Unwanted Truths: Inside Trump’s Battles With U.S. Intelligence Agencies

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Last year, intelligence officials gathered to write a classified report on Russia’s interest in the 2020 election. An investigation from the magazine uncovered what happened next.

In early July of last year, the first draft of a classified document known as a National Intelligence Estimate circulated among key members of the agencies making up the U.S. intelligence community. N.I.E.s are intended to be that community’s most authoritative class of top-secret document, reflecting its consensus judgment on national-security matters ranging from Iran’s nuclear capabilities to global terrorism. The draft of the July 2019 N.I.E. ran to about 15 pages, with another 10 pages of appendices and source notes.

According to multiple officials who saw it, the document discussed Russia’s ongoing efforts to influence U.S. elections: the 2020 presidential contest and 2024’s as well. It was compiled by a working group consisting of about a dozen senior analysts, led by Christopher Bort, a veteran national intelligence officer with nearly four decades of experience, principally focused on Russia and Eurasia. The N.I.E. began by enumerating the authors’ “key judgments.” Key Judgment 2 was that in the 2020 election, Russia favored the current president: Donald Trump.

The intelligence provided to the N.I.E.’s authors indicated that in the lead-up to 2020, Russia worked in support of the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as well. But Bort explained to his colleagues, according to notes taken by one participant in the process, that this reflected not a genuine preference for Sanders but rather an effort “to weaken that party and ultimately help the current U.S. president.” To allay any speculation that Putin’s interest in Trump had cooled, Key Judgment 2 was substantiated by current information from a highly sensitive foreign source described by someone who read the N.I.E. as “100 percent reliable.”

On its face, Key Judgment 2 was not a contentious assertion. In 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the umbrella entity supervising the 16 other U.S. intelligence agencies, released a report drawing on intelligence from the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and the National Security Agency that found Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election and aspired to help Trump. At a news conference with Trump in Helsinki in July 2018, President Vladimir Putin of Russia denied interfering in the election. But when asked by a reporter if he had wanted Trump to win, he replied bluntly: “Yes, I did.”

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Yet Trump never accepted this and often actively disputed it, judging officials who expressed such a view to be disloyal. As a former senior adviser to Trump, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me, “You couldn’t have any conversation about Russia and the election without the president assuming you were calling his election into question. Everyone in the White House knew that, and so you just didn’t talk about that with him.” According to this former adviser, both John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney, who were Trump’s national security adviser and acting chief of staff in 2019, went to considerable lengths to keep the subject of Russian election interference off the president’s agenda. (Bolton and Mulvaney declined to comment for this article.)

The president’s displeasure with any suggestion that he was Putin’s favorite factored into the discussion over the N.I.E. that summer, in particular the “back and forth,” as Dan Coats, then the director of national intelligence, put it, over the assessment that Russia favored Trump in 2020. Eventually, this debate made it to Coats’s desk. “I can affirm that one of my staffers who was aware of the controversy requested that I modify that assessment,” Coats told me recently. “But I said, ‘No, we need to stick to what the analysts have said.’”

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[Read the key takeaways from this investigation.]

Coats had been director of national intelligence since early in Trump’s presidency, but his tenure had been rocky at times, and earlier that year, he and Trump agreed to part ways; Coats expected to resign near the end of September. So it surprised him when on July 28, not long after he was approached about the change to the N.I.E., Trump announced via Twitter that Coats’s last day in office would be Aug. 15. In the days to come, Coats’s regular meetings with Trump on intelligence matters continued. During those conversations, Coats told me, the president never explained what prompted his sudden decision.

Coats’s interim successor would be retired Vice Adm. Joseph Maguire, who at the time was director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Maguire had served under eight presidents in a military or government capacity. Within the intelligence community, his appointment elicited relief but also worry: “From the very beginning,” one former senior intelligence official told me, “there was a lot of consternation over not getting Maguire fired.” One issue looming over the new acting director was the fact that the N.I.E., which had yet to be finalized, contained a conclusion that the president had often railed against.

One of the intelligence officials most directly acquainted with Trump’s opinions on the agencies’ work was Beth Sanner. A veteran of the C.I.A., Sanner now serves as the O.D.N.I.’s deputy director for mission integration. Her responsibilities include delivering the president’s daily brief, the regular presentation of new intelligence findings of pressing importance that Trump, like his predecessors, receives.

Delivering the P.D.B., as it is known, requires an astute understanding of the briefer’s audience. Sanner, who earlier in her C.I.A. career was flagged for promotions by managers who viewed her as an exceptional talent, was tough but also outgoing. In a rare public appearance at an online conference hosted by the nonprofit Intelligence & National Security Alliance last month, Sanner offered a window onto her experience as Trump’s briefer. “I think that fear for us is the most debilitating thing that we face in our personal or professional lives,” she said. “And if every time I went in and talked with the president I was afraid, I would never get anything done. You might be afraid right before you get there. But then you’re there; let it go. You are there because you’re good.” She had learned over time how to put Trump at ease with self-deprecating humor. Encountering the limits of his attention, she once said (according to someone familiar with this particular briefing), “OK, I can see you’re not interested — I’m not interested, I don’t even know why I brought this up — so let’s move on.”

In early September, an email went out from an O.D.N.I. official to the N.I.E.’s reviewers with the latest version attached — which, according to the email, “includes edits from D.M.I. Beth Sanner. We have highlighted the major changes in yellow; they make some of the KJ language clearer and highlight … Russia’s motivation for its influence activities.”

No longer did Key Judgment 2 clearly state that Russia favored the current president, according to an individual who compared the two versions of the N.I.E. side by side. Instead, in the words of a written summary of the document that I obtained, the new version concluded that “Russian leaders probably assess that chances to improve relations with the U.S. will diminish under a different U.S. president.” The National Intelligence Board approved the final version at a meeting on the afternoon of Sept. 26, 2019.

Such a change, a former senior intelligence official said, would amount to “a distinction without a difference and a way to make sure Maguire doesn’t get fired.” But the distinction was in fact both real and important. A document intended to explain Russia’s playbook for the upcoming elections no longer included an explanation of what Russia’s immediate goal was. Omitting that crucial detail would later allow the White House to question the credibility of the testimony of intelligence and law-enforcement officials who informed lawmakers of Russia’s interest in Trump’s re-election in a closed-door congressional committee briefing early this year. It would also set in motion Maguire’s own departure, in spite of the efforts to protect him.

More at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/08/...ion=click&module=Most Popular&pgtype=Homepage
 

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