It’s increasingly clear that the Trump administration has committed a serious policy failure in its lack of response to the stream of intelligence reporting on Russian bounties placed on the heads of U.S. service members in Afghanistan. The failure to respond adequately to this threat assessment is appalling–and that’s true regardless of when President Trump himself was informed directly of this intelligence reporting. The scandal here is not simply that President Trump has done nothing to confront Russia when U.S. service members’ lives may be on the line. It’s far worse: precisely when the president should have protected American service members, Trump instead appeased Russia and promoted Russian interests. And precisely when the president should have been directly involved in a coordinated policy process, Trump appears to have been absent or highly detached.
As we document below, Trump engaged in a long series of acts of accommodation and friendliness toward President Vladimir Putin after the U.S. intelligence community began suspecting the Russian operation. Either President Trump knew of the intelligence reporting and acted in a manner severely detrimental to the security of the country and the protection of U.S. service members; or the president’s close aides, while witnessing Trump’s obsequious outreach to Putin, failed to inform the president that his actions were perilous, even highly dangerous, in light of what the U.S. intelligence community understood at the time about the Russian operation.
What’s more, imagine if Russian intelligence agencies knew the United States was aware of the covert bounty operation. Indeed, that is the situation we are in now: Russia knows that we know, and President Trump still is dismissing the reports as a “hoax” and visibly failing to change course with Putin. What an extraordinarily weak position in which that leaves the United States against Russia even as Moscow escalates its provocations and hostile acts against the United States and our closest allies. It’s a monumental failure–not of intelligence, but of policy and leadership in response to intelligence.
But how should the process have worked? How would prior administrations–of either political party–have handled these kinds of threat assessments by the intelligence community? What does “normal” look like?
The appropriate actions would have involved informing the president, keeping him apprised of the situation, receiving presidential direction on how to prioritize further intelligence collection, and receiving presidential guidance on the development of policy responses, including potential changes to U.S. military force posture. In short, a threat of this nature to U.S. service members would, in normal times, yield direct presidential involvement. Indeed, we explain how a normal executive branch would successfully coordinate the national security parts of the federal government to address a threat of this magnitude, including when the intelligence is–as is so often the case–suggestive but inconclusive.
Below we outline the acts of accommodation and appeasement President Trump exhibited toward Russia during this period, when the intelligence community was aware of and increasing its understanding of the direct threat Russian bounties posed to American service members. Then we walk through what an appropriate set of actions would have looked like if the United States had a president who reacted to intelligence appropriately.
A. Record of Accommodation and Appeasement
For the purposes of our analysis, it’s not clear exactly where to mark the starting point for when the White House and President Trump himself were alerted to the possible Russian operation. Three starting points are possible:
Early 2019: Preliminary intelligence on the Russian operation is provided to the White House (according to reporting by the Associated Press, confirmed by CNN and the Washington Post). The Associated Press reports that the information was already included in a President’s Daily Brief “at the time.”
March 2019: National Security Advisor John Bolton reportedly briefs the president in person about the Russian operation. It is the only subject of the meeting.
Late February 2020: The U.S. intelligence community develops significantly more information and confidence in the assessment, and the information is included in the President’s Daily Brief.
It would be reasonable to begin the timeline at any of these starting points. To cast the timeline in the light most favorable to Trump, we begin at the third of these starting points: in late February 2020. The following chronology is also favorable to Trump because it includes only affirmative steps the president took to placate Putin. It does not include a host of other actions the president failed to take to address Russian threats–a long line of failures that extends to Trump’s failure, since his first day in office, to acknowledge and respond to Russia’s egregious interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
Week of February 10, 2020: A senior U.S. intelligence official confidentially briefs lawmakers that Russia wants President Trump to be reelected, according to the Washington Post.
February 20, 2020: President Trump removes acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, reportedly over the February 10th briefing to lawmakers.
Maguire is replaced by Richard Grenell.
February 28, 2020: President Trump announces that he will nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe as the next director of national intelligence. During Trump’s impeachment proceedings, Ratcliffe stated in a House Judiciary Committee hearing that he viewed it as acceptable for a foreign government to “become involved in an election involving a political opponent.”
