This story was updated on Wednesday, July 18 at 1:17 p.m.
Monday’s summit between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin set a new low for American national security. Standing side by side with the Russian autocrat, Trump once again accepted Putin’s phony denials about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be,” said the American president, flatly contradicting overwhelming evidence and the judgment of his own American intelligence agencies as well as the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee. Trump’s comments left many, even within his own administration, slack jawed. An ailing Senator John McCain called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
One day later, Trump said that he misspoke and that really, truly, deep down and with a pinky swear, he believes the U.S. intelligence community. Uh huh. Helsinki marks the fifth time since taking the oath of office that the president has said, out loud, that he doubted U.S. intelligence about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. That’s on top of the eight other times he’s cast doubt on Russia’s election interference before he was sworn in—including a Time interview on November 28, 2016, in which he said, “I don’t believe they interfered. That became a laughing point, not a talking point … It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
There’s a phrase for when someone “misspeaks” so often about the same sore subject: It’s what he actually believes.
And on Wednesday, he made that plain. Asked point-blank, “Is Russia still targeting the U.S.?” he answered, “No.”
It’s hard to wrap our heads around just how dangerous Trump’s refusal to believe the truth about Russia’s information-warfare campaign is. For two years now, American intelligence agencies have been warning about Russia’s unprecedented efforts to sow mistrust and undermine American democracy in the 2016 election and beyond. They have never wavered. We now know that intelligence agencies first became concerned in the summer of 2016 and briefed senior Obama administration officials. In October, before the election, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and then-Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson issued a public statement formally announcing that the Russian government was attempting “to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
In January 2017, the intelligence community went further, declassifying a report by the CIA, NSA, FBI, and director of national intelligence called, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.” It used strong language, concluding with “high confidence” that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
All of the evidence publicly released since then—including Russia’s well-orchestrated social-media campaign using Facebook, Google, and Twitter, which reached over 100 million Americans; the annual intelligence threat assessment; and the special counsel’s indictments of 26 Russian nationals for their involvement in cyberhacking and election interference—has pointed in one direction: Russia. This is no Iraq weapons of mass destruction moment, where time revealed that intelligence judgments were wrong and the threat wasn’t what we thought it was. It is a Cuban missile crisis moment—where time is revealing that the threat is actually far worse, and more imminent, than we originally believed. Today, there should be no question that Russia poses a threat to American democracy and security. The only question is what American leaders are going to do about it. Even Trump’s own intelligence-agency heads have made clear, despite intense political pressure from the president to soft pedal and back pedal, that they concur with the assessment of their agencies and that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is not the “witch hunt” the president claims. Just hours after Trump’s summit remarks, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats came out of the shadows to release an unusual public statement. It pushed back, hard: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” Coats said.
The scariest part of Coats’s statement—other than the fact that he had to issue it in the first place because his boss is sympathizing with the enemy—is the word ongoing. The Russians have never left. We are at war. But only the enemy is fighting.
The number-one job of intelligence agencies is to prevent catastrophic strategic surprise. Warning before disaster strikes is difficult in the best of circumstances. Intelligence is never a crystal ball. The future is uncertain. Adversaries seek to deceive. Information is hidden, incomplete, and siloed in bureaucracies. Time almost always advantages the attacker, who can select when, where, and how to strike to maximize prospects for success. American intelligence agencies have had some tragic warning failures over the course of their history, including Pearl Harbor and 9/11. But the Helsinki summit has laid bare the limits of intelligence warning. Intelligence leaders can warn away, but for warning to succeed, policy makers must act.
The marriage of warning and action has been vital to securing the nation since before it was a nation. In 1775, Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride to warn his compatriots what he had learned from rebel spy networks: British soldiers were coming to arrest the patriot leaders Sam Adams and John Hancock and seize rebel military stores hidden in the countryside. In truth, Revere was just one small part of an elaborate rebel espionage and warning system to preserve the leadership and arms of the Sons of Liberty. That system was put in place because the stakes were high: If the British troops succeeded, the cause could be lost. When Revere came knocking on Hancock’s door in the middle of the night, the warning he carried came in time for the rebels to take action. Hancock and Adams escaped, military supplies were dispersed, and local militias got ready. The battles of Lexington and Concord took place the same day, beginning the Revolutionary War.
Since the summer of 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies have been knocking in the night, warning Obama administration officials and now the Trump administration: The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming. History will judge whether Obama officials did too little, too late to confront a threat nobody had ever seen before. But Trump officials don’t have that excuse. With each day, the magnitude and imminence of the Russian threat becomes more evident. And yet Trump has ordered no specific actions to defend this country against Russian information operations or election interference targeting the 2018 midterm elections. Instead, the president has sided with the enemy, in public, against the advice of his senior officials. On Tuesday, Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle vowed to get serious. They’ve been meeting to secure bipartisan support for big, bold action—which consists of a sense of the Senate resolution reaffirming support for U.S. intelligence assessments about Russia. Because nothing says Cut it out, Putin, or you’ll be sorry like a nonbinding sense of the Senate resolution.
American intelligence agencies have done their job. They don’t expect or need words of support. What they need is action by policy makers to keep America safe.