The Kremlin leader is trained to lie. Trust me, I ran the CIA: Believing anything he says is folly.
When the Art of the Deal meets the KGB, the KGB will always win. That’s the main thing I took away from this past weekend’s strange episode of President Donald Trump appearing to believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin actually believes Russia did not meddle in our 2016 election.
After his meeting with Putin in Vietnam, Trump initially gave the impression that he accepted Putin’s assurances. The president later sought to clarify that he continued to accept the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies (“as currently led by fine people”) that Russia had interfered but thinks Putin actually believes Russia did not. Along the way, the president took a swipe at intelligence agency leaders from the Obama era—specifically, James Clapper (director of National Intelligence), John Brennan (CIA director) and James Comey (FBI director)—calling them “political hacks.”
What to make of this bizarre chapter?
First, in all likelihood, the president probably really believes what he first said. Hard as it is to apply logic to Trumpisms, let’s try. If the intelligence community assessment was produced under the leadership of “political hacks” and if the president means it when he calls the Russia investigation a “hoax” (his most frequent characterization of it), then it’s only logical that he doubts the intelligence assessment and finds Putin’s denial congenial.
Prediction: It’s only a matter of time before he returns to his first instinct—that it’s all a “hoax.” That was the pattern of the Charlottesville controversy. After his clenched-teeth, teleprompter reading of a walk-back of his imprudent first remarks, he eventually went on a rant that, rightly or wrongly, raised questions about his earlier condemnation of neo-Nazi groups.
Second, the president is either incredibly naive and uninformed or Putin is a remarkably good KGB-trained case officer—or all of the above. Dissembling is part of the intelligence art, but practiced nowhere better than in Russian intelligence and foreign policy. Facts, the evidence even of our eyes, do not get in the way. Recall that Putin with a straight face denied in March 2014 that Russia had forces in Crimea, then part of independent Ukraine, even though we could see on TV that this was false. He then said Russia would not annex Crimea, which it proceeded to do almost immediately. He admitted a month later that, well, Russian forces actually had been there. He might find it irresistible to repeat this pattern with the U.S. election if, at some point in the future, he stands to gain advantage by taking credit.
What the president doesn’t get is that it’s OK to tell the Russians you know they are lying. It actually doesn’t have to get in the way of dealing with them. Just get it out of the way and move on to business. They respect you most when they know that you know what you are talking about. I have personally had to deliver tough messages in Moscow on behalf of the U.S. government when I knew that Russia would deny what we knew to be true. What works best is to just make that clear forcefully—in a “business-like” manner, as the diplo-lingo goes—and move on. You don’t really need an admission; they just need to know that you know. That’s enough. This works.
Third, Trump crossed an important line in personally attacking the intelligence community’s previous leaders. Disagreeing with their views on substantive grounds is fair game—anyone working in the intelligence arena is used to vigorous and contentious debate on that basis. But to my knowledge, no president in the American intelligence community’s 70-year history has ever called its leaders “political hacks.” Playing politics is the ultimate sin in American intelligence, and the ones most likely to call out the offenders are intelligence rank and file themselves. The three attacked by the president are among the most dedicated public servants I’ve known; they inspire broad respect among that rank and file. Intelligence officers are thick-skinned; they will show up every day and do their jobs, but cannot help but find the president’s comments dispiriting.
Fourth, the more the president continues to muddy the issue of Russian meddling, the less likely it is that we will take the steps urgently needed to defend ourselves from further attack on our election system and other aspects of our political life. Lord knows we are not doing enough nitty-gritty cyber defense work—as Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledged during this week’s testimony—while most political energy is going into the question of what Americans might have done to help the Russians. Until the president forcefully demands a federal effort to tighten our defenses for the 2018 and 2020 elections, the federal, state, and local efforts will move slowly and without sufficient urgency. That’s just how our system works.
Finally, the sad fact in all of this is that the president is right to think we are going to need to work with the Russians on some issues of mutual interest. Much as we might not want to deal with them on Syria, for example, Putin’s successful defense of the Assad regime has created facts on the ground that, realistically, we cannot avoid in seeking a political settlement. The problem is that so long as the president persists in his current approach to Putin, few will trust him to exercise his vaunted Art of the Deal—which at this point is looking like just a clever book title.