Despite his handlers, and the phalanx of high-priced lawyers paid to represent him in the Russiagate investigation, and White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly’s best efforts to contain him, sometimes President Trump just can’t help himself. Thus it was, during an extended, highly scripted Asia tour – perhaps jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, or maybe just feeling ornery – that Trump boarded Air Force One for a flight to Hanoi and, well, just let loose. The leaders of America’s spy agencies, including the CIA and the FBI? They’re liars, leakers and political hacks, he proclaimed.
The president’s outburst came hours after a series of private discussions – no aides, no note-takers, no media scribes listening in – with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the bottom line? Did Putin’s spies steal emails from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta in 2016? “He did not do what they’re saying he did,” said Trump.
To figure out what Donald Trump really believes, it goes without saying that you should pretty much ignore his scripted speeches, White House news releases and other materials fed into the president’s teleprompter. But when he’s off-leash, extemporaneously responding to probes from media – or, of course, dispatching early-morning tweets from his personal cell phone – the real Trump emerges. That’s what happened aboard the short flight from Danang to Hanoi this weekend.
When Trump uncorked his stream of invective, the world got an extended glimpse into the mind of a president whose administration is under siege by a dogged special counsel and several congressional committees, whose innermost aides have already been or soon will be facing indictments, and against whom evidence is piling up suggesting his campaign encouraged, cooperated with or colluded with a Russian covert operation.
On that last score, on Monday Donald Trump Jr. released a series of email exchanges – first reported by The Atlantic and then released on Twitter by Don Jr. himself – showing that both before and after the 2016 election, the president’s son maintained regular contact with Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, the chief outlet for the Democrats’ emails stolen by Russian intelligence. In one exchange, Don Jr. pressed WikiLeaks for a heads-up about information that, it had been rumored, the organization was planning to release. “What’s behind this Wednesday leak I keep reading about?” he asked. Later, after WikiLeaks emailed Don Jr. asking him to persuade his father to promote WikiLeaks via the candidate’s own account, just 15 minutes later Trump Sr. tweeted, “Very little pick-up by the dishonest media of incredible information provided by WikiLeaks!”
“It is yet another secret communication between the Trump campaign and cut-outs for the Kremlin,” said Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee investigating Russiagate, said in a statement. “That Donald Trump Jr. and Wikileaks would discuss coordinating their efforts to highlight information damaging to Clinton – with what appears to be real-time follow-through by candidate Donald Trump on Twitter to amplify one of Wikileaks’ document dumps as requested – demonstrates once again a willingness by the highest levels of the Trump campaign to accept foreign assistance.”
But none of this is likely to deter the president from continuing to attack not the meddlers but the very intelligence agencies who uncovered Russia’s actions. Over the weekend, the president directed his vitriol at three people in particular: former FBI Director James Comey, whom he fired over the “Russia thing,” former CIA Director John Brennan, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. “They’re political hacks,” Trump said. “I mean, you have Brennan, you have Clapper and you have Comey. Comey is proven now to be a liar and he’s proven to be a leaker. So you look at that, and you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with that.”
In other words, speaking on foreign soil – or above it, in this case – Trump openly threw his lot in with Putin, the sly ex-spy, and denounced the trio who, until earlier this year, led America’s national security establishment. It’s been a year since Trump’s narrow election win – a year of gaffes, slurs and outrageous remarks – yet his Air Force One comments might be the most astonishing, and most damning, yet.
Asked by reporters if he had brought this up with Putin, Trump went on, “He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times. But I just asked him again, and he said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they’re saying he did.
“He just — every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. But he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ I think he’s very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth. … I think that he is very, very strong in the fact that he didn’t do it.” (You can find the entire transcript here.)
Response to the president’s comments came quickly. “The President fools no one,” said Schiff. “He understands that the Russians intervened through the hacking and dumping of his opponent’s emails, the fruits of which he exploited time and again on the campaign trail.”
