By Susan Hagan
Similar to what happened in 2016, Russia is favoring Trump in the coming 2020 US elections. The House Intelligence Committee was briefed in a closed-door session about the Russian efforts. But Trump regards the news as dangerous to his re-election and has called the report false. Trump may or may not want help from Russian (unlike 2016 when in front of cameras he invited Russia to raid Clinton’s computer), but it is clear his response was exclusively based on how the information would affect his re-election bid—not on the dangers of outside interference to our elections.
Vladimir Putin quickly denied any wrongdoing, and that was good enough for our President Trump. He hauled in the Acting Director of Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, verbally pummeled him for the briefing actually delivered by someone two ranks further below, and then removed Maguire from his job. Intelligence officials now stand like little children before a sadistic Scout leader who punishes anyone who talks without permission. That apparently includes talking to members of Congress. The post 9/11 restructuring of the intelligence community to broaden information sharing is again being restructured: this time into a hierarchy with Donald Trump at the top directing the flow of information throughout.
House Representatives were entitled to the briefing, but Trump now demands control of what Congress is told, especially what is told to Democrats. Trump had not been informed (his version) or he had been informed but then ignored his personal briefing; either way, this bodes ill for sound intelligence being central to good governance. If Trump was not informed, why not? If he was informed but downplayed the information, isn’t that what George Bush did when he ignored the 9/11 pre-warnings? And why ever should members of Congress not be informed when our intelligence says a foreign country is trying to disrupt our elections?
Trump is now pushing the even more ridiculous notion that Democrats fabricated the whole Russian thing; this requires Democrats convincing intelligence officials to believe a fake report and getting those officials to then deliver that report back to Congress.
Trump replaced his Acting Director of National Intelligence with Richard Grenell, a U.S. Ambassador to Germany where he is widely disliked. Grenell will continue his ambassadorship despite the demands of his new job. His first task as Acting Director will be purging the intelligence service of Trump critics. Instead of presenting unbiased and factual information to the President, the message to the intelligence community is they must not upset Mr. Trump and they must not disagree with his political viewpoint.
Bernie Sanders’ candidacy to run against Trump is also being supported by the Russians. Is it mere coincidence that Sanders’ nomination is also being supported by Trump? He accuses Democrats of being unfair to Bernie but Trump has said virtually nothing against Russia trying to influence the Democratic primaries.
Sanders, however, called Putin an “autocratic thug” and forcefully said he rejects any help Putin might give. Sanders also promised that if elected he would put an end to Russian attempts to influence our voting. Trump has never promised that! Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has sat on numerous bi-partisan bills aimed at making our elections safer from foreign interference—but neither McConnell nor Trump seem interested in reforming an election system that benefited Trump in 2016, one that is trying to do the same in 2020.
Full disclosure: Bernie Sanders is not my first choice candidate. I find Sander’s policies generally sensible and badly needed: healthcare for all; higher education without a lifetime of debt; fair taxation; protection for labor rights. But I am bothered by some things Sanders said and did in his younger years which (unlike the indiscretions and misdeeds of a younger Donald Trump) will be over-amplified, even distorted into falsities, by the Russians, by Trump and by the social media. But if he’s the nominee, I would vote for Sanders over Trump. Sanders is a Social Democrat in the same way Franklin Roosevelt was a Social Democrat—a point perhaps for a future column.
Just two weeks ago, in a dispute with his Attorney General, Trump pronounced himself in charge of the nation’s law enforcement, essentially telling Bill Barr to remember he polishes the boss’ shoes. Last week it was National Intelligence’s turn for a similar shellacking. Next Trump contradicted his top health officials over their assessment of the coronavirus dangers (and put a political acolyte, V.P. Mike Pence, in charge of the nation’s response). All departments of government are slowly but surely becoming subservient to the executive branch. And almost half of Congress—the GOP half—is just fine with that.
With Richard Grenell now in charge of National Intelligence, the President has in place someone fully in line with Trump’s policies, biases and counterfactual claims. But Grenell is not well informed on national intelligence matters. Grenell is not required to have Congressional approval as long as he remains an ACTING director of intelligence. That of course is Trump’s intention: to have someone of his choosing performing the role Trump has written for him, not someone who conducts intelligence activities in support of the foreign policy and national security of the United States. That is the state of Trump’s intelligence today: only a loyalty oath to Trump is required.