President Trump has spent the majority of this week attempting to reassure Americans that he has faith in the U.S. intelligence community. He has said he accepts their conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. He has said he accepts that Vladimir Putin is responsible. He even tried but failed to say he accepts that Russia is still targeting the United States. One might assume all of these things are bad, but it isn’t always so simple for the president, who on Thursday invited Putin to visit him in Washington, D.C. The announcement was made by Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. On Friday, Russia’s ambassador to the United States said they’re ready discuss a potential visit. This is happening.
In Helsinki, @POTUS agreed to ongoing working level dialogue between the two security council staffs. President Trump asked @Ambjohnbolton to invite President Putin to Washington in the fall and those discussions are already underway.
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) July 19, 2018
As Shane Harris of the Washington Post notes, because the invitation comes from National Security Adviser John Bolton, it’s on Bolton to inform other agencies about the plan to bring Putin to Washington. He apparently didn’t give the memo to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who was instead clued in by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell during an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado. Coats, who cautioned last Friday that “the warning lights are blinking red” and that “the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack,” couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s gonna be special,” he said.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats informed on stage at Aspen Security Forum that the Trump administration has invited Vladimir Putin to the White House.
— ABC News (@ABC) July 19, 2018
On Friday morning, the Washington Post reported that the White House was none too pleased with Coats; one senior official interviewed by the Post said Coates had “gone rogue.” Trump, on the other hand, had merely sided with Putin over U.S. intelligence during Monday’s press conference in Helsinki, and only reluctantly expressed confidence in the intelligence community in the ensuing days. On Tuesday, the president couldn’t help but equivocate as he acknowledged that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, tacking on a long-stated belief that it could have also been “other people.” Even Tucker Carlson of Fox News likened the walk-back to a “hostage tape.”
When asked on Tuesday whether he believed Russia was still targeting the United States, Trump twice said “no.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders later claimed that Trump meant he was not going to take any more questions, but reporters in the room said it was clear to them that Trump’s “no” was in response to the question about Russia targeting the U.S.
The damage control tour continued Wednesday, when Trump tried again to say he believes Russia interfered in the election. “I would say that is true, yeah,” the president managed during a sit-down with Jeff Glor of CBS. When asked whether he holds Putin personally responsible, Trump said he does, but not directly. “Well, I would, because he’s in charge of the country,” Trump said. “Just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country. So certainly as the leader of a country you would have to hold him responsible, yes.”
A day later, the New York Times reported that Trump was debriefed by intelligence officials in January 2017 that Putin personally ordered cyberattacks against the U.S. with the intention of altering the outcome of the 2016 election.
Unlike Trump, the Justice Department hasn’t felt the need to qualify Russia’s attacks on America, which are very much still ongoing. Also in Aspen on Thursday was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who last Friday announced the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking into Hillary Clinton’s campaign and other Democratic networks prior to the 2016 election. On Thursday, he called Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election “just one tree in a growing forest,” according to the Post.
“As Director Coats made clear, these actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not,” said Rosenstein, who also announced that the Justice Department plans to start alerting the public whenever a foreign operation is targeting America’s democratic process. “Exposing schemes to the public is an important way to neutralize them. The American people have a right to know if foreign governments are targeting them with propaganda.”
In case there is any doubt as to just how fast the forest is growing, Microsoft executive Tom Burt revealed in Aspen that GRU, the same Russian intelligence outfit that hacked into Clinton’s campaign, is already targeting at least three candidates running for election this year.
Trump knows all of this. Or at least he did at one point. It’s unclear how much of the intelligence provided to him has been devoured by his ego or his allegiance to Putin. Regardless of what lies at the core of Trump’s behavior this week, it’s a fact that Russia has waged a cyberwar against the United States with the intention of undermining its electoral process, and that Trump in a few months will roll out the red carpet for the man who orchestrated it.
It’s hard to blame Coats for laughing.