The New York Times’ Charlie Savage started it. This wasn’t Woodward and Bernstein, but he and his team might have blown up the Trump presidency. Everything that Trump had been saying over the weekend was bluster and lies:
American officials provided a written briefing in late February to President Trump laying out their conclusion that a Russian military intelligence unit offered and paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, two officials familiar with the matter said.
The investigation into the suspected Russian covert operation to incentivize such killings has focused in part on an April 2019 car bombing that killed three Marines as one such potential attack, according to multiple officials familiar with the matter.
The new information emerged as the White House tried on Monday to play down the intelligence assessment that Russia sought to encourage and reward killings – including reiterating a claim that Mr. Trump was never briefed about the matter and portraying the conclusion as disputed and dubious.
He had been briefed. CNN and the Associated Press and NBC and all the rest worked their own sources and confirmed what Savage had reported, leaving Trump nowhere to hide:
That stance clashed with the disclosure by two officials that the intelligence was included months ago in Mr. Trump’s President’s Daily Brief document – a compilation of the government’s latest secrets and best insights about foreign policy and national security that is prepared for him to read. One of the officials said the item appeared in Mr. Trump’s brief in late February; the other cited Feb. 27, specifically.
Moreover, a description of the intelligence assessment that the Russian unit had carried out the bounties plot was also seen as serious and solid enough to disseminate more broadly across the intelligence community in a May 4 article in the CIA’s World Intelligence Review, a classified compendium commonly referred to as The Wire, two officials said.
This worry had become common knowledge among those with the clearance to know such things, and that left Trump hanging:
The disclosures came amid a growing furor in Washington over the revelations in recent days that the Trump administration had known for months about the intelligence conclusion but the White House had authorized no response to Russia.
Top Democrats in the House and Senate demanded all members of Congress be briefed, and the White House summoned a small group of House Republicans friendly to the president to begin explaining its position.
The lawmakers emerged saying that they were told the administration was reviewing reporting about the suspected Russian plot to assess its credibility, and that the underlying intelligence was conflicting.
Savage quotes a lot of them – this was likely – this was probable – but every detail of all of this was not absolutely certain, not totally verifiable – so you don’t want to go bother the president with something that might be going on, that’s probably going on, until everyone is one hundred percent sure something is going on and can prove that in some sort of airtight case. Why tell the president something “might” be going on?
That was the new Republican argument. The White House said they might talk to a few Democrats about this in a day or two. The White House has to work out the semantics first:
In denying that Mr. Trump was briefed, administration officials have been coy about how it is defining that concept and whether it includes both oral briefings and the President’s Daily Brief. “He was not personally briefed on the matter,” Press Secretary McEnany told reporters when asked specifically about the written briefing. “That is all I can share with you today.”
Mr. Trump is said to often neglect reading that document, preferring instead to receive an oral briefing summarizing highlights every few days. Even in those face-to-face meetings, he is particularly difficult to brief on national security matters. He often relies instead on conservative media and friends for information, current and former intelligence officials have said.
He trusts Fox and Friends, not the intelligence community, so the intelligence community just steps back and does what it does, and everyone else will just have to choose sides:
American intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan began raising alarms as early as January, and the National Security Council convened an interagency meeting to discuss the problem and what to do about it in late March, The Times has previously reported. But despite being presented with options, including a diplomatic protest and sanctions, the White House authorized no response.
The administration’s explanations on Monday, in public and in private, appeared to be an attempt to placate lawmakers, particularly Mr. Trump’s fellow Republicans, alarmed by news reports in recent days revealing the existence of the intelligence assessment and Mr. Trump’s insistence he had not been warned of the suspected Russian plot.
But something does seem wrong here:
Former officials said that in previous administrations, accusations of such profound importance – even if the evidence was not fully established – were conveyed to the president. “We had two threshold questions: ‘Does the president need to know this’ and ‘why does he need to know it now,'” said Robert Cardillo, a former senior intelligence official who briefed President Barack Obama from 2010 to 2014.
David Priess, a former CIA daily intelligence briefer and the author of “The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents,” said: “Many intelligence judgments in history have not had the consensus of every analyst who worked on it. That’s the nature of intelligence. It’s inherently dealing with uncertainty.”
Both Mr. Cardillo and Mr. Priess said previous presidents received assessments on issues of potentially vital importance even if they had dissents from some analysts or agencies. The dissents, they said, were highlighted for the president to help them understand uncertainties and the analytic process.
