How Would a Competent President Respond to Russia Right Now?

Hiding in a bunker and blaming “fake news” isn’t leadership. It’s a temper tantrum.

Since the New York Times published their article on Friday about Russia offering Afghan militants bounties for killing U.S. troops, I have been trying to follow the Trump administration’s response. Initially, it was to claim that the president hadn’t been briefed about the “alleged intelligence.”

Trump added in a tweet that intelligence services didn’t find the information credible, which is why he hadn’t been briefed. Then on Monday, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany repeated that claim, saying that Trump hadn’t been briefed because there are “dissenting opinions” about the veracity of the intelligence. We also know from reports that “the administration discussed several potential responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step.”

What none of these responses denies is that there is intelligence indicating that Russia has offered to pay bounties to Afghan militants for killing U.S. soldiers. As the administration lies and tries to spin their way out of this, it would be helpful to put it all in perspective by taking a look at what a competent administration does when confronted with a specific Russian threat. That is exactly what happened in July 2016.

According to a book by Greg Miller titled The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy, then-CIA Director John Brennan personally poured over intelligence reports about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. By early August, according to a report in the Washington Post, Brennan had compiled his own dossier and delivered it to the White House.

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.

In other words, intelligence indicating a Russian threat to the election went straight to the president and three senior aides. Because there were dissenting opinions about the veracity of the intelligence, a task force made up of representatives from the CIA, the FBI, and the DNI was formed to collect further information. Here is how they described the president’s directive.

Obama instructed aides to pursue ways to deter Moscow and proceed along three main paths: Get a high-confidence assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies on Russia’s role and intent; shore up any vulnerabilities in state-run election systems; and seek bipartisan support from congressional leaders for a statement condemning Moscow and urging states to accept federal help.

While all of that was happening, members of Congress were briefed as well. Then on October 7, 2016, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a public statement.

The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.

Finally, on January 6, 2017, U.S. intelligence services published a report titled, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections,” with this as the key finding.

Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.

We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. 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.

On the same day, the Obama administration announced sanctions against Russians for their interference in the election and closed several compounds in the U.S. that housed Russian operatives.

I offer all of that as a contrast because, after being subjected to this president’s combination of malevolence and incompetence, we can forget what it is we expect from our Commander-in-Chief in response to threats we face as a country. Hiding in a bunker and blaming “fake news” isn’t leadership. That’s a three year old throwing a temper tantrum.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.