On December 12, 2019, Ratcliffe said: “Is it ever okay to invite a foreign government to become involved in an election involving a political opponent? The answer is yes! It better be. We do it all the time. … He is the chief executive.”
March 16, 2020: The Department of Justice drops a two-year investigation into a Russian company–Concord Management and Consulting LLC–alleged to have interfered with the 2016 presidential election.
In its original indictment, DOJ alleged that the company funded a scheme with the intent to interfere in the 2016 presidential election using social media accounts with stolen identities of U.S. citizens. The indictment also referred to Russia’s Internet Research Agency’s effort to conduct what the group called “information warfare against the United States of America” in carrying out this scheme.
March 30, 2020: President Trump speaks to President Putin. The two leaders agree to continue talking on a “personal level.”
In an interview with “Fox & Friends” prior to the call, President Trump says that he will discuss trade with President Putin. Trump states:
“They love to be able to do trade with our country. It’s been very much hindered by the nonsense that’s been going on. Russia, Russia, Russia, which has turned out to be a total hoax when you look at what happened with Comey and McCabe and you look at all the things that happened with Mueller and the Mueller report. … We should get along with all countries if possible.”
According to the Kremlin, the two presidents discuss oil markets and the spread of coronavirus. They also agree to communicate on a “personal level,” according to the Kremlin’s readout of the call.
April 1, 2020: Handing President Putin a major public relations victory, Russia sends medical supplies to the United States. President Trump calls it “very nice” during a White House press conference.
“Russia sent us a very, very large planeload of things, medical equipment, which was very nice,” states President Trump. “For the Kremlin, the shipment was a propaganda coup,” writes the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times. It’s later revealed that the Russian manufacturer of the ventilators is a company under U.S. sanctions, adding to the PR windfall for Putin.
April 9, 2020: President Trump speaks to President Putin and King Salman of Saudi Arabia on a conference call reportedly to discuss an OPEC oil deal.
April 10, 2020: President Trump speaks to President Putin reportedly about the countries’ response to coronavirus, ther energy markets, and other “bilateral and global issues.”
April 12, 2020: President Trump speaks to President Putin and King Salman again about the OPEC oil deal.
May 7, 2020: President Trump speaks to President Putin and reports that the call was “very nice.”
Trump states during a White House press conference that he spoke to President Putin earlier that day and states:
“And that was a very nice call. And remember this: The Russia hoax made it very hard for Russia and the United States to deal with each other. They’re a very important nation. We’re the most powerful nation; they’re a very powerful nation. Why would we not be dealing with each other?
But the Russia hoax is – absolute dishonest hoax. Made it very difficult for our nation and their nation to deal. And we discussed that. I said, ‘You know, it’s a very appropriate time.’ Because things are falling out now and coming in line, showing what a hoax this whole investigation was. It was a total disgrace. … We are talking about arms control with Russia, and we will go forward with that. And we are talking about it very seriously.”
May 30, 2020: President Trump postpones the G7 summit and calls for Russia to join the next meeting in September, inviting President Putin to the United States. U.S. allies publicly oppose the invitation.
“I don’t feel that as a G7 it properly represents what’s going on in the world,” states the president.“It’s a very outdated group of countries.” U.S. allies, including the United Kindom and Canada, oppose allowing Russia back into the group and disagree publicly with the invitation.
June 1, 2020: President Trump calls President Putin to discuss “progress towards convening the G7,” among other matters.
According to the Kremlin, President Trump initiates the call and personally invites President Putin to attend the G7 gathering in the fall.
June 6, 2020: In a surprise announcement, President Trump orders the US to withdraw 9,500 American troop members from Germany by September 2020.
Experts criticize the decision as weakening NATO’s ability to deter Russia. Retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the former commander of U.S. Army Europe, calls the move a “colossal mistake.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg states that Trump did not inform the alliance beforehand.
June 19, 2020: In an interview with Axios, President Trump says he would consider meeting with Russian-backed Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro and suggests that he lacks confidence in Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.
After an outpouring of bipartisan criticism, President Trump walks back his position and tweets that he would meet with Maduro only to discuss “a peaceful exit.”
