NYT: FBI feared Trump was working on behalf of Russia

The Times said after the president fired James Comey, agents opened an investigation into whether Trump was wittingly or unwittingly working for Russia. The president calls the allegation "insulting."

Posted: Jan 14, 2019 8:16 AM
Updated: Jan 14, 2019 8:33 AM

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.

Here's this week's briefing:

With new Washington Post reporting that President Donald Trump may have taken unprecedented, and potentially illegal, measures to conceal the contents of private conversations with President Vladimir Putin, we are providing you with an update on several ongoing Russian threat streams. These include the growing counterintelligence risks posed by actions that aid and abet Russian intelligence operations.

The full panoply of Russian actions -- from election interference to the manipulation of those whom Putin considers high-value American assets -- pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States. And Trump's efforts to keep meetings with Putin under wraps only exacerbate this threat.

Under his thumb

Despite the President and his team's denials regarding allegations that he tried to conceal the contents of his meetings with Putin, reporting indicating that he went to extraordinary measures to do just that will add to Putin's perception that he's in the driver's seat. More to the point, Putin will feel like he can manipulate any narrative about the meetings. He may even try to spread theories (whether warranted or not) that there was an intent to conceal evidence of a crime -- whether criminal or counterintelligence related -- because that undermines the credibility of the President himself. Absent our own records of the meeting, we have nothing we can use to counter any Russian misinformation about what happened.

Even worse, giving the Russian government sensitive information that US officials do not have -- information on what was discussed in meetings between Putin and Trump -- also represents a major operational risk. The Russian government likely has more knowledge than our own administration does on key bilateral policy discussions, including Israel, which Trump acknowledged that they discussed.

It's also an intelligence win for Putin. Russian officials' access to this sensitive information represents a potential bribery point the Putin can use against Trump at a later date. Russia can threaten to release parts of presidential conversations if, for example, Trump threatens to do something that they don't like. In short, by concealing the contents of his meetings, the President is opening the door for Putin to manipulate him and use him as an asset.

Because the President has given Putin and his team a leg up on the US government, Putin may also try to benefit from any perceptions that the President prefers playing for the Russians more than he does for the US. Putin gets bonus points in this scenario because, by failing to treat his team with the same consideration that he treats Russia, Trump is implying a lack of confidence in his own institutions and officials.

The Washington Post reporting comes on the heels of news that the FBI launched an unprecedented counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump posed a threat to national security -- a news story that will only embolden Putin further. The very fact that the FBI assessed that Putin was potentially willing to compromise a sitting president will probably bolster the vision of himself as a strong, skilled and fearless leader.

Trump's responses to the reporting -- including insulting FBI officials, Democrats and past US presidents -- rather than clearly stating that Russian intelligence operations against us are a threat that we should all take seriously, are music to Putin's ears because they advance Russia's mission to spread division in the US.

Putin will probably use his information warriors to spread the administration's responses on social media, because they appear to promote Russian objectives rather than US national security ones. We know that Russian troll farms have engaged in influence campaigns on social media in the past to spread inflammatory or divisive messages, so they likely have the ability to do so now.

A czar is born

Putin is due to relinquish power in 2024, but if he has his way, he may continue ruling Russia long after that. Russia still pretends to be a democracy, and its constitution currently puts term limits on presidents. But the Russian Duma is considering constitutional amendments that, if passed, could allow Putin to extend his rein for as long as he likes. Putin is increasingly emulating a czar-like ruler for life, who does what he wants, when he wants. Domestically, we should expect Putin to continue his crackdown on opposition movements and minority groups while he continues to pursue a full suite of externally aggressive activities.

The world is his oyster

Bolstered by feelings of impunity, Putin is ramping up, not tamping down, his global interference efforts. Israeli officials have alluded to Russian interference in their upcoming elections. French authorities are probing potential Russian interference during the "gilets jaunes," or yellow vest protests, and US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats publicly acknowledged Russian efforts to interfere in our midterm elections. Whatever actions have been taken to date, it's clear that Putin thinks the world -- along with its elections -- is his oyster.

He'll pack our bags for us

The administration's focus on bringing US troops back home, even if missions are not complete in key theaters like Syria, is a boon to Russian plans to expand its own sphere of influence. Putin will likely try to expedite a rapid US departure from Syria because it helps him paint the US as an unreliable partner, while concurrently giving him more room to operate in Syria itself.

Without US troops on the ground or US funding that goes toward stabilization efforts in Syria, Putin can claim we don't have skin in the game -- whereas he has resources on the ground and the ability to convene key players, including Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran's Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei. We should also be on the lookout for indications of chemical weapons attacks as we prepare to leave. Russia used chemical weapons in the UK (though the Kremlin denies it), and the Kremlin has also repeatedly lied and said Assad hasn't used them in Syria.

Nuking it

Conventional military threats from Putin will likely continue. Showcasing his biggest and baddest military toys helps broadcast both the strength of the Russian military, while highlighting Russian weapons like hypersonic missiles, which we are not adequately prepared to defend against. Factually speaking, he doesn't need expensive nuclear weapons to strategically threaten the United States. He is accomplishing that goal with relatively inexpensive cybersecurity attacks and information warfare. But a nuclear showdown gets him bonus points at home, while leading us to spend money just to keep up.

Our public narrative right now is a key component of neutralizing Russian threats. Claims that this administration has been tougher on Russia than any of its predecessors misses the underlying point -- Putin is not changing his behavior. In fact, he is consolidating power while Russia is escalating its activities and posing a direct threat to US strategic interests.

If this public response narrative continues, it only serves Putin's interests, not ours. By failing to acknowledge that we have not successfully defended against Russia's attack or deterred its illegal activities, we look more focused on our own image than on keeping our country safe.

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