision that he needs to be pressed on, every day, from now until November 8.