Fact And Denial: Trump’s Inexplicable Refutation Of US Intelligence Community’s Conclusion Of Russian Election Interference – Analysis


By George W. Croner*

(FPRI) –A surreal scene unfolded in Helsinki on July 16, 2018, when an American president, standing side-by-side with the autocratic president of Russia, openly disavowed the collective conclusion of the U.S. Intelligence Community that Russia, under the direction of that autocrat, had interfered in the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

Trump’s comments generated a full-throated roar of disapproval from politicians and pundits across the political spectrum. But true appreciation of the disheartening effect and dangerous ramifications of this rejection of well-supported intelligence work requires chronological and substantive context. What follows is an effort to furnish both those elements in a level of detail essential to properly evaluate how utterly inexplicable are Trump’s embrace of Putin’s denial and his disavowal of this “seminal”[1] U.S. intelligence assessment.

The Chronology

First, the salient chronology:[2]

Spring 2014: A company, the Internet Research Agency, linked to the Kremlin and specializing in influence operations devises a strategy to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election by sowing distrust in both individual candidates and the American political structure.

June 16, 2015: Donald Trump announces his candidacy for president.

July 2015: Computer hackers supported by the Russian government penetrate the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) computer network.

Summer and Fall of 2015: Thousands of social media accounts created by Russian surrogates initiate a propaganda and disinformation campaign reflecting a decided preference for the Trump candidacy.

March 19, 2016: Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman, John Podesta, falls victim to an email phishing scam.

March 2016: George Papadopoulos joins the Trump campaign as an adviser. While traveling in mid-March, Papadopoulos meets a London-based professor whom Papadopoulos understands to have “substantial connections to Russian government officials.”

March 21, 2016: Trump identifies Papadopoulos and Carter Page as members of his foreign policy team, in an interview with the Washington Post.

March 29, 2016: Trump names Paul Manafort to manage the Republican National Convention.

March 31, 2016: Papadopoulos tells Trump, Jeff Sessions, and other campaign members that he can use his Russian connections to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin.

April 2016: Papadopoulos’ professor source tells the Trump adviser about a meeting with high-ranking Russian government officials in Moscow who have “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.”

May 2016: Donald Trump, Jr. meets with Alexander Torshin at an National Rifle Association (NRA) convention in Louisville. Torshin is a former senator and deputy head of Russia’s central bank.

Mid 2016: The Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency establishes a dual strategy of supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy and disparaging Hillary Clinton.

June 3, 2016: Trump, Jr. receives an email from Rob Goldstone, a business associate. Goldstone tells the younger Trump that Moscow supports his father’s candidacy and that he has a connection to a Russian government official with incriminating evidence against Hillary Clinton. Goldstone tells Trump Jr.: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

The younger Trump replied that same day: “If it’s what you say, I love it.”

June 8, 2018: Russian intelligence officers launch DC Leaks, a website that promulgates stolen emails.

June 9, 2016: Trump, Jr., Manafort, and Kushner meet with a Russian national and several others at Trump Tower. The meeting follows Goldstone’s promise to Trump Jr. that a “Russian government attorney” would deliver damaging information about Clinton. Recollections and descriptions of the purpose and details of the meeting shift over time.

June-July 2016: WikiLeaks and DCLeaks release thousands of documents about Clinton and internal DNC deliberations.

July 2016: Trump campaign adviser Carter Page travels to Moscow, where he meets with Russia’s deputy prime minister and a high-ranking Russian oil official. Page emails campaign staffers that the deputy prime minister had “expressed strong support for Mr. Trump” and that he had gleaned “incredible insights and outreach” in Russia. Ultimately, at least four applications are filed by the government under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) seeking authority to electronically surveil Page.

July 2016: Trump campaign associate J.D. Gordon successfully lobbies for the GOP platform to be changed to benefit Russia. Language is inserted vowing not to provide lethal aid to Ukrainians in their fight against Russian-backed separatists.

July 18, 2016: Sessions talks with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s U.S. ambassador, after Sessions’ speech at the Republican National Convention.

July 22, 2016: WikiLeaks begins releasing DNC emails ahead of the Democratic National Convention. The first tranche—nearly 20,000 emails—reveals an embarrassing glimpse at internal DNC deliberations.

July 25, 2016: The FBI publicly confirms its investigation into the DNC hack.

July 2016: The FBI opens a counterintelligence investigation into links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

July 27, 2016: During a press conference, Trump says of Clinton’s emails: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you can find the 33,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

July 27, 2016: Russians for the first time begin to target Clinton’s emails.

September 2016: Sessions meets again with Kislyak.

Oct. 7, 2016: The U.S. Intelligence Community releases a statement saying the releases of emails on DC Leaks and WikiLeaks “are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts.”

