Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As Americans are finding out, intelligence is a two-way street. And Donald Trump is a dead end.
For years, the President has abused intelligence to fit his personal needs. For years, the President has clothed himself in a blindfold and earplugs whenever he meets intelligence that he finds inconvenient. Now, with his latest interview with Axios – in which he claimed that he still hasn’t been briefed on Russia allegedly putting bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan – we’re faced with one more example in a litany of unpatriotic incidents from this President.
When it comes to literal life and death national security issues, Trump continues to cling to a transparent and jaded ignorance-is-bliss card. What he fails to realize is that he’s just broadcasting his own gross negligence.
Well Mr. President, purposely staying unintelligent and uninformed is the most un-American thing a president can do.
On so many threat streams – whether it’s Russian bounties or the coronavirus – Trump continues to say he didn’t get briefed on the relevant intelligence.
Let’s cut the nonsense. Reporting indicates that intelligence on the Russian bounties threat stream was in his daily briefing in February. Similarly, reporting indicates that assessments on the coronavirus threat were in his briefing multiple times this year. So his claim that intelligence on reports that Russia had paid the Taliban bounties to kill American soldiers never reached his desk is inaccurate.
Intelligence is only as useful as policymakers choose to make it. If the President fails to read or otherwise digest his briefings, intelligence doesn’t get integrated into policy. Absorbing intelligence is the first step toward a policymaker – in this case the President – deciding whether to act on intelligence one way or another.
The President may try to defend his reading skills, as he did again in the Axios interview that aired Monday, but that’s just hard to believe. He’s known for failing to do some basic functions of his job like sharing accurate information with the public or paying attention to apolitical and substantive intelligence briefings like the President’s Daily Brief.
It’s not implausible that he didn’t see initial intelligence assessments on Russian bounties, for example, because he is negligent when it comes to informing himself with the best analysis the US government has to offer. Instead, he relies on TV pundits to inform his Twitter tirades and makes policy pronouncements based on what foreign leaders with their own agendas recommend. Knowingly failing to do his job is a hallmark of this presidency and we’re all less safe because of it.
While Trump’s statement that intelligence on Russian bounties never reached his desk is nonsense, it also begs an important question: What kind of President wouldn’t ASK for an updated assessment on this threat stream once he heard about it in the press? Presidents should be concerned about threats to Americans all the time, not only when there’s a public outcry. But especially in light of the scrutiny on this threat stream – and briefings given to lawmakers and other senior officials – the President’s claim that he still hasn’t been briefed seems to be an admission that he’s choosing to stay in the dark about threats to American troops.
The only explanation here is that President Trump doesn’t want to know about this Russian threat because, by staying in the dark, he can disingenuously claim that he doesn’t need to raise this with Vladimir Putin. This is one of the most unpatriotic moments in this Presidency – afraid of being cornered into confronting Putin the President is really advertising that he is choosing not to educate himself. His best excuse is that he’s purposefully ignorant.
Even with a passive President, however, there are multiple occasions when this President would have been briefed on the Russian bounties threat stream – unless someone is censoring the material provided or briefed to him. I helped prepare the “call package” for President Barack Obama’s foreign leader calls and based on this experience I believe there is a slim chance that, at the very least, intelligence on the Russian bounties threat stream wouldn’t have made it into the background section of Trump’s materials for his Putin calls. Plus, any meeting or call on Russia or Afghanistan would likely have included this intelligence too – even if it hadn’t been made so public.
Either the President is lying about not seeing this intelligence or someone is withholding intelligence on this threat stream from him. There are some indications that this may be the case. The Washington Post, for example, has reported that several officials say Russia-related information is being kept from Trump because he doesn’t want to see anything that could ruin his perceived good relationship with Putin. And, we had earlier reporting that former Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen not to bring up Russia in front of the President.
That is not how it is supposed to work. Intelligence is not meant to conform to a President’s misinformed personal view, or his campaign needs. Intelligence is meant to be apolitical and unbiased and censoring it to avoid upsetting the President means that key threats may go unaddressed and key opportunities unmet. If intelligence on Russia is being kept from the President, we have no idea when Trump, for example, got an accurate election security update or briefing on Russian disinformation ops (the latter of which he too often looks like he’s participating in).
The President may be trying to shroud himself in (im)plausible deniability by saying that he was never briefed on key issues. But that’s because he chooses not to be. Choosing not to request a briefing on an alleged threat to Americans or living in a bubble of restricted information so that he can avoid having to confront an attacker or change campaign rhetoric is no excuse. It’s unpatriotic and unacceptable. Lives are at risk.