According to former National Security Advisor John Bolton in his recent memoir, President Putin conducted a “brilliant display of Soviet-style propaganda” in early 2019 by suggesting to President Trump that he roll back his support for Guaidó.
“Putin said our support for Guaidó had consolidated support for Maduro, which was completely divorced from reality, like his equally fictitious assertion that Maduro’s May 1 rallies had been larger than the Opposition’s. In a way guaranteed to appeal to Trump, Putin characterized Guaidó as someone who proclaimed himself, but without real support, sort of like Hillary Clinton deciding to declare herself President. This Orwellian line continued, as Putin denied that Russia has any real role in the events in Venezuela.”
June 30, 2020: Sources within the Trump administration say that the president is pandering to President Putin, according to CNN.
Aides describe the president as “inordinately solicitous of Putin’s admiration and seemingly seeking his approval,” according to CNN’s Carl Bernstein. The same assessment is echoed in Bolton’s memoir. The former national security advisor’s exchange with ABC News’ Martha Raddatz is also revealing:
RADDATZ: Let’s move to Vladimir Putin. How would you describe Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin?
BOLTON: I think Putin thinks he can play him like a fiddle. I think Putin is smart, tough. He plays a bad hand extremely well. And I think he sees that he’s not faced with a serious adversary here. And he works on him, and he works on him, and he works on him.
Finally, we should note, as shown above, that President Trump spoke with President Putin at least six times over the course of this period (March 30, April 9, 10, 12, May 7, and June 1). It’s alarming to think that Trump engaged in those conversations without being informed by his aides about the intelligence reporting the United States possessed that Putin was paying to kill American service members. (That would be the failure of a National Security Advisor–not of any intelligence briefer.) Of course, it’s even more alarming to think that Trump engaged in those conversations knowing about the reporting and failing to bring it up, while instead promoting Russian interests time and again.
B. What a Normal Response Would Look Like
It’s become easy, three and a half years into the Trump presidency, to forget what normal looks like. But the inexcusable and absurd theater of Trump’s indulgence of Russia outlined above becomes even clearer when one considers how a normal White House would have led a response to intelligence reporting that Russia was offering bounties to kill U.S. service members. Below are the steps that a competent, responsible White House, in Republican or Democratic hands, might have taken.
A threat of this nature to U.S. service members would, in normal times, yield direct presidential involvement.
This whole matter begins with intelligence reporting and analysis. First, the president would–of course–actually read the President’s Daily Brief, and then ask questions about a matter like this one, given the direct threat to American troops. Those questions would include trying to understand the reasons for any differing confidence levels among intelligence community components, as well as the ways in which the community is attempting to fill gaps in its understanding.
Those questions would be just the beginning of a process of close White House tracking of the issue, not the end of it, as it seems to have been for Trump in his reported meeting with Bolton. And a key message from a normal White House would be that the intelligence community should prioritize additional intelligence collection on this issue to sharpen the policy options that could be considered while also increasing the knowledge that could, ultimately, save Americans’ lives. In addition to discussing intelligence collection, meetings among those coordinating a policy response would also cover intelligence sharing: most obviously, should this information be shared with America’s closest allies, like the British, who serve in Afghanistan and who could face the same threat? Sharing this type of information with a trusted partner which is also at risk would be an early matter to discuss. Not only could sharing this information protect allies, but the partners may well have access to valuable information and then know to search for gap-filling answers.
Even as a normal White House ensured that the U.S. intelligence community prioritized additional collection, that White House would use a steady series of meetings to understand how the military is taking precautions to protect its service members from the threat. National Security Council staff would ask senior officials from the Defense Department and Joint Staff a series of questions: How much do the bounties increase the risk of attack? What new measures are you putting in place to protect service members in Afghanistan? How much do those measures mitigate the risk? What is your contingency planning should U.S. service members be attacked despite those additional protections? What more resources do you need? Do you need additional protective gear or equipment, additional reconnaissance capabilities, or additional capacity to extract quickly those who might come under attack? What military options are legally available to neutralize the threat, such as potentially detaining and questioning Taliban middlemen? Should the rules of engagement be altered to deal with the hostile threats?