Oct. 21, 2016: The FBI and Justice Department obtain a FISA warrant to monitor Page based on the conclusion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that there is probable cause to conclude that Page is a Russian agent.

Nov. 8, 2016: Trump is elected president.

Dec. 1, 2016: Jared Kushner and Trump campaign adviser Michael Flynn meet with Kislyak at Trump Tower.

Dec. 13, 2016: Kushner meets with Russian banker Sergey Gorkov, the CEO of a state-run Russian bank under U.S. sanction. Gorkov was described to Kushner as “someone with a direct line to the Russian president who could give insight into how Putin was viewing the new administration and best ways to work together.”

Dec. 29, 2016: President Obama responds to Russia’s interference in the election by expelling 35 Russian diplomats and issuing new sanctions.

December 2016: Following Obama’s move against Russia, Flynn asks Kislyak to “refrain from escalating the situation.” Kislyak later tells Flynn that Russia “had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of his request.”

Dec. 30, 2016: Putin, in a move that baffles many Kremlinologists at the time, declines to retaliate against the Obama administration’s sanctions.

Jan. 6, 2017: The U.S. Intelligence Community concluded with “high confidence” that Russia engaged in an influence campaign directed at the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Jan. 10, 2017: In his confirmation hearing to become Trump’s attorney general, Sessions denies having contact with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign. In a separate questionnaire submitted a week later, Sessions again denies contacting any Russian officials regarding the 2016 election.

Jan. 10, 2017: A dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele goes public. The Steele dossier suggests the Kremlin possesses compromising material against Trump and raises the possibility Trump is vulnerable to blackmail.

Late January 2017: Flynn, now Trump’s national security adviser, lies to the FBI, by falsely claiming that he never discussed the Obama administration’s Russia sanctions with Kislyak prior to Trump taking office.

Feb. 13, 2017: Flynn resigns after 24 days as National Security Advisor.

March 1, 2017: The Washington Post reports that Sessions met with Kislyak twice over the previous year, encounters that Sessions failed to disclose during his confirmation proceedings. Sessions later confirms these meetings.

March 2, 2017: Sessions recuses himself from any “existing or future investigations” related to the 2016 presidential election.

March 20, 2017: James Comey publicly confirms that the FBI’s counterintelligence probe includes “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
May 11, 2017: After firing Comey, Trump tells NBC “this Russia thing” factored into his decision.

May 17, 2017: The Justice Department appoints former FBI Director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel. Mueller will lead the investigation into possible ties or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, as well as other matters that “may arise directly from the investigation.”

Oct. 5, 2017: Papadopoulos reaches a plea deal with Mueller and pleads guilty to lying to the FBI about his efforts to put the Trump campaign in contact with Moscow.

Oct. 30, 2017: Manafort and Trump campaign associate Rick Gates surrender to

the FBI after being charged with a dozen felonies each, including failing to disclose lobbying activities on behalf of foreign entities, financial crimes, and making false statements. They plead not guilty to all charges.

Nov. 2, 2017: Page, contradicting previous denials by Sessions, tells the House Intelligence Committee he had notified Sessions about contacts he made with Kremlin officials during his July 2016 Russia visit.

Nov. 30, 2017: Flynn pleads guilty to lying to the FBI about his discussions with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition and enters a plea agreement with Mueller.

Feb. 16, 2018: The Special Counsel charges 13 Russians and three Russian entities with conspiring to defraud the United States and interfere with the 2016 presidential election. The Russian government denies involvement.

Feb. 24, 2018: A new superseding indictment is filed against Manafort alleging he “secretly retained a group of former senior European politicians to take positions favorable to Ukraine, including by lobbying in the United States.”

April 27, 2018: The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (“HPSCI”)  concludes that Russia conducted cyberattacks on U.S. political institutions during the 2016 campaign. However, the Republican HPSCI majority finds no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

July 3, 2018: The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) independently reviews the Intelligence Community’s assessment of Russian election activities and validates its findings, concluding that the joint assessment which it describes as “a seminal intelligence product with significant policy implications” is a “sound intelligence product.”

July 13, 2018: The Special Counsel indicts 12 Russian intelligence officers for their role in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Clinton campaign, and for their leaking of emails and documents.

July 16, 2018: In a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump appears to accept Putin’s denial of Russian election interference.

