This article is co-published with our partners at The Atlantic.
When asked on Saturday about his conversation with Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific economic summit in Vietnam, President Donald Trump reported that the Russian president denied interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That, of course, directly contradicts the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community. “Every time [Putin] sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said. The next day, in confusing fashion, he walked back parts of his earlier statement, saying he believes “in our intel agencies.” (Regarding what, exactly, he left unclear). But he also seemingly doubled down on his previous assertion. “I believe that [Putin] feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election,” Trump said.
Trump went on to say he hopes to cooperate with Russia to solve global problems like North Korea and Syria. But if he does in fact seek such help, based on the false premise of Putin’s sincerity, that’s bad news. Putin is a world-class liar—indeed, he’s professionally trained in the art of deception. He grew up in the Soviet KGB, ran Russia’s brutal internal security service, and has remade the government into a personal fiefdom. He now serves as an unchallenged autocrat. Analysts assess that he is one of the wealthiest individuals in the world, despite his modest claim that his official salary is less than $200,000 a year.
Inside Russia, truth and falsehood are purposely clouded so that Putin can create facts serving his own interests and those of his coterie. Truth is only what he says it is, at the time of his choosing. The same truth may well be denied the following day. And conveyers of real truth, including dissidents and reporters, are eliminated.
Putin seems to regard his capacity to assert obvious lies as truth as an exertion of his power. Immediately following the shoot-down of a Malaysian airliner in which 298 civilians were killed, he lied about the circumstances that led to their murder. He denied the illegal use of chemical weapons by his allies in Syria. He lied about the Russian invasion of Crimea and the use of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine, and he covered up the secret state-sponsored doping of Russian athletes. In each case, his deceit has been revealed. Yet he has doubled down on his rendering of the truth, remaining steadfast no matter how ridiculous he appears.
Let’s put Putin’s most-recent denial of interference in the U.S. election in context. It came only a day after Spain’s defense minister announced that Russian hackers had sought to purposely damage his country by inflaming the issue of Catalonian independence. France, Germany, Estonia, Sweden, Poland, and Hungary, to name a few, have also uncovered dedicated Russian efforts to interfere in their political processes. Russian intelligence operatives have supported violent and far-right wing groups in Europe, and even attempted a coup and assassination attempt in Montenegro. Russia may well have also been involved in efforts to promote Britain’s exit from the European Union.
This weekend’s lie hits closer to home. In the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia deliberately interfered in last year’s presidential election, it concluded that Putin himself ordered the attack, and that his goals included helping Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton. In recent weeks, executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google have testified before Congress about Russian infiltration of their platforms to interfere in the election. Moscow’s misattributed advertisements and fake social-media accounts were seen by millions. Putin’s agents were even able to foment protests in the U.S. from their desks in Russia.
On top of all this, hardly a week goes by without new stories of Russian trolls, cyber-attacks, deception, or propaganda. Investigations into Russia’s interference and continued presence in Western social-media networks monopolize the FBI and Justice Department’s resources. In a press conference, Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said: “We feel very confident that the [intelligence community assessment’s] accuracy is going to be supported by our committee.”
To say the least, Trump’s willingness to accept Putin’s blatant lies does not reflect well on him. Setting aside the concern that his acceptance may well be a cynical means of protecting himself from allegations of collusion, trusting Putin over America’s intelligence professionals is a stinging rebuke to those dedicated public servants who work diligently to provide him with the best information available.
Trump can’t have it both ways. He can’t claim to side with his intelligence agencies while also accepting Putin’s contention that Russia did not interfere in the election. Trump, in his half-hearted attempt to backtrack on Sunday, couldn’t seem to bring himself to complete the sentence: I believe in our intelligence agencies’ conclusion that the Russia government interfered in the election. Why’s that so hard to say?
On the same Saturday afternoon that Trump reiterated his faith in Putin, he called former FBI director James Comey a proven “liar” and “leaker,” and former intelligence chief James Clapper and CIA director John Brennan “political hacks.” Putting aside one’s personal feelings about their records, they were life-long public servants who sought to provide non-partisan support to the Republican and Democratic presidents they served. In his backpedaling on Sunday, Mr. Trump did not veer far from those insults. “As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies,” and “I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership.” His affirmation followed CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s statement that he stands by the intelligence community conclusions on Russian interference.
For those most worried about Trump’s casual use of lies for his own tactical benefit, it is the reality of Russia that is most frightening. It did not take long for Putin to weaken the elements of civil society and centralize power, creating an Alice in Wonderland political atmosphere where up can be down, and down can be up depending on his whim. Certainly, America’s institutions are stronger than Russia’s, and it is unlikely that Trump possesses Putin’s savvy. Nonetheless, the defiling of the truth and attacks on this country’s vital institutions are taking a toll and weakening America’s defenses.
Photo Credit: U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017 – Jorge Silva/Pool Photo via AP