This hasn’t been a great week for Donald Trump and his national security team. Several of the administration’s top officials – including the directors of the FBI and the CIA, both of whom were chosen by this president, as well as Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats – delivered Senate testimony a few days ago in which they contradicted the president’s position on a range of key issues.
The differences were neither subtle nor minor. On everything from Iran to North Korea, Russia to border security, Trump and his national security team had very little in common.
The president’s initial reaction was to mock U.S. intelligence professionals, calling them “passive,” “naïve,” and in need of additional schooling. Trump kept the offensive going yesterday, suggesting he lacks confidence in the information he receives from CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
But that’s when things started to get a little weird. The president told reporters, in reference to the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, “I didn’t see the report from the intelligence. When you read it, it’s a lot different than it was covered on in the news.” If Trump didn’t read the threat assessment, how would he know about its differences with press accounts?
About three hours later, the president was satisfied that the obvious contradictions between his stated positions and his team’s assessments no longer exist. Trump declared via Twitter:
“Just concluded a great meeting with my Intel team in the Oval Office who told me that what they said on Tuesday at the Senate Hearing was mischaracterized by the media - and we are very much in agreement on Iran, ISIS, North Korea, etc. Their testimony was distorted press.
“I would suggest you read the COMPLETE testimony from Tuesday. A false narrative is so bad for our Country. I value our intelligence community. Happily, we had a very good meeting, and we are all on the same page!”
With reporters, the Republican added that his intelligence chiefs assured him “they were totally misquoted and they were totally – it was taken out of context…. They said it was fake news, so – which, frankly, didn’t surprise me.”
Or put another way, Trump wants Americans not to believe their lying eyes and ears.
The presidential-level gaslighting notwithstanding, reality in this case is unambiguous. We know what the intelligence chiefs said, not because they were “totally misquoted,” but because their remarks were aired live on national television.
What’s more, even if we ignore everything they said during their Senate testimony, the intelligence chiefs also contradicted Trump’s positions on key issues in writing: the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment is a rather brutal refutation of the White House’s political rhetoric on several key areas of national security.
At some level, the president must understand this. If not, he wouldn’t have felt the need to belittle his own country’s intelligence agencies and their competence.
But Trump nevertheless turned on a dime, pretending reality is what he wants it to be, and expecting the rest of us to play along. In the morning, he believed he was right, and the top members of his intelligence team were wrong. In the afternoon, the president was still convinced he’s right, but he also concluded that his intelligence chiefs secretly agree with him, despite what the country saw and heard a few days ago.
Even by 2019 standards, this was hopelessly ridiculous.
Last summer, Trump told a group of supporters, “Just remember: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” It’s unsettling to see the president apply this to his dramatic disagreements with his own national security team.