What if Trump Were President on 9/11?

What would it have looked like if Bush acted like Trump after 9/11?

When people looked back at the people who carried out the 9/11 attacks, it became obvious that we had missed opportunities to disrupt the plot. A couple of the hijackers had been under surveillance both abroad and here in the San Diego area. But the CIA and the FBI didn’t do a good enough job coordinating what they knew and the al-Qaeda members were able to slip off the grid and move around without their communications being monitored. After the fact, it was a reasonable question to ask why our intelligence agencies hadn’t done a better job.

Similarly, even members of the Obama administration are kicking themselves for not doing a better job of preventing the Russians from influencing the last election. But the thing is, at least they aren’t denying that the attack happened at all. They’re not making some half-ass excuse that maybe it wasn’t the Russians after all but some 400 lb. guy on his couch in New Jersey.

This is why Donald Trump has no standing to make the following charge:

Trump’s taunt is the equivalent of asking someone why they allowed themselves to get sucker punched. Except, Trump has spent almost a year now denying that the sucker punch came from Russia.

And I want you all to think about this for a few minutes. Trump has been getting intelligence briefings ever since he accepted the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Those briefings, many of which he turned down, became more detailed after he became president-elect. And he certainly has access to any information he wants now that he’s the president. He long ago should have been aware of what the rest of us have only just learned from the Washington Post:

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

This was admittedly information that was tightly held. It wasn’t included in the Presidential Daily Briefing because that was considered too insecure. Certainly Trump should have been read into it, though, no later than the January 6th meeting at Trump Tower when the heads of our intelligence services briefed Trump on the basis for their unanimous conclusion that Russia was behind the hacks and that they had been seeking to damage Clinton and prevent her election. And, in fact, it was after that January 6th meeting when Trump first reluctantly conceded that the Russians were responsible.

That hasn’t prevented him backtracking repeatedly in the last six months. So, we have to ask why he’s still disputing something that he knows is backed up not only by the unanimous opinion of his own intelligence services but by “sourcing deep inside the Russian government.”

The question that Trump asks (“Why didn’t the Obama administration do anything about it?”) is misleading because they actually did respond to the information and take steps to protect the integrity of the election. A more proper question would be “Why didn’t they do more?”

But even if you ask the fairer question, which many Obama administration veterans are also asking, it presumes that they’d identified the proper perpetrator. Trump didn’t ask about meddling from China or Paraguay.

After 9/11, there were some who doubted the official story, and certainly there was a more widespread feeling that some serious butt-covering was preventing the public from getting the entire story. Lots of people disagreed with how we decided to respond. But, overall, the fact that al-Qaeda had carried out the attacks wasn’t much disputed, and not at all by people in a position of responsibility.

Trump is reacting to the Russian story much differently. Far from acknowledging (at least consistently) that the Russians were involved, it’s as if he’s denying that the World Trade Center has collapsed. Or, if it has collapsed, he’s denying that anything needs to be done about it. And if anyone wants anything done about it, he’s taking that as an effort to discredit him personally. It’s all fake news and a hoax concocted by his political enemies to make him look bad.

Just try to imagine if instead of taking up his bullhorn of the rubble of the Twin Towers, President Bush had doubted for months that they had actually been destroyed. Imagine if every time someone asked him to respond to prevent a repeat attack, he had accused his critics of having a vendetta against him. Imagine if he had not only resisted an investigation (as Bush also did) but actually fired the head of the FBI for investigating.

Of course, unlike Trump during last year’s campaign, President Bush had direct responsibility for protecting the country on 9/11, so he had more right to be defensive about what happened. He did experience an immediate political reward for his failure as the country rallied together and behind his unsteady leadership. But he didn’t take the excuse that a few people were accusing him of letting the attacks happen on purpose to deny that the attacks had occurred at all or to avoid taking any measure to protect the country against similar attacks in the future.

I think Bush’s overall response to 9/11 was a disaster, but he also took reasonable precautions that any sane president would have taken. People had a right to demand that he do so.

What we have with Trump is a refusal to even ask a question about how to take reasonable precautions to prevent a repeat attack on our electoral system. So, here he is, asking why the Obama administration didn’t do anything to prevent the attack when that’s precisely what he’s doing (or not doing) right now.

And maybe this difference between Bush and Trump can be explained by noting that we didn’t find that half the people working for Bush were in communications with Usama bin-Laden or his agents in the lead-up to 9/11.

Just a thought.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.