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American government will keep on fighting to state the truth on Russia

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In the middle of Tuesday’s presidential walkback about Russian election interference, I couldn’t (or maybe I could, I’m not sure) help but think of a scene from the 1997 comedy “Excess Baggage.” In the scene, would-be car thief but inadvertently-turned-kidnapper Benicio del Toro asks his unexpected victim Alicia Silverstone, who had been hiding in the trunk of her dad’s expensive car, “How stupid do you think I am?” To which Silverstone replies, “How stupid is there?” To my mind, that just about sums it up when it comes to the president’s view of the American people.

To review the events this week, for the benefit of anyone who until recently has been hiding in the trunk of their own car, President Trump was attempting by the addition of a contraction to rectify what CNN’s Anderson Cooper rightly described as “one the most disgraceful performances” ever given by an American president at a summit.

{mosads}I had actually watched the Helsinki summit’s closing press conference carefully, taking notes in preparation for a TV interview later that day. I had Russian President Vladimir Putin way ahead on points — more confident, better prepared, more detailed in his answers, even had better posture — but was prepared to conclude that this could have been a lot worse and that my fears about the summit may have been exaggerated.

The skies darkened a little when Jeff Mason from Reuters asked Trump if he held Russia accountable for anything in particular. The president spread theoretical guilt for the present state of affairs on both countries but got specific only when he indulged a familiar riff on special counsel Robert Mueller: “The probe is a disaster for our country. I think it’s kept us apart. It’s kept us separated.” A few minutes later the AP’s Jonathan Lemire then teed up this classic for the American president: “President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. What, who, my first question for you, sir, is, who do you believe?”

In an answer that began by indicting the FBI’s investigation for not seizing the Democratic National Committee’s server, then wandered through Hillary Clinton’s emails, some mysterious Pakistani IT specialist, and FBI official Peter Strzok before ending with the words “total witch hunt,” the president of the United States offered this judgment while standing a few feet away from the president of the Russian Federation: “My people came to me. Dan Coats came to me, and some others. They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

That last sentence was a shocker, to be sure. I could easily imagine the groans and shouted expletives that would have been audible in the halls at the CIA in Langley, the NSA in Fort Meade, and the FBI in the Hoover Building when it was uttered. Shocking, but certainly not new. It was perfectly consistent with much of what the president has said over the past two years and fits perfectly with the rest of what he said in Helsinki. Now that is the sentence that the president wants us to believe should be read as “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be” because that, of course, is what he clearly meant. Hence my reference to the White House’s childlike faith in unlimited stupidity.

Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats did not wait for Tuesday’s faux walkback. I suspect that he immediately knew he had a problem, not just with the administration’s relationship with the truth but also with a workforce increasingly questioning if they still were part of a good thing or if what they did still mattered. Without White House clearance, and while the president was still in the air returning to North America, Coats issued a statement repeating the intelligence community’s judgment — the Russians did it! — and commitment to continue to tell the truth.

Coats already had set the table for this. On the preceding Friday — the same day that Mueller’s office indicted 12 officers in Putin’s military intelligence service, the GRU, for election interference, and three days in advance of the Trump-Putin summit — Coats gave a major speech in downtown Washington, echoing former CIA director George Tenet’s summer 2001 warning about Al Qaeda, that the system was blinking red and that Russian “actions are persistent, they are pervasive and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy.”

Much of official and unofficial Washington agreed with Coats, and so we got Tuesday’s “limited, modified” walkback (for younger generations wondering, that is a Watergate reference) that appears to have been imposed on the president by his staff. He had to read the statement that the Russians did it from a prepared script but then could not resist the temptation to ad lib that “it could be other people also.”

On Wednesday, the president undercut Coats, his senior intelligence adviser, yet again by appearing to say “no” when asked at a press spray whether or not the Russians continue to attack the United States. This was the exact opposite of Coats’s message just a few days before and what FBI Director Christopher Wray reiterated a few hours after the press spray, during an interview at the Aspen Security Forum.

Americans are not stupid. But they are busy. They cannot afford the time to parse out these events the way a retired or current director of this or that agency can. The president is counting on that. But the truth of the matter is that the American government knows what happened, and what continues to happen. The American government, as opposed to the president, continues to state that truth. That is an amazing state of affairs, but it is where we are. We should at least be grateful that some very senior people seem willing to die on this hill on our behalf.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and of the National Security Agency. He is now a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies.”

Tags Dan Coats Democracy Donald Trump Government Hillary Clinton Intelligence National security Robert Mueller Russia Vladimir Putin White House

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