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.