When a seasoned staffer named Brian Murphy brought warnings of Russian interference in the 2020 election, his lawyers say, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf acted decisively.
“Mr. Wolf instructed Mr. Murphy to cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States, and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran,” according to a whistleblower filing. “Mr. Wolf stated that these instructions specifically originated from White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.”
When Murphy persisted, Wolf repeated that such information “made the president look bad” and told him to hold it. When he still didn’t stop, Wolf demoted him.
Murphy’s allegations have not been independently substantiated, though they were delivered under penalty of perjury. When Murphy was reassigned in July, he was blamed for DHS’s collecting information on reporters, though he insists he was not at fault. (He also claims that Wolf admitted there was no merit to the claims.) His account does, however, match what happened next: The administration publicized activities by China and Iran, though officials said they were not equivalent to Russia’s more sweeping work.
Moreover, the claims fit a pattern in the Trump administration, which runs through the reporting in Bob Woodward’s new book, Rage, including about attempts to muzzle Anthony Fauci during the coronavirus pandemic. Faced with problems, the White House could choose to deal with them head-on, or it could dismiss them. Instead, the administration has tried to cover them up.
The administration’s approach seems to be What Americans don’t know can’t hurt them. The problem is that Americans are likely to find out, and that often, these problems really can hurt them—190,000 of them are dead from the coronavirus and counting.
For example, the U.S. government has several ways to deal with the threat of Russian interference. The president could pressure Russia to stop; this might or might not be effective, but it can’t be less effective than ignoring the problem. The federal government could warn the public about interference and work to harden election systems. Or the president could work to convince the public (plausibly) that such interference is simply not a big deal.
Instead, the administration has opted for a strategy of concealment. Murphy’s account is disturbing not only because it is so frank about the administration’s motivation—that information about Russian actions would be politically damaging—but also because this consideration was allowed to eclipse national-security concerns. (“Mr. Murphy informed Mr. Wolf he would not comply with these instructions, as doing so would put the country in substantial and specific danger,” the filing states.)
While intelligence agencies are prone to abuse and misuse, the point of having them is so they will provide information, both good and bad, to policy makers. An intelligence community has to tell leaders things they don’t want to hear. Past administrations have been guilty of cherry-picking intelligence they agree with and ignoring information they don’t, as in the George W. Bush administration’s justification for the war in Iraq. Murphy alleges something different, and arguably worse: an administration that doesn’t even want to hear things if they don’t confirm what it already believes. Many top officials at DHS are serving in an acting capacity, rather than with Senate confirmation, which Trump has said he likes, because then they’re more dependent on him. It’s little wonder they would be chary of challenging his beliefs.
Woodward reports that because of Trump’s refusal to grapple with Russian interference, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence from 2017 to 2019, “continued to harbor the secret belief, one that had grown rather than lessened, although unsupported by intelligence proof, that [President Vladimir] Putin had something on Trump.”
Yet Russia is just one of several areas where the White House has preferred to keep its head in the sand—or better yet, to keep the American public’s head there. The president’s tendency to view everything as a sales-and-marketing problem, inherited from his career in the private sector, leads him to seek superficial solutions and avoid addressing root causes.
In another surprising disclosure from Rage, Woodward reports that Trump was aware long before he acknowledged it publicly that the coronavirus was airborne and extremely deadly—but that he downplayed it because he was wary of widespread panic. In March, Trump said: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” Recordings of both conversations have been released.
The context for these remarks is more nuanced than some of the immediate coverage might suggest. Trump’s public comments about the coronavirus have been wildly inconsistent, veering between sober warnings and cavalier dismissal, though leaning mostly toward the latter. It is not surprising that he would contradict himself. Nor was he alone in seeking to prevent public panic. Many government officials, both in the United States and abroad, did the same—although the president seems to have done so despite having better information than most of them.
Trump’s impulse, however, was once again to conceal the story, wagering that panic would be worse than the virus—specifically, worse for the economy, and likely worse for his reelection prospects as a result. He seemed to fully reckon with the virus only when it began to harm the stock market. The president mistakenly believed that he could preserve the economy without first beating the virus, but months of hard experience since have suggested that there will be no full recovery without better control of the pandemic. Ironically, public fear—the very thing Trump says he was trying to avoid—proved to be an effective tool of public health, convincing many Americans to take the virus seriously.
Nonetheless, the administration has repeatedly tried to pull Fauci, a trusted and serious messenger, out of the spotlight. In the middle of the summer, Fauci suddenly disappeared from television, reportedly because the White House refused to grant him permission to speak. Politico reported yesterday that the Department of Health and Human Services has recently tried to prevent Fauci from discussing the risks of the coronavirus for children. The administration has pushed hard (and largely unsuccessfully) for schools to reopen in person this fall.
Fighting root causes is hard; finding a way to paper over the problem is much easier. At least in the short term. The problem is that eventually the public finds out. Keeping Fauci from speaking about the dangers to children may temporarily put off public awareness, but eventually the health effects will come out—just as downplaying the virus in February and March did not prevent it from ravaging the U.S. and likely made it worse, and just as trying to keep a lid on intelligence about Russian interference didn’t prevent it from leaking. A crack sales strategy will get you only so far with a bum product.