Trump Doubles Down on Russia. The Spies Shake Their Heads in Disbelief.


July 21, 2018

President Trump’s pursuit of warmer relations with Russia has grown increasingly at odds with his administration’s policies of isolating Moscow. – Al Drago for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — When President Trump directed aides to ask President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to the White House this fall, the invitation was his latest attempt to use personal diplomacy in the pursuit of better relations with the Kremlin.

But it was also at odds with moves by the rest of the Trump administration that served as blunt reminders that the national security establishment appears to be following a radically different Russia policy than the commander in chief.

The Pentagon declared on Friday that it would provide $200 million in assistance to Ukraine to help fight the Russian-controlled separatists in the country’s east. “Russia should suffer consequences for its aggressive, destabilizing behavior and its illegal occupation of Ukraine,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a statement.

And a day earlier, the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, pledged to offer Mr. Trump a candid assessment of the vast risks of inviting Mr. Putin to the White House.

The disconnect between the policies aimed at curbing Russia and the president’s position has never been wider, a gap that presents serious risks, current and former American officials said.

“If you are not clear about what the policy is, you are going to have an ineffective government,” said John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the C.I.A. who served in Moscow in the 1990s and later ran the agency’s Russia program for three years. “It is worse than that. Parts of the government are working at cross-purposes to each other.”

In administration strategy documents, NATO communiqués and other official orders, Russia is called a growing threat, a potential or actual adversary intent on undermining democratic institutions of the United States and its allies. The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Russia’s elite, and the special counsel has indicted about two dozen Russians on charges of interfering with the 2016 presidential election.

But in recent days, as Mr. Trump sustained his attacks on European allies, declared his meeting in Finland with Mr. Putin a success and signaled that he wanted a more constructive relationship with Moscow, following a policy of isolating Russia has grown more difficult, officials said.

“The combination of the president’s repeated attacks on NATO, his repeated failure to hold Putin accountable for the 2016 assault on our elections and his refusal to call Putin out regarding the current efforts to subvert the midterms all raise legitimate questions about what is going on with the president,” said David Laufman, the former chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export control section.

Adding to the difficulty of deciphering American policy toward Moscow is the fact that Mr. Trump seems to have told relatively few people about what he and Mr. Putin discussed at their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki on Monday.

Mr. Coats said he did not know what went on in the summit meeting, and other national security officials said they were in the dark as well. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday that he had spoken to the president about the meeting, but Mr. Trump has not shared his thoughts widely with the government.

In other administrations, such a meeting would have produced a plethora of diplomatic cables and other documents outlining it as well as briefings for national security officials or lawmakers, according to former officials.

“At this point, all I have heard is crickets,” said Eric S. Edelman, a former under secretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration.

If a president does not brief his staff, intelligence agencies have few options to learn about the meeting. Their most obvious solution — eavesdropping — is off limits when it comes to the commander in chief, even during a meeting with the leader of an adversary, according to former intelligence officers.

Still, the intelligence agencies would probably try to intercept Russian discussions of what was said in the meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, former officials said.

The disconnect between the White House and intelligence agencies could create a thorny situation if American spies collect information that might be embarrassing to Mr. Trump — such as Russian officials saying that Mr. Putin had extracted concessions from Mr. Trump during the Helsinki meeting.

“When you are stealing secrets, and those guys are talking about the Trump administration, then those guys are going to be in a tricky spot,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former C.I.A. operations officer who served in Moscow.

Still, Mr. Hoffman disputed the idea that the charged atmosphere would create a morale crisis in the C.I.A. He said that even during the early years of the Iraq war, when many intelligence officers fought with the White House over the intensity of the insurgency there, the functions of spycraft continued.

“We recruited spies. We stole secrets. We did the work,” he said.

Mr. Trump has been at odds with most of the national security establishment since the beginning of his administration, with he and his allies viewing members of the intelligence agencies as part of a so-called deep state opposed to his policies.

Mr. Trump had been planning to ask Mr. Putin to the White House since their Helsinki meeting, two people familiar with the event said. But bringing Mr. Putin, a former K.G.B. chief, into the White House would pose stiff security risks, said James R. Clapper Jr., a former director of national intelligence.

“The Russians will be leaning forward to both collect intelligence, and to thwart what we do to collect against them,” Mr. Clapper said. “Similarly, we will be leaning forward to collect against them, and to thwart their efforts to collect against us.”

Some intelligence officials reacted with resignation to Mr. Trump’s plan. While previous presidents would have consulted them about the risks of such a meeting, the officials have become increasingly convinced that Mr. Trump is not fully absorbing their briefs, even when they are tailored to his tastes with models, physical demonstrations and extensive use of photographs.

Intelligence officials are growing concerned that Mr. Trump cherry-picks their findings to reinforce decisions he has already made, several administration officials said in interviews. They noted that in the case of North Korea, he picked up on evidence last summer of growing nuclear capabilities to bolster his threats of military action; now that he is pursuing a thaw in relations with North Korea, he is ignoring similar evidence.

One senior official called it a disheartening experience.

Mr. Trump appears to have ignored his intelligence agencies in setting up the meetings with Mr. Putin, said Mary McCord, who helped run the Justice Department’s national security division until she left last year.

“The president didn’t benefit from the expertise of professionals who have spent their entire careers studying Russia’s manner of counterintelligence, their tradecraft and Putin himself,” she said.

The meeting is not a certainty. Speaking at the United Nations, Mr. Pompeo said he was “very hopeful” it would take place in the fall.

But it could be problematic because it offers Mr. Putin a diplomatic victory and suggests to allies that United States-Russian relations are back to normal, said Brian McKeon, a former top Pentagon official.

For now, there is little indication that the divide between Mr. Trump and national security officials will close. Mr. Trump shows no signs that he intends to ease off his diplomatic push or curb his criticisms of the national security establishment.

At the same time, Pentagon officials have said they will continue to oppose Moscow’s aggression in Europe, and the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies have vowed to continue to draw attention to continuing Russian attempts to interfere in American elections.

At a national security conference in Aspen, Colo., this week, the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, was asked about the president’s attacks on the bureau. He seemed to suggest that he was not paying close attention to Mr. Trump’s messaging or the chaotic atmosphere emanating from the White House.

Mr. Wray joked that he meets people who frequently say to him, “We are all praying for you.” He said that prompts him to think to himself: “I haven’t seen television in the last two hours. Is this all the other stuff, or did something new happen?”

Courtesy/Source: NY Times