Another Week in the Post-Truth Administration

Trump was angry that his intelligence chiefs had contradicted him on TV, until he convinced himself that it just hadn’t happened.


This week a bizarre drama played out. On Tuesday, the chiefs of the major intelligence agencies (CIA, FBI, NSA, DIA, and NGA, along with their overseer, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats) appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee in an open hearing that was televised live and accompanied by a 42-page report. The chiefs were all careful not to draw this conclusion in so many words, but the inescapable message of their testimony was that the world they see bears little resemblance to the one President Trump tweets about.

In the world where the intelligence chiefs live, the major threats the US faces come from Russia and China, who “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s”. The security of our elections is a major vulnerability, and other hostile countries are learning from Russia’s interference in 2016. North Korea is not denuclearizing and isn’t likely to. ISIS hasn’t been eliminated. Iran hasn’t violated the nuclear agreement President Obama negotiated. And (as the NYT noted) the threat Trump shut down the government to oppose barely registers.

Notably missing in the written review was evidence that would support building a wall on the southwestern border; the first mention of Mexico and drug cartels was published nearly halfway through the report — following a range of more pressing threats.

The senators on the committee — including Chairman Richard Burr and other well-known Republicans like Marco Rubio — likewise seemed uninterested the so-called “national emergency” on our southern border. Each member of the committee had five minutes for questions. None asked the intelligence chiefs to comment on the need for a border wall.

Trump reacted with anger and belittlement on Wednesday, tweeting that the intelligence chiefs were “extremely passive and naive” and “wrong”; he  suggested that they “should go back to school“. His reaction raised a question that I don’t think has ever been answered: If Trump’s superior knowledge isn’t coming from the intelligence services, where does it come from? Does he just know, like an oracle, or does he have access to some more reliable source, like maybe Fox & Friends.

But by Thursday, it was all good again: Trump was now comfortable in the knowledge that the testimony we all saw didn’t really happen.

Just concluded a great meeting with my Intel team in the Oval Office who told me that what they said on Tuesday at the Senate Hearing was mischaracterized by the media – and we are very much in agreement on Iran, ISIS, North Korea, etc. Their testimony was distorted [by the] press. I would suggest you read the COMPLETE testimony from Tuesday. A false narrative is so bad for our Country. I value our intelligence community. Happily, we had a very good meeting, and we are all on the same page!

Think about how backwards this all is. If any of the intelligence chiefs actually had been misquoted or taken out of context by the media, you might expect the complaint to come from them, or perhaps from their agency’s spokesperson. Such a statement might point to a quote in the media, and then give a more accurate or more complete quote from the hearing’s transcript. Or if the quote had been accurate and the chief had simply misspoken, the agency could make a clearer statement of its actual assessment.

None of that happened. Instead, Trump simply announced that there had been no contradiction, blamed the media, and claimed without evidence that “the COMPLETE testimony” backed him up. He knows, of course, that no one in his base (and few people in general) will watch two-and-a-half hours of video to check up on him. To the MAGA-hatters, the incident is just another Trump-said/media-said conflict. The ultimate truth about it is unknowable, so they will take Trump at his word.

But if you do want to take Trump’s advice and watch the whole testimony, you can do it here or here. I have, and so has Vox’ Alex Ward, who characterized Trump’s tweet as a lie and summarized the major places where Tuesday’s testimony contradicted him. Even more damaging that the verbal testimony is the accompanying report, prepared under DNI Coats’ byline. You might imagine that even the director of an intelligence agency might mess up an answer to an unanticipated question. But written reports are drawn up carefully, weighing each word and phrase. Here are a few quotes (with the original emphasis):

On North Korea:

Pyongyang has not conducted any nuclear-capable missile or nuclear tests in more than a year, has declared its support for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and has reversibly dismantled portions of its WMD infrastructure. However, we continue to assess that North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key US and international concessions. North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival, according to official statements and regime-controlled media.

In his oral testimony, Director General Robert Ashley of the DIA said: “The capabilities and threats that existed a year ago are still there.” This directly contradicted Trump’s tweet that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

Iran:

We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.

ISIS:

ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses. The group will exploit any reduction in [counter-terrorism] pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities,such as media production and external operations. ISIS very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States. … ISIS remains a terrorist and insurgent threat and will seek to exploit Sunni grievances with Baghdad and societal instability to eventually regain Iraqi territory against Iraqi security forces that are stretched thin.

Climate change:

Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond. Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security. Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution

Iraq:

Iraq is facing an increasingly disenchanted public. The underlying political and economic factors that facilitated the rise of ISIS persist, and Iraqi Shia militias’ attempts to further entrench their role in the state increase the threat to US personnel.

I’ll give the last word to Alex Ward:

As president, Trump has every right to make foreign policy decisions as he sees fit, and he’s not required to listen to what the US intelligence community tells him. Intelligence is meant to help him and his advisers make the smartest, best-informed decisions possible based on the facts. If Trump chooses to completely disregard those facts and make foreign policy decisions based solely on his gut instincts, that’s his prerogative.

But that doesn’t support his claim that the media willfully mischaracterized what his top spies said. What the intelligence community effectively showed, knowingly or not, is that Trump’s foreign policy isn’t based in reality. Trump’s scapegoating the media, in this case, won’t change that.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments

  • Anonymous  On February 4, 2019 at 1:39 pm

    Unfortunately, the intelligence services do have a long history of being wrong or clueless.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: