Intelligence chiefs to Senate: Nope, Trump doesn't care about Russia

Deep State leaders (all appointed by Trump) tell the Senate Russia threat is real, but president can't be bothered

By Heather Digby Parton


Published February 14, 2018 8:05AM (EST)

FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats (Getty/Saul Loeb)
FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats (Getty/Saul Loeb)

Tuesday's televised annual Global Threat Hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee seemed like a rare and special event. What used to be considered routine and ordinary in American political life -- open hearings with government officials testifying about the issues of the day -- felt like an exciting look into the secret workings of the Star Chamber. Considering that we are in the midst of one of the most significant presidential scandals in American history, concerning possible conspiracy with a foreign power and an active coverup, it's extremely odd that we have so little public congressional testimony about any of it. That's not the way our system is supposed to work.

Yesterday's hearing was dramatic in that it featured all the leaders of the so-called nefarious Deep State, many in uniform with their chests covered in medals, sitting in a row facing the glare of the lights they seek to avoid while carrying out their traitorous schemes against President Donald Trump.

Actually, all these men are Trump appointees and members of his administration, so one might expect they would spin their testimony in his favor, to the extent that's possible. Unfortunately for the president, none seemed willing to lie before the committee. So they were unable to shield Trump entirely, no matter how much they may have wanted to do so. No one can explain his behavior with respect to Russia in any way that makes him look like a responsible president.

FBI Director Christopher Wray answered questions about the ongoing saga over former White House secretary Rob Porter's lack of security clearance even as he handled highly sensitive intelligence, putting the lie to the administration's attempt to blame the bureau for the failure. But Wray was equally unwilling to carry the administration's water regarding the Devin Nunes memo and other aspects of the Russia investigation.

Wray reiterated his earlier comments about the memo, which accused the FBI of improperly using the so-called Steele dossier to gain a surveillance warrant on former Trump adviser Carter Page, saying, "We had grave concerns about that memo’s release." He was joined in that opinion by NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers. Both the NSA and the FBI testifying in opposition to the president of the United States on an issue of national security is not something you see every day.

Wray went further than that. He told Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., that he does not discuss the investigation into possible Russian involvement with the 2016 Trump campaign with the president, but could not reassure her that Trump isn't receiving such info from congressional allies. When asked about Trump's accusations that the FBI is biased, Wray said he tells FBI employees "not to get too caught up on what I consider the noise on TV and on social media." That "noise" would include the statements of the president of the United States.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., thought he'd trapped Wray into admitting that the Steele dossier was discredited by asking if Wray agreed with James Comey's earlier statement that it was "salacious and unverified." Cotton seemed taken aback when Wray said that was "something we can discuss more in a closed setting," which naturally left the impression that there was something to discuss.

Every one of these intelligence officers stood by the January 2017 assessment that the Russian government had interfered in the 2016 election and reaffirmed that that they are going to try to do it again. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said:

There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations. We need to inform the American public that this is real. We are not going to allow some Russian to tell us how we’re going to vote. There needs to be a national cry for that.

This prompted Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, to point out the obvious and uncomfortable fact that there's one big impediment to doing that:

I understand the president's sensitivity about whether his campaign was in connections with the Russians, and that's a separate question. . . . My problem is I talk to people in Maine who say the whole thing is a witch hunt and a hoax because "the president told me." We cannot confront this threat, which [requires] whole of government response, when the leader of the government continues to deny that it exists.

King asked the intelligence chiefs to try to get the president to stop doing that. They all examined their fingernails.

But that wasn't the most dramatic moment. That came when Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., asked a simple question that sent shockwaves through the hearing room. He asked the assembled intelligence leaders if the president had ever urged them to address the threat of further Russian interference.

He has not. When pressed, Rogers said, “I can’t say I’ve been specifically directed to blunt or actually stop" future Russian attacks. Pompeo tried to defend Trump, but the best he could come up with was to say the CIA takes “all kinds of steps to disrupt what the Russians are trying to do.” Wray said he had not been specifically tasked to combat Russian interference by the president. Coats said the same. When asked if the president has ordered an inter-agency strategy, he replied, "We essentially are relying on the investigations that are underway."

We knew that Trump didn't like to hear about Russia in his intelligence briefings and that he had not convened even a single meeting about the possible threat to future elections. His efforts to impede the investigations and his administration's ongoing refusal to enforce congressionally mandated sanctions against Russian interests are obvious and well documented. Now we know that he has never even bothered to task his government with stopping Russian interference going forward.

When it comes to Russia, the president sees no evil, hears no evil and speaks no evil. If one didn't know better, one might just start to suspect that this was about something bigger than Trump's bruised ego after all.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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