Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN National Security Analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues President Trump needs to know to make informed decisions.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
We assess that Russian President Vladimir Putin views your invitation to visit Washington in 2019 as a kind of homecoming. After years of attacking the United States through a variety of means – cyberattacks, information warfare and more – Putin thinks he’s in control of events here in the United States for several reasons.
First, Putin is probably riding high on the news that his mission to divide has been so successful that a series of coordinated domestic terrorist attacks divides Americans along political lines. After several bombs were mailed to prominent Democrats, former government officials and a news organization, right-wing Republicans, including Lou Dobbs, peddled the conspiracy theory the bombs were a political ploy by Democrats. (Dobbs later deleted the tweet.) Your tweet putting bomb in quotation marks was likely viewed by many as you questioning the veracity of the attacks – rather than affirming they were egregious acts of domestic terrorism.
Second, Putin probably thinks that you are telling your supporters to put politics over the security of Democrats, which could open the door to more attacks. Your tweet bemoaning the purported lack of political coverage after the pipe bomb mailings – as media outlets have focused on the attack and investigation into who was responsible – is perceived as you prioritizing your political agenda over the security of your political opponents: security for some, but not for all. This may be seen as a massive blow to our democracy, and as we have previously assessed, part of Putin’s goal is to undercut confidence in our democratic institutions – which includes the presidency.
Third, Putin perceives part of your reaction to the terrorist attacks as undercutting the constitution and your own law enforcement community. By blaming news outlets and their coverage for the anger in America, you are likely seen as assailing the First Amendment rights of free speech and a free press. And, while your own law enforcement community is investigating the attacks, trumpeting your explanation for what motivated the attacks is seen as undercutting their work. Another win for Putin because, as we reported as early as January 2017, he wants to undercut faith in our democracy. The perceived confidence you have in your own law enforcement community – including their ability to conduct a free and fair investigation and then hold perpetrators accountable – is a pillar of our democracy.
Immigration: Law and Order SVU
While you consider next steps regarding our southern border, including additional outreach to foreign leaders and public statements via Twitter, we assess that your willingness to consider closing our border may be regarded as a willingness to break international law in the name of establishing your self-designed order. Your peers will probably think you’re making the UN Convention on Refugees and subsequent UN protocols and declarations, which guarantee certain protections for asylum seekers and refugees, a special victim of your desire to curb immigration into the United States.
But they’ll assume you are also aware of the US obligation to examine all asylum claims before an individual is sent back to his/her own country, along with the obligation to protect refugees from forcible return to their home.
Taken together with your perceived abuse of global trading rules and use of tariffs to punish countries for not doing what you want – rather than an actual internationally recognized basis for doing so – your openness to potentially shutting down asylum processing is probably viewed as your ability to break laws that don’t work for you to satisfy a political or personal need. If you do, we assess that others could follow your lead and choose to follow laws when they work for them – and break them when they don’t. Some, of course, are already following your lead on this front.
Saudi Arabia: Swiss cheese doesn’t age well
After CIA Director Gina Haspel’s briefing to you on the Jamal Khashoggi murder, you should expect Saudi Arabia to continue to change its story whenever it thinks new information is going to be made public. Its approach to date has been to offer a Swiss cheese narrative – or one full of inexplicable holes. It started with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman claiming he didn’t know Khashoggi’s whereabouts days after he disappeared, a subsequent implausible explanation that Khashoggi walked out of the consulate and then a steady drumbeat of acknowledging a growing list of crimes, from interrogation and potential torture to, most recently, that this is in fact a case of premeditated murder.
We assess that the Saudis will continue to try to look like they are being forthcoming with new revelations, but we are also noticing a pattern. Saudi Arabia seems to change its story about what happens after incontrovertible evidence is exposed or Haspel meets with her Turkish counterpart and likely gets intelligence from them. We do not assess that the kingdom would publicly release these new revelations if they did not think that there is an increasingly overwhelming body of evidence to suggest that their narrative will be completely debunked by intelligence from our partners around the world.
The outstanding question, however, is whether Saudi authorities, who report to the crown prince, think his name will come up in our intelligence collection as having played a direct role in ordering or condoning Khashoggi’s interrogation, murder or coverup. Because he is leading the purported Saudi investigation into what happened, it is most likely the Saudis would deny any intelligence reporting we have on his role. And, based on the Saudi Foreign Minister’s comments this weekend criticizing “media hysteria” over Khashoggi’s murder, the Kingdom will only stick to its current PR campaign of feigning horror for so long. Based on their treatment of media figures, like Khashoggi, we also want to flag concern that this may be a threat to those covering this story from an angle that upsets the royal family.
Brazil: Seeing double
You may see more aspects of yourself down South, as the “Brazilian Trump” may be on the brink of winning the presidential election runoff. Jair Bolsonaro, who was stabbed while on the campaign trail, espouses several policy positions and tactics that you have adopted, including a focus on draining the swamp and rooting out corruption, attacking the press and making his country great again. He’s already said that he loves you, and his son has said he’s going to be just like you, so if elected he will very likely want a close relationship.
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Bolsonaro is a controversial figure in Brazil, known for racist, homophobic and sexist remarks, including calling a congresswoman too ugly to rape and saying if he had a gay son he’d prefer to have him die in an accident. If he is elected President, we expect that many Brazilians, and others around the world, will be watching to see if you condemn or at least distance yourself from his offensive rhetoric – despite his probable adulation of you and your administration.
While Bolsonaro is currently competing in a democratic election, we want to flag his previous statements calling for a return to Brazil’s dictatorship in light of what he’s called “irresponsible democracy.” If elected, this could mean Bolsonaro will embrace parts of Brazil’s democracy that work for him – like supporting law enforcement that goes after people he thinks should be arrested – while trying to get around or change those that don’t.