For much of his presidency, Donald Trump has contradicted his own foreign policy and national security teams, leaving observers -- here and around the world -- to wonder who, exactly, speaks for the White House. Yesterday, however, offered a rather extreme example of the phenomenon.
Five of the top U.S. national security officials -- National Security Adviser John Bolton, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, FBI Director Chris Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Gen. Paul Nakasone, the director of the National Security Agency and the commander of U.S. Cyber Command -- each stood in the White House press briefing room and made it categorically clear that Russian efforts to interfere in this year's elections are already underway. In the process, they delivered a message that was wholly at odds with what we've heard from their boss, who chose not to make an appearance at the briefing.
One reporter asked Chris Wray why the American people should listen to him and his colleagues about Russian election attacks when the president and his White House keep pushing a very different line. Wray replied that FBI officials "are going to follow our oaths and do our jobs."
And while that's no doubt true, it didn't answer the underlying question.
Indeed, five hours after the Trump administration's top national security figures delivered an unambiguous message about Russia and an ongoing security threat, Trump himself delivered a very different kind of message at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania. NBC News reported:
Just hours after the nation's top intelligence officials warned about Moscow's efforts to disrupt a second consecutive American election, Trump said at a campaign rally here Thursday night that his diplomatic efforts with President Vladimir Putin "are being hindered by the Russian hoax."The two events created a split-screen effect: America's intelligence experts warning voters that Russia is trying to undermine democracy while Trump tells them it's all political chicanery.
At the same event, the president boasted to his fans that Russia's Vladimir Putin wasn't pleased when Trump won in 2016 -- which is also the opposite of what Putin himself has said, and the opposite of what the U.S. intelligence community has said about the rationale behind the election attack.
Adding insult to injury, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders went on to tell reporters yesterday that "certainly we know there are others" who were responsible for election interference in 2016, beyond just Russia. This, too, is wholly at odds with the findings of U.S. intelligence professionals.
If yesterday were an aberration, it might be easier to overlook, but it was part of an ongoing pattern for Trump and his White House team: when it comes to Russia, this president just doesn't seem to care what his own country's intelligence community has to say.
Perhaps someone in the West Wing can explain why this is.