The Intelligence Community Assessment

There are inherent limitations in a public discussion of intelligence product as sensitive as the one titled “Assessing Russian Activities and Intention in Recent U.S. Elections.” As the ICA states, “The Intelligence Community rarely can publicly reveal the full extent of its knowledge or the precise bases for its assessments, as the release of such information would reveal sensitive sources or methods and imperil the ability to collect critical foreign intelligence in the future.”[3] Nonetheless, U.S. intelligence operatives examining cyber operations continuously refine and expand their operational acumen by reference to historical events, known cyber actors, and the use of specific technical tools and cyber techniques. In this ICA, intelligence analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA) coordinated efforts in a scrupulous examination of intelligence product directed towards assessing the motivation and scope of Moscow’s intentions regarding U.S. elections and Moscow’s use of cyber tools and media campaigns to influence U.S. public opinion—focusing particularly on activities aimed at the 2016 U.S. presidential election.[4]

The ICA itself reflects a collective assessment that relied on a body of reporting from multiple corroborating sources. These sources allowed insights to be drawn as to Russian efforts including both specific cyber operations and Russian views of key U.S. participants.[5] Correspondingly, analysts drew on the behavior of Kremlin-loyal political figures, state media, and recognized pro-Kremlin social media actors, all of whom the Kremlin uses to either directly convey messages or who have been established as being answerable to the Kremlin for their activities. The ICA also carefully examined the expanding role of the Kremlin-financed television channel RT America which, it noted, has substantially expanded its repertoire of programming that highlights criticism of alleged U.S. shortcomings in democracy and civil liberties.[6]

From these multiple sources, the ICA reached the following “Key Judgments”:[7]

  • That Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election represented its most recent expression of its longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order, but that those activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort as compared to previous operations.
  • The assessment that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election” coupled with the further assessment that “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”[8]

According to the ICA, this latter assessment was coupled with a corresponding assessment that “Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”[9]

These “Key Judgments” were supplemented by conclusions that Russian intelligence services conducted cyber operations against targets associated with the 2016 U.S. presidential election and that “Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release U.S. victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks.[10]

According to the ICA, information that became available “[after the November 2016 election], when combined with Russian behavior since early November 2016, increases our confidence in our assessment of Russian motivations and goals” as recounted in the ICA.[11]

The Senate Intelligence Committee Validates the ICA Assessments

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence recently released a report of its own “in-depth” “bipartisan” findings regarding the ICA. This review is part of the SSCI’s own ongoing investigation into Russian activities related to the 2016 presidential election. The SSCI, by its own account, reviewed thousands of pages of source documents and conducted interviews with all the relevant parties involved in developing the analysis and drafting the assessments found in the ICA. According to the SSCI, the ICA “was a seminal intelligence product with significant policy implications” that represents “sound intelligence product.”[12] In all of its interviews with those analysts who drafted and prepared the ICA, the SSCI found that the participants were “under no politically motivated pressure to reach any conclusions.”[13] The SSCI also reported that, as its inquiry has progressed since January 2017, the Committee also has seen additional examples of Russia’s attempts to sow discord, undermine democratic institutions, and interfere in U.S. elections and those of our allies. The SSCI specifically concurs in the ICA assessment that Putin ordered the influence campaign aimed at the 2016 presidential election, sought to denigrate Secretary Clinton, and developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.[14]

Ultimately, the SSCI concluded that “the conclusions of the ICA are sound, [while] not[ing] that collection and analysis subsequent to the ICA’s publication continue to reinforce its assessments.”[15]

Trump’s Inexplicable Refutation of the U.S. Intelligence Community

As recently confirmed by the conclusions of the SSCI, nothing occurring since Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections was originally issued in January 2017 has served to undermine its basic judgments. To the contrary, Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election is now an accepted fact in virtually every knowledgeable sector of public discourse outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

When Donald Trump arrived in Helsinki for his recent meeting with Vladimir Putin, he knew what his Intelligence Community had told him in January 2017. He also knew that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, on July 13, 2018, just days before his Helsinki arrival, had indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers on charges of hacking the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton presidential campaign. Presumably, he was also aware of the SSCI’s recent validation of the ICA’s assessments regarding Russian election interference and Putin’s role in those activities.

Despite all these facts and events, Trump essentially threw the best intelligence services in the world under the bus by accepting Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful denial” of any involvement. The President of the United States directly juxtaposed his Director of National Intelligence against the Russian autocrat by saying: “[Dan Coats] came to me [and] said, they think it’s Russia;” and, then aligned himself with the former KGB apparatchik by saying, “I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. . . . I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be.”[16]

The president’s belated effort to walk back some of his comments in the face of enormous public backlash overlooks both the enormity of his initial miscalculation in making the comments, and the complete disingenuity of his “clarification” given his long history of denigrating the U.S. Intelligence Community.[17]  Much like his ill-considered comments following the horrendous events in Charlottesville last year, too much truth lies in this president’s original statements, whether spoken or tweeted, to be cleansed by subsequent “clarification.”