Both Brennan and Clapper fired back as well. In a joint appearance on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday, the two men concurred that Trump’s ego can be swayed by over-the-top appeals to his vanity and his craving for respect. “He seems very susceptible to rolling out the red carpet and honor guards and all this, all the trappings and pomp and circumstance that come with the office. And I think that – that appeals to him, and it – I think it plays to his insecurities,” said Clapper. “And, yes, I do think both the Chinese and Russians think they can play him.” Added Brennan, “I think Mr. Putin is very clever in terms of playing to Mr. Trump’s interest in being flattered.”
The CIA, the NSA and the FBI have no doubt that the Russians interfered in the election, said Brennan, calling it “puzzling” that Trump is reluctant to acknowledge that.
But Brennan went further, dropping hints concerning the most explosive charge against the president – namely, that the Russians might in fact possess salacious, comprising material collected during Trump’s 2013 visit to Moscow for the then-Trump-owned Miss Universe pageant. Here’s an excerpt of that exchange with CNN’s Jake Tapper:
Brennan: … I think there’s a combination of factors that are motivating the president at this time.
Tapper: Do you know of any compromising material that the Russians might have on him?
Brennan: I have shared everything I know with the intelligence committees.
Tapper: That’s not a no or a yes, because we’re – we’re not privy to the information that you gave to the intelligence committees.
Brennan: That’s true. You’re not.
Brennan, who left the CIA in January – following a decades-long stint as an intelligence officer with the agency, under both Democratic and Republican administrations – was replaced earlier this year by Mike Pompeo, a hard-charging, highly partisan former congressman from Kansas, a far-right Republican who was a strong Trump supporter during the campaign.
Now, there are signals that Pompeo might be seeking to move the CIA away from the conclusions reached last year, and published in January in the much-cited Intelligence Community Assessment, titled “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.” It was the ICA, of course, that outlined the conclusion – backed by Brennan, Clapper and Comey, among others – that Putin himself directly sought to flip the election for Trump.
So far, Pompeo hasn’t officially challenged the ICA. But, according to The Intercept, in a breakthrough report last week, Pompeo held a curious sit-down at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, with a former U.S. spy who has promoted a much-discredited theory that the Russians weren’t behind the hacking of the DNC and that it was an inside job. According to CNN, which also reported on the meeting between Pompeo and William Binney, an ex-NSA specialist described by CNN as a “conspiracy theorist,”, Pompeo told Binney he was meeting with him because it was Trump’s idea: “The president says I should talk to you.”
Recently Pompeo strayed off the reservation in another direction, too. In October, Pompeo, speaking at a national security conference in Washington, said, “The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.” Unfortunately for Pompeo, his statement was flat-out wrong. In fact, the ICA made no judgment one way or the other about whether Russia’s actions in 2016 had any effect on the election’s outcome, specifically noting that a conclusion about that was above its pay grade. (Read the ICA, “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.”) Indeed, no one will ever know if what Russia did swayed enough votes to determine who won, but because the election was so close it’s at least reasonable to argue that the release of the DNC’s and Podesta’s emails, and the drumbeat of media coverage that followed – along with Trump’s own near-constant citing of WikiLeaks and the emails – did have a significant impact on many voters.
To be sure, any conclusions reached by the U.S. intelligence community ought to be taken with a grain of salt. They’ve been wrong before. But it’s been nearly 18 months since the first reports of Russia’s meddling began to trickle out, and since then the trickle has turned into an avalanche of information, reports and sworn testimony, and the story is now the subject of massive, parallel inquiries by Robert Mueller, the FBI and the Department of Justice, and various bodies in Congress. Yet, if it’s not true that Russia hacked the election – as Putin insists, and as Trump seems to think – then it’s curious that not a single former U.S. official, at any level, who was involved in the Russia investigations over the past 18 months has stepped forward to say, No, this didn’t happen. Nor have any pro-Trump Republican members of Congress who’ve had access to the vast store of as-yet-unreleased, classified information that was gathered to produce the ICA emerged to say, No, I’ve looked at all the intel, and this didn’t happen. Even among Trump’s own team of agency leaders, including Pompeo and new Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, no one has piped up with, No, we’ve looked at this again, and Brennan, Clapper and Comey were wrong.
Only President Trump seems to believe that.