Editor’s Note: Josh Campbell is a CNN analyst, providing insight on national security, crime, and justice issues. He previously served as a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI conducting global terrorism and kidnapping investigations. Follow him on Twitter at @joshscampbell. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
At FBI field offices and CIA stations around the world, our nation’s intelligence professionals turned on their televisions Monday and witnessed their own commander in chief take to the airwaves and completely undermine their work.
Standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Helsinki, President Donald Trump skirted a question from a reporter about whether he would denounce Russian interference in the 2016 election by instead invoking former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and attacking the FBI.
Apropos of nothing, but clearly using it as an opportunity to sidestep the difficult question at hand, Trump brought up Clinton’s use of a private email server and seemed to peddle his favorite conspiracy theory about how thoroughly the FBI actually conducted the investigation of Clinton and the hacking of the DNC’s emails.
Most astonishing, President Trump then went on to cast doubt on the conclusions of his own intelligence community and offer a moral equivalency between Putin – a former KGB operative who has long worked against America’s national security – and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
DNI Coates “said they think it’s Russia,” the President remarked, describing the moment US officials advised him they assessed the Kremlin was involved in interfering with our sacred electoral process. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump then offered.
Insisting his options in finding out the truth were limited, “all I can do is ask the question,” the President said with a shrug.
Setting aside for a moment that Putin’s experience as a former spy would certainly equip him with the skills to look Trump in the eye and lie without blinking, it is beyond appalling that Trump would then give equal weight to the protests of a hostile foreign adversary, and in doing so undermine his own country’s national security professionals.
The notion that Russia interfered in the 2016 US election is not a seriously disputed fact. In its public report on efforts to undermine the American electoral system, the US intelligence community did not mince words. “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election” appears in bold letters in the document.
Rather than accepting the conclusions of his own intelligence professionals or simply claiming ignorance, Trump offered his own analytical assessment, stating that he doesn’t see a reason why Russia would have meddled. In doing so, he succeeded in driving a wedge between his White House and the career intelligence professionals who go to work every single day working to keep America safe.
Had President Trump actually read the findings of his intelligence community, he would know exactly why Putin sought to subvert American democracy. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” the report explicitly states.
More than simply embarrassing our intelligence professionals, the President actually dealt a blow to their credibility by casting them as either incompetent or alarmists. Criticizing the quality of their assessment in this instance will likely cascade across other important national security issues. If the President succeeds in undercutting public confidence in our intelligence institutions, he will simply be able to ignore any future conclusions he finds uncomfortable.
In my judgment, the reason Trump seems to avoid educating himself on the topic of Russian interference is because he is no doubt concerned where such an inquiry might lead. I don’t know whether he is simply unwilling to admit that his presidency is unwittingly the beneficiary of a foreign spy operation, or whether the Russians have compromising information on Trump, as others have suggested.
I do know that politicians like Trump are keenly aware of the adage that you don’t ask questions you don’t want answered.
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For our part, we may never know what fully motivates him to shun his own intelligence professionals while cozying up to an adversary, but that won’t stop us from working to unearth the truth. To borrow a phrase from the President, all we can do is ask the question.