The glaring divide between the U.S. intelligence community and the Oval Office on the issue of Russian election meddling was never more conspicuous than at Thursday’s White House press briefing. Gathered to set the record straight—and get bombarded with questions about President Trump’s oft-contradictory statements regarding Russia—was White House National Security Advisor John Bolton, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, and General Paul Nakasone, head of U.S. Cyber Command.
Nearly every U.S. intelligence and national security agency is involved in a massively coordinated effort to “root out” foreign influence operations aimed at the 2018 and 2020 elections, the officials said. Per Wray, operations aimed at the U.S. encompass a wide range of malicious activities: the targeting of U.S. officials and other Americans through traditional intelligence tradecraft; criminal efforts to suppress voting and provide illegal campaign contributions; cyberattacks against voting infrastructure; computer intrusions targeting election officials and others; overt and covert manipulation of the press; and the spread of disinformation on social media, which directly targets U.S. voters.
“Just like we have a multi-disciplinary response, that’s because the threat is multi-disciplinary,” he said, adding: “Our adversaries are trying to undermine our country on a persistent and regular basis, whether it’s election season or not.”
Coats later emphasized that, based on what he’s currently seen, the Russian government’s efforts to meddle with November’s midterm election is “not the kind of robust campaign that we assessed in the 2016 election.” He added, however: “We are only one keyboard click away from finding out something that we haven’t seen up to this particular point in time.”
The Pentagon, according to Nakasone, is currently providing U.S. intelligence agencies with information and leads on foreign adversaries who, he said, “are attempting to sow discord and division within the American public.” Some of these leads are coming from overseas allies.
“U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency are tracking a wide range of foreign cyber adversaries and are prepared to conduct operations against those actors attempting to undermine our nation’s midterm elections,” he said, adding: “We will work in conjunction with other elements of our government to ensure we bring the full power of our nation to bear on any foreign power that attempts to interfere in our democratic processes.”
After describing at length the scope of the threat and the efforts of the government to defend against it, the officials were immediately peppered with questions from reporters about why their unified stance, which is unambiguously explicit in its condemnation of Russian aggression, frequently differs to a great extent with that of the president.
At a press conference not three weeks ago, President Trump, standing next to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, said that on the one hand he had great confidence in his “intelligence people,” but on the other, “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial” that Moscow had ever targeted America. This came just a few weeks before the president tweeted: “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!”
Trump’s denials trace all the way back to the election itself and, in fact, precede it. The Trump campaign’s original position was, amazingly, that the Democrats leaked their own emails; a “hoax” intended to “distract from the many issues facing their deeply flawed candidate and failed party leader.” And not long after winning the election, the official position of the Trump transition team became that the Central Intelligence Agency fucks up so often, who can believe anything they say anyway?
Trump has also expressed the belief that Putin is too crafty to get caught. “Somebody did say if he did do it, you wouldn’t have found out about it. Which is a very interesting point,” he told Reuters. He echoed the same point several months later, in November 2017, saying: “you know, there are those that say, if he did do it, he wouldn’t have gotten caught, all right?”
Scattered among the denials, of course, are contradictory admissions interlaced with blame pointed at anyone but Putin: It’s Obama’s fault. It’s the Democrats fault. No one knows anything. Other countries do it too. And, of course, it could be other people also.
All of this leads to some pretty spectacular, if not uncomfortably awkward, exchanges between the press and intelligence community officials, such as this one between a reporter and the FBI director at the White House today:
REPORTER: The special counsel, Robert Mueller, has indicted more than 20 Russian officials based on work by the FBI for meddling in the 2016 election. The President has tweeted that that investigation by the special counsel is a ‘hoax’ and should be shut down. I know you’ve said you don’t believe it is a hoax, but why would the American people believe what you’re saying about the FBI when the president says that the investigation by the special counsel is a hoax and when the press secretary yesterday said there is a lot of corruption within the FBI?
DIRECTOR WRAY: Well, I can assure the American people that the men and women of the FBI, starting from the director all the way on down, are going to follow our oath and do our job.
The U.S. intelligence community assessed in early January 2017 that Russia’s efforts were aimed specifically at helping the Trump campaign. But asked if Putin had picked a side this year, the director of national intelligence artfully sidestepped the question:
REPORTER: Do you see [Russian influence operations] directed to any particular party? Is there any particular party that is benefiting from current 2018 Russian efforts.
DNI COATS: What we see is the Russians are looking for every opportunity, regardless of party, regardless of whether or not it applies to the election, to continue their pervasive efforts to undermine our fundamental values.
Another reporter pressed Coats on Trump’s statements during last month’s Helsinki summit, when the president appeared to indicate he might believe Putin when he says, in effect, that Russia did nothing wrong:
REPORTER: The president seemed to indicate that he may believe Vladimir Putin when he said he didn’t have any influence in the 2016 election? What is your belief about the Russian government involvement in meddling in 2016? And if as you say, Russia continues to try to influence our electoral process, does that mean that nothing much came of the meeting with Putin, or is it other than government actors who are involved?
DNI COATS: Well, in relationship to the 2016 election—of course none of us were in office at that particular time, but the president, vice president, i think everyone at this stage has acknowledged the fact that the [Intelligence Community Assessment] was a correct assessment of what happened in 2016. We have subsequently made a determination to make this a top priority, that it doesn’t happen again, and we’re throwing everything at it... relative to my discussions with the president, on whatever issue it is, I do not go public with that. I do not think that’s the proper thing to do.
Coats ended that exchange with a comment that, depending on how you read it, may not inspire a swell of confidence in the U.S. government’s ability to safeguard the election process.
“Our purpose here today is simply to tell the American people we acknowledge the threat, it is real, it is continuing,” Coats said, “and we are doing everything we can to have a legitimate election that the American people can have trust in.”
What should deeply concern all Americans is the response Coats gave when asked what he knew about the Trump-Putin summit: “I’m not in a position to either understand fully or talk about what happened in Helsinki.” That is definitely a remarkable thing for the nation’s top intelligence officer to say.