A steady drumbeat of meetings would be held to ensure that the answers to those questions are adequate, and moreover that those answers are actually being implemented in the field. Exactly how much a particular White House would get involved in the details of the military’s posture in Afghanistan would depend on the relationship between that White House and the Defense Department. But, whatever the particulars of that relationship, some version of these questions would have to be asked by the White House, if only because knowing the military’s ability to mitigate the risk affects what other policy options should be explored with other departments and agencies.
A normal White House would also coordinate the development of options for diplomatic outreach to the Russians to address the issue. At the same series of interagency meetings, State Department representatives would be asked: At what level should we engage the Russians on this initially, and exactly how? For example, should the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow deliver a demarche? Or should the Secretary of State call his counterpart and deliver a stern warning? Or should the message be delivered by the Secretary of Defense to his counterpart, given the direct threat posed to American service members? Or, alternatively, is there a reason to convey this particular message through intelligence channels?
And then the timing and content of the message would need careful consideration. On the one hand, the urgency of the threat would counsel in favor of moving quickly. On the other hand, if components of the intelligence community had real doubts about the veracity of the intelligence, perhaps it would make sense to wait–both to gain greater confidence and to avoid blowing whatever intelligence sources could be utilized to learn more. And the question of what precisely to threaten would need to be worked out–perhaps a retraction of U.S. support for Russia rejoining the G7 (an ill-considered suggestion by Trump in the first place), perhaps a decision not to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Germany (another badly mistaken Trumpian gift to Putin anyway), perhaps ratcheting up U.S. commitments to NATO allies or presence in contested places like Libya, or perhaps more affirmative tools–like economic sanctions against Russia, to be discussed below. It is precisely the complexity of these matters that demands not a single meeting with the president but a sustained process led by experts on his National Security Council staff–all with the president being kept closely updated and with his clear support for the urgency of the work throughout the national security apparatus of the government.
A normal White House would begin preparing–early–for steps still potentially down the line. Such a White House would–even as the intelligence community sought additional reporting, as the military engaged in protective steps, and as the State Department coordinated potential diplomatic outreach–also prepare punitive measures against Russia that could be used once the intelligence was of sufficient confidence to act and once other steps, like diplomacy, faltered–or perhaps even sooner, if deemed appropriate to address the threat. One clear category is the imposition of economic sanctions. As part of coordinated, White House-led reponses, the State and Treasury Departments would be asked to consider what sanctions might be appropriate to punish Russia for its unacceptable behavior. Those departments would then return to the White House and others participating in the policy process with options, ranging from more aggressive to less aggressive, and the pros and cons would then be discussed with the president, given the importance of the issue.
Ultimately, a normal president would want to know: what do I need to do to save American service members’ lives? No normal president would ignore this intelligence reporting; any normal president would want to obtain as much information as possible and figure out how best to neutralize the threat, a question in which President Trump still shows no apparent interest. Whether a presidential call to Putin would be a right way to handle it would be determined by the quality of the intelligence reporting, the intelligence community’s sense of whether that could cost it additional collection, the military’s assessment of how well it could mitigate the threat on its own, and other complex considerations. But the point is this: a normal president would read the work of the intelligence community, believe the intelligence community, care as a top most priority about threats to U.S. service members, want to help personally in the response to Russia if appropriate, and overall ensure a national security policy-making process that provides for the protection of U.S. service members that they deserve. Trump has, it seems, far from adequately performed those responsibilities.
In the end, the Russian bounty scandal isn’t simplistically about whether President Trump personally read particular intelligence reporting. It’s about whether President Trump acted wisely in the interests of the United States. Our analysis points to a clear answer: Trump did not. With the intelligence community reporting about Russian bounties on U.S. service-members, Trump’s White House failed to oversee a national security policy-making process that any normal president would have demanded. Meanwhile, Trump personally continued his campaign to promote Russian interests. This scandal isn’t narrowly about who read what when. It’s about whether Trump runs an executive branch that protects Americans against potentially dire threats. The record shows he unfortunately has not.
Image: Photo by Shealah Craighead/The White House via Getty Images