So the president spent the week reshaping the intelligence community to serve his political needs, removing those who speak inconvenient realities, and using control over classified material to suppress criticism. And the result was, within a remarkably short period of time, exactly the sort of public abuse of intelligence one might expect from such conduct.
This weekend, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows to cast doubt on the intelligence community’s conclusions regarding Russia’s election interference. On CBS’s Face the Nation, he told the host, Margaret Brennan, that “there's no briefing that I've received, that the president has received, that says that President [Vladimir] Putin is doing anything to try and influence the elections in favor of President Trump.” Instead, he argued, “what I've heard is that Russia would like Bernie Sanders to win the Democrat nomination.” On ABC’s This Week, George Stephanopoulos asked whether O’Brien was “flatly denying that the intel community has analysis that Russia is favoring Trump.” O’Brien responded that he “hadn’t seen that analysis.” And yet again, he claimed that “there are these reports that [Russia] wants Bernie Sanders to get elected. But that's no surprise. He honeymooned in Moscow.”
In other words, O’Brien capped the week of the shake-up by both declaring on national television that the intelligence community hadn’t concluded something known to upset the president and implying that it had concluded that Trump’s emerging Democratic rival was benefiting from Russian assistance.
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It is possible that O’Brien was carefully speaking to some genuine ambiguity on the first point. In the hours after O’Brien’s television appearances, reports surfaced that seemed to call into question whether the intelligence community really had concluded that Russia was aiming to help Trump in its current interventions. But the factual dispute here is exceedingly narrow. And even with the new reporting in mind, O’Brien’s comments are still a stretch. According to a “senior national security official” who spoke with CNN, the intelligence community has assessed both that Russia views Trump as someone the Kremlin can “work with” and, separately, that Russia is interfering in the 2020 election.” This, the official told CNN, is “a step short” of saying that Russia has a preference for Trump. Likewise, The Washington Post reported that, according to an official, arguing that Russia prefers a Trump win “may overstate the underlying intelligence.”
Fair enough. If some space exists between the conclusion that the Kremlin is working to help Trump and the view that the Kremlin is both meddling in the election and regards Trump favorably, it is not unreasonable for the national security adviser to clarify that. But O’Brien went well beyond such a clarification, suggesting that he was unaware of any analysis of the sort. What’s more, if O’Brien’s comments stemmed from a desire to preserve nuance, it’s hard to see why he would have claimed that “reports” indicate the Kremlin’s desire to elect Sanders. Instead, he seems to be reading intelligence-community analysis narrowly in order to cast doubt on any Russian support for Trump, while also seizing on the broadest possible reading of the available material—including not only intelligence-community work, but also unspecified “reports”—to exaggerate Russian support for Sanders. (The Democratic candidate himself, meanwhile, has condemned Russia’s efforts, telling the Post: “My message to Putin is clear: Stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do.”)