Trump’s Memory Failures

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Contributing Sr. National Security Columnist, The Cipher Brief

President Donald Trump’s penchant for making misleading or false statements has been well documented.

Former CIA Director John Brennan last week offered a possible reason – one that should be a concern with any Trump descriptions of his one-on-one meetings, particularly when it comes to foreign leaders.

Trump, according to Brennan, at times apparently does not remember things accurately.

Brennan last Friday was on an Aspen Security Conference panel with former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper discussing Trump’s unannounced-at-the-time, G20 dinner conversation on July 7 with Russian President Vladimir Putin, when only a Russian translator was present.

“Who knows what was said there,” Brennan said, adding, “and quite frankly, there are concerns that sometimes what Mr. Trump says happened, is not exactly what happened.”

I cite that quote because Trump, himself, illustrated just such a memory failure during his hour-long, July 19 interview with New York Times reporters.

In the midst of criticizing former FBI Director James Comey, Trump brought up “when he (Comey) wrote me (Trump) the letter, he (Comey) said, ‘You have every right to fire me,’ blah blah blah. Right? He (again Comey) said, ‘You have every right to fire me.’ I said, that’s a very strange — you know, over the years, I’ve hired a lot of people. I’ve fired a lot of people. Nobody has ever written me a letter back that you have every right to fire me.”

The transcript then refers to “crosstalk” but when it picks up, Times reporter Michael S. Schmidt asks of the letter, “To you? To the FBI staff or to you?”

Trump responds, “I thought it was to me, right?”

The Times’ Peter Baker says, “I think he (Comey) wrote it to the staff.”

Trump responds, “It might have been,” while adding, “it was just a very strange letter to say that.”

Comey did write as the opening sentence in his May 10 farewell letter to all Bureau personnel, “I believe that a President can fire an FBI Director for any reason, or for no reason at all.” That Trump, little more than two months later, would seriously recall it as coming in a letter to him says something about how easily his memory can distort the past.

Brennan brought it up to illustrate the potential danger arising from Trump meeting alone with Putin with only a Russian translator present.

“Meeting with someone like the Russian president in this environment right now,” Brennan said, “you want to make sure, in order to protect the U.S. and protect the president, you have someone there who has a record of the conversation, and you can go back and make sure it was understood what was said.”

Clapper said Trump meeting without his own translator “raises a red flag for me.” He added, it was “a very bothersome thing particularly when doing it entirely unscripted.”

Aspen moderator, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer raised a Russian news story that day which quoted a Putin special envoy, Andrey Krutskikh, saying talks have begun between Moscow and Washington about creating a joint cyber security working group.

In the wake of the first Trump-Putin, G20 Hamburg meeting, Russian Foreign Secretary Sergey Lavrov said Putin had proposed the cyber security group. In a briefing aboard Air Force One on the way home from the meeting, Thomas Bossert, Trump’s top counterterrorism adviser, told reporters it would be premature to suggest the United States would be talking to Russia about a possible cyber security “partnership.” He said, however, there could be dialogue started.

Trump initially tweeted after returning from the G20 meeting, “Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded.” But after a day of criticism from both Republican and Democratic legislators, the president tweeted that although he and Putin had talked about such a unit, “it cannot happen.”

At Aspen, Clapper was sharply critical of the idea. Referring to his experience with such exchanges with the Russians