It can be difficult to discern what passes for thought in Donald Trump’s mind, but on the matter of Russian election interference he is refreshingly clear. He sees Russia’s attempts to help him win the presidency and keep him in power not as a threat to the United States but as a threat to his own fragile ego.
This is what lies behind Trump’s anger at Joseph Maguire, his outgoing acting director of national intelligence. Maguire’s sin, according to The New York Times on Thursday, was allowing one of his aides to deliver a blunt warning to members of Congress, on February 13, that Russia was once again interfering in a presidential election in Trump’s favor. The president reportedly “berated” Maguire the following day and “was particularly irritated” that the attendees included Representative Adam Schiff, the Democrat who led the impeachment proceedings. Earlier this week, Trump announced he was replacing Maguire with Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany.
The Times notes that some intelligence officials viewed the briefing as a “tactical error,” believing the conclusions should have been softened to avoid angering Trump and his fellow Republicans. This is a remarkable admission from a browbeaten intelligence community: that its priorities have shifted away from the public interest merely to appease the mad-hatted president.
This shift began with the intelligence community’s conclusion, in January 2017, that Russia interfered in the just-concluded presidential election with the goal of helping Trump win. Several former Trump advisers are quoted in the Mueller Report as saying that Trump viewed the intelligence community’s assessment as an attack on his legitimacy. Hope Hicks called it Trump’s “Achilles’ heel.”
The words “Russian interference” couldn’t even be mentioned in Trump’s presence because it gave him a fit of the vapors. “If you talk about Russia, meddling, interference—that takes the PDB off the rails,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Post in 2017, referring to the president’s daily intelligence briefing. Trump never convened a Cabinet-level meeting on Russian interference or what to do about it. There was an “unspoken understanding” within the National Security Committee “that to raise the matter is to acknowledge its validity, which the president would see as an affront.”
So it was that the national security strategy of the U.S. became, at least when it came to Russian interference, to protect the president’s ego first and the country second. The U.S. Cyber Command had awesome powers at its disposal to respond to Russia, but Trump’s intransigence prevented it from using them, leading Dan Coats, another former director of national intelligence, to say in 2018 that “the warning lights are blinking red again.” Soon Coats would be gone, too.
A few months later, the Republican Congress issued a remarkable statement, albeit one couched in a conference report on the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act. The report called out the administration’s “passivity” in the face of Russia’s ongoing information operations against the U.S., saying that doing nothing only encouraged further aggression. “The conferees strongly encourage the President to defend the American people and institutions of government from foreign intervention,” the report stated.
The solution to this problem was to remove the president from the decision-making loop when it came to Russia. In 2018, the president signed a still-secret national security memorandum that unleashed the military to conduct offensive cyber operations—“without a lengthy approval process,” in the Post’s words—so long as they don’t cause death, destruction, or significant economic impact. This effort is credited with keeping Russia from meddling in the 2018 midterm elections.
Trump, however, apparently had little idea what he was authorizing. When the Times reported last year that Cyber Command had placed “implants”—software code that can be used for surveillance or attack—deep inside the Russian electrical grid, Trump exploded and accused the Times of a “virtual act of treason.” Even Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was confused by Trump’s reaction. “I am not sure how we should interpret that,” Putin said.
Trump has continued to wreak havoc on the government and the country in his quixotic quest to prove that Russia didn’t help elect him. It’s what led Trump to ask Ukraine’s newly elected president in a July 25 phone call to “do us a favor” and investigate an unhinged conspiracy theory that the Democratic National Committee’s computer server somehow wound up in Ukraine, a theory his own staff had debunked for him. Following the Senate’s acquittal of Trump in his impeachment trial, the newly empowered president clashed with his attorney general over the Justice Department’s handling of Roger Stone, who was sentenced Thursday to 40 months in prison for lying and obstructing Congress’s Russia inquiry to protect Trump. Trump remains convinced that his enemies in the “deep state” are out to get him, and may have fresh fuel once federal prosecutor John Durham completes his investigation into the origins of the FBI’s probe of Russian election interference, which is said to be focusing on former CIA Director John Brennan, a fierce critic of the president.
Administration officials are thus treading lightly. On Wednesday, the same day that Trump announced his replacement, Maguire co-published an op-ed in USA Today with Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray, among others. It is the softened version of the conclusions shared with Congress by Shelby Pierson, who served under Maguire as the intelligence community’s top election-security official. “We have yet to identify any activity designed to prevent voting or change votes,” they wrote. “However, we remain watchful of any malicious activities from cybercriminals and from foreign actors like Russia, China and Iran.” That may seem at odds with what Pierson told Congress about Russian interference, but it’s the tried-and-tested position Trump aides know won’t upset the boss.
The op-ed concludes, “Americans can rest assured that our agencies’ efforts to defend our republic are unwavering, and we will work diligently to secure our elections, both in 2020 and beyond.” Is that a subtle plea to the president to ease his pressure campaign against Barr and the Justice Department? Or is it a hint to the public that they will persist in spite of Trump? The fact that we are left wondering is itself evidence of the depth of the problem.
A president who puts his own ego above the country’s sovereignty is a tremendous asset to a foreign power bent on undermining U.S. hegemony, which is why Russia wants to keep Trump in the White House. It’s a national security nightmare, and America could wake up on November 4 to a full-blown crisis of democracy.