So, should the president know what seems to be happening, or should he wait to be dead-sure that something is happening? The former seemed best to some:
“This is a time to focus on the two things Congress should be asking and looking at: No. 1 Who knew what, when, and did the commander in chief know? And if not, how the hell not?” said Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, each requested that all lawmakers be briefed on the matter and for CIA and other intelligence officials to explain how Mr. Trump was informed of intelligence collected about the plot.
They want to know how the president gets his information about what’s going on. Everyone does, but David Ignatius has some bad news:
A basic truth about Russian President Vladimir Putin, which President Trump evidently doesn’t understand: Putin is in the payback business. He believes the United States destroyed his former country, the Soviet Union. He likes the United States to feel pain, in Afghanistan and everywhere else.
Trump has his own, much rosier take on Putin. And I can’t help wondering whether that explains why, assuming his account is true, the American president was never briefed about intelligence reports early this year that Russia was offering bounties to Taliban fighters to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. Perhaps Trump’s national security aides were afraid to upset him.
But history is what it is:
First, we must understand that the Russians wish us ill in Afghanistan. Putin’s generation remains bitter about their forced withdrawal that finished in 1989, under American pressure, which presaged the collapse of the Soviet Union. There’s a tiny Afghan War Museum in Moscow’s Perovo district: two dark rooms, pictures of the fallen, guns, maps and other trinkets of a war that broke the Soviet Union’s spirit.
About 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed in their nine-year Afghanistan war. By comparison, the United States has suffered 2,372 military deaths in our Afghan war, waged for more than twice as long.
What makes Afghanistan especially painful for Russia is that the Soviet Union’s final defeat resulted from a secret CIA program to supply the Afghan mujahedeen with Stinger antiaircraft missiles, which could shoot down Soviet helicopters and were a death sentence for Moscow’s recruits.
So of course Putin is a bit bitter:
For the first 15 years of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, in which our former allies were now mortal enemies, the Russians played along. They were happy to let Americans kill the same Islamist militants that had used U.S.-supplied weapons to kill Russians. But starting in 2018, U.S. commanders noticed a difference: The Russians appeared to be helping the Taliban.
Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson Jr., who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan for more than two years, revealed the secret Russian aid for the Taliban in a March 23, 2018, interview with the BBC. He said Afghan leaders had showed U.S. commanders Russian-supplied weapons that had been smuggled across the border to Taliban fighters. He said the Russians were also peddling a false narrative that the United States was fostering a buildup of Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, to justify their actions.
Nicholson’s 2018 interview was a rare public protest by a U.S. official.
Trump didn’t press the Russians to stop, and so they continued. The GRU military-intelligence units that were helping smuggle weapons to the Taliban in 2018 may have been the forerunners of GRU operatives who U.S. intelligence analysts suspect are the new bounty hunters.
Trump may not have known all of that, which explains this:
Through this January and February, as the CIA and military surveillance gathered reports about a cash stockpile in northern Afghanistan and other indicators of a possible Russian operation, U.S. military and intelligence officials became increasingly concerned, several told me. By March, they were pressing for a top-level review by senior Trump administration officials of this still-unconfirmed threat to U.S. soldiers.
Through this agonizing period, Trump kept up a buzz of happy talk about improving relations with Putin, including the possibility of inviting him back into the Group of Seven. Were Trump’s commanders too afraid to warn him off this folly?
If so, we are in trouble:
Trump is an obstacle to good policy. Either people don’t tell him the truth, or he doesn’t want to hear it. Whichever way, he’s defaulting on his most basic responsibility as commander in chief.
Perhaps so, and if so, Max Boot adds this:
As Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton recently said: “Putin thinks he can play him like a fiddle.” There is a long history of Trump’s dancing to Putin’s tune. Trump refused to accept that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election and instead sought to pin the blame on Ukraine. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” he simpered at the 2018 Helsinki summit.
The Trump administration did impose sanctions on Russia for various reasons, but, as Bolton notes, “almost all of them occasioned opposition, or at least extended grumbling and complaining, from Trump himself.”
Trump has shown deference to other dictators, including China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, but even by his standards, his record of obsequiousness to Putin stands out. Trump has never engaged in any tough-guy talk with the Russian strongman, as he has with Xi and Kim. Why? Bolton writes that he didn’t ask Trump what he thought of Putin, because he was “afraid of what I might hear.”
Yeah, well, everyone knows now:
What we do know is that Trump might not be president were it not for Russia’s election interference – and Trump surely knows that, too, despite his angry denials. He insists that allegations of Russian collusion are a “hoax,” but the Trump campaign’s high command welcomed an offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton from a Russian emissary, and Trump himself publicly urged the Russians to hack her emails on the very day they attempted to do so.
Unredacted portions of the Mueller report make clear that Roger Stone was Trump’s emissary to WikiLeaks, the website used by Russian intelligence to disseminate stolen emails. Stone informed Trump in advance of WikiLeaks releases, and, instead of calling the FBI, Trump reportedly said, “Oh good, all right.” But special counsel Robert S. Mueller III could not get to the bottom of the story because Stone refused to cooperate. Trump praised Stone for not cooperating, and the Justice Department recommended an unusually lenient sentence for him on charges of lying under oath and witness tampering. A prosecutor told the House Judiciary Committee last week that this was because of Stone’s “relationship to the President.”
So here we are: We know that Trump is willing to sacrifice America’s national interests to Russia, but we don’t know why. That’s in part because Mueller kept his inquiry so narrowly focused. As Jeffrey Toobin writes in the New Yorker, the special counsel did not “examine the roots” of Trump’s “special affinity for Putin’s Russia.”
This is not good:
Does Trump think that if he calls out Putin for his misdeeds – including the alleged bounties on U.S. soldiers – Putin may be less eager to help him win reelection? Or that it might sour future Russia deals for the Trump Organization? Those are the most likely explanations I can come up with, but that’s only conjecture. All we can say for sure is that Trump is again putting America last.
That’s too simple, and although Charlie Savage isn’t Carl Bernstein, Carl Bernstein is still Carl Bernstein, and doing his Watergate thing for CNN now, not the Washington Post, working his deep network of sources, and coming up with this:
In hundreds of highly classified phone calls with foreign heads of state, President Donald Trump was so consistently unprepared for discussion of serious issues, so often outplayed in his conversations with powerful leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and so abusive to leaders of America’s principal allies, that the calls helped convince some senior US officials – including his former secretaries of state and defense, two national security advisers and his longest-serving chief of staff – that the President himself posed a danger to the national security of the United States, according to White House and intelligence officials intimately familiar with the contents of the conversations.
That’s the executive summary. The rest is detail:
The calls caused former top Trump deputies – including national security advisers H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and White House chief of staff John Kelly, as well as intelligence officials – to conclude that the President was often “delusional,” as two sources put it, in his dealings with foreign leaders. The sources said there was little evidence that the President became more skillful or competent in his telephone conversations with most heads of state over time. Rather, he continued to believe that he could either charm or jawbone or bully almost any foreign leader into capitulating to his will, and often pursued goals more attuned to his own agenda than what many of his senior advisers considered the national interest.
These officials’ concerns about the calls, and particularly Trump’s deference to Putin, take on new resonance with reports the President may have learned in March that Russia had offered the Taliban bounties to kill US troops in Afghanistan – and yet took no action.
In short, this was the time to tell this story:
By far the greatest number of Trump’s telephone discussions with an individual head of state were with Erdogan, who sometimes phoned the White House at least twice a week and was put through directly to the President on standing orders from Trump, according to the sources. Meanwhile, the President regularly bullied and demeaned the leaders of America’s principal allies, especially two women: telling Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom she was weak and lacked courage; and telling German Chancellor Angela Merkel that she was “stupid.”
She has a PhD in quantum chemistry by the way, not that it matters in this context:
Trump incessantly boasted to his fellow heads of state including Saudi Arabia’s autocratic royal heir Mohammed bin Salman and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, about his own wealth, genius, “great” accomplishments as President, and the “idiocy” of his Oval Office predecessors, according to the sources.
In his conversations with both Putin and Erdogan, Trump took special delight in trashing former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and suggested that dealing directly with him – Trump – would be far more fruitful than during previous administrations. “They didn’t know shit,” he said of Bush and Obama – one of several derisive tropes the sources said he favored when discussing his predecessors with the Turkish and Russian leaders.
That’s amazing inside information, and Bernstein is famous for double or triple verification of what any source tells him, so this is John Bolton on steroids:
One person familiar with almost all the conversations with the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Canada, Australia and western Europe described the calls cumulatively as ‘abominations’ so grievous to US national security interests that if members of Congress heard from witnesses to the actual conversations or read the texts and contemporaneous notes, even many senior Republican members would no longer be able to retain confidence in the President.
That’s why they don’t want to know anything about any of this, not one single thing, and that’s understandable:
The insidious effect of the conversations comes from Trump’s tone, his raging outbursts at allies while fawning over authoritarian strongmen, his ignorance of history and lack of preparation as much as it does from the troubling substance, according to the sources. While in office, then- Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats expressed worry to subordinates that Trump’s telephone discussions were undermining the coherent conduct of foreign relations and American objectives around the globe, one of CNN’s sources said. And in recent weeks, former chief of staff Kelly has mentioned the damaging impact of the President’s calls on US national security to several individuals in private.
Two sources compared many of the President’s conversations with foreign leaders to Trump’s recent press “briefings” on the coronavirus pandemic: free form, fact-deficient stream-of-consciousness ramblings, full of fantasy and off-the-wall pronouncements based on his intuitions, guesswork, the opinions of Fox News TV hosts and social media misinformation.
Some find that charming or amusing or damned cool, but that’s deadly in the larger world:
In addition to Merkel and May, the sources said, Trump regularly bullied and disparaged other leaders of the western alliance during his phone conversations – including French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – in the same hostile and aggressive way he discussed the coronavirus with some of America’s governors…
His most vicious attacks, said the sources, were aimed at women heads of state. In conversations with both May and Merkel, the President demeaned and denigrated them in diatribes described as “near-sadistic” by one of the sources and confirmed by others. “Some of the things he said to Angela Merkel are just unbelievable: he called her ‘stupid,’ and accused her of being in the pocket of the Russians … He’s toughest [in the phone calls] with those he looks at as weaklings and weakest with the ones he ought to be tough with.”
The calls “are so unusual,” confirmed a German official, that special measures were taken in Berlin to ensure that their contents remained secret.
Berlin was helping us. Those calls were an embarrassment. And the Putin calls were worse:
In his phone exchanges with Putin, the sources reported, the President talked mostly about himself, frequently in over-the-top, self-aggrandizing terms: touting his “unprecedented” success in building the US economy; asserting in derisive language how much smarter and “stronger” he is than “the imbeciles” and “weaklings” who came before him in the presidency (especially Obama); reveling in his experience running the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, and obsequiously courting Putin’s admiration and approval.
Putin “just outplays” him, said a high-level administration official – comparing the Russian leader to a chess grandmaster and Trump to an occasional player of checkers. While Putin “destabilizes the West,” said this source, the President of the United States “sits there and thinks he can build himself up enough as a businessman and tough guy that Putin will respect him.” (At times, the Putin-Trump conversations sounded like “two guys in a steam bath,” a source added.)
In numerous calls with Putin that were described to CNN, Trump left top national security aides and his chiefs of staff flabbergasted, less because of specific concessions he made than because of his manner – inordinately solicitous of Putin’s admiration and seemingly seeking his approval – while usually ignoring substantive policy expertise and important matters on the standing bilateral agenda, including human rights; and an arms control agreement, which never got dealt with in a way that advanced shared Russian and American goals that both Putin and Trump professed to favor, CNN’s sources said.
But wait, there’s more:
In separate interviews, two high-level administration officials familiar with most of the Trump-Putin calls said the President naively elevated Russia – a second-rate totalitarian state with less than 4% of the world’s GDP – and its authoritarian leader almost to parity with the United States and its President by undermining the tougher, more realistic view of Russia expressed by the US Congress, American intelligence agencies and the long-standing post-war policy consensus of the US and its European allies. “He [Trump] gives away the advantage that was hard won in the Cold War,” said one of the officials – in part by “giving Putin and Russia a legitimacy they never had,” the official said. “He’s given Russia a lifeline — because there is no doubt that they’re a declining power… He’s playing with something he doesn’t understand and he’s giving them power that they would use aggressively.”
Both officials cited Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria – a move that benefited Turkey as well as Russia – as perhaps the most grievous example. “He gave away the store,” one of them said.
So there’s a pattern here. The president is delusional and a threat to national security and may get us all killed, and probably got more than a few of our troops in Afghanistan killed, because he seems to really need Vladimir Putin’s approval, who seems to love to string him along, while finding new ways to do irreparable harm to the United States. This ain’t Nixon, but this might be impeachable.
But there’s no need for that. November will be here soon enough.