It is difficult to overestimate the danger posed by this continued disavowal of established intelligence product. The U.S. Intelligence Community operates today in a hostile world where the President of the United States routinely offends longstanding allies and cooperative governments in the most unpredictable of fashions—by spontaneous tweets and unvetted policy pronouncements. Whatever his professed skill in “deal” negotiations, the current occupant of the White House is a diplomatic and foreign intelligence novice with no apparent appreciation for the delicacy of intelligence operations. The ICA was the product of a thorough, cooperative intelligence effort by the most important elements of the U.S. Intelligence Community addressing an issue that cuts as close to the heart of American democracy as perhaps any that has confronted this nation since the end of the Cold War. Even the terrorist threat fails to pose as invasive a pathogen to fundamental democratic processes as this assault initiated and perpetuated by a man who is a relic of the Soviet-era KGB apparatus.

The corrosive effect of the U.S. President’s untenable viewpoints on this most critical of intelligence judgments regarding Russian interference with the American electoral process cannot help but undermine the ability of the U.S. Intelligence Community to perform its essential role in preserving and protecting American interests and institutions. Absent a prompt and personally unprecedented reexamination by Trump of his opinions regarding the value of the Intelligence Community and its work, the erosion of morale in that Community with its correspondingly harmful impact on intelligence work product will assuredly handicap future American foreign policy initiatives in ways that are both readily discernible and alarmingly unknowable.

Unfortunately, to date, nothing in the brief history of this administration, including Trump’s recent responses to the criticism of his performance in Helsinki, affords any confidence that this president will have the requisite epiphany that permits him to accept his own inexperience in the areas of foreign and intelligence policy so as to permit his unbiased consideration of the received wisdom of the most proficient intelligence agencies in the world.

About the author:
*George W. Croner
, a Senior Fellow at FPRI, previously served as principal litigation counsel in the Office of General Counsel at the National Security Agency. He is also a retired director and shareholder of the law firm of Kohn, Swift & Graf, P.C., where he remains Of Counsel, and is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.

This article was published by FPRI.


[1] This is the adjective used by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) in the July 3, 2018 report (“SSCI Report”) of its bipartisan investigation into the January 6, 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) titled “Assessing Russian Activities and Intention in Recent U.S. Elections.” The original version of the ICA remains highly classified; this article relies on the unclassified version released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and all references to the “ICA” are to that unclassified version.

[2] The chronology is drawn from a variety of sources including, principally, The Russia investigation and Donald Trump: a timeline from on-the-record sources (updated), John Kruzel, (Politifact, July 16, 2018).

[3] Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections (UNCLAS) (the “ICA”), January 6, 2017 at 1. Available at https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf.

[4] As the ICA cautions, no effort was made to assess the impact of the Russian activities on the outcome of the 2016 election; instead, the focus was on identifying Russian efforts directed towards influencing the election process. ICA at i.

[5] Id.

[6] ICA at 6.

[7] This article does not recount the ICA in chapter and verse, but presents only that content particularly relevant to the question of Russian election meddling as it arose in the context of the recent meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin in Helsinki. Reference is made to the full version of the ICA for a complete understanding of its content.

[8] ICA at ii. The ICA reports that “[w]e have high confidence in these judgments.” Id.

[9] Id. This particular judgment was one in which the CIA and the FBI expressed “high confidence,” while the NSA had “moderate confidence.” Id. As explained in the ICA and practiced in intelligence reporting, estimative language ascribing a particular level of confidence to a judgment or conclusion consists of two elements: judgment regarding the likelihood of occurrence of the development or event; and, judgment about the confidence in the sources or analytic method supporting the underlying conclusion. In this case, the NSA’s “moderate” level of confidence reflected “analytic differences” with the other agencies involved and was a conclusion reached “in a professional and transparent manner.” SSCI Report at 3.

[10] ICA at ii-iii.

[11] ICA at ii.

[12] SSCI report at 1-2.

[13] SSCI Report at 3.

[14] SSCI Report at 4.

[15] Id. at 7.

[16] Trump Questions Finding of Russia’s 2016 Meddling as he Appears with Putin, Rebecca Ballhaus, The Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2018.

[17] See, e.g., Trump Goes to Europe, Trashes U.S. Intelligence Agencies, S.V. Date (Politics, July 6, 2017); How Trump’s Attacks on U.S. Intelligence Will Come Back to Haunt Him, Daniel Benjamin (Politico Magazine, January 11, 2017); Trump’s New Intelligence: Why Donald Trump Needs to Stop Denigrating and Start Trusting the American Intelligence Community, Peter D. Zimmerman (U.S. News & World Report, January 9, 2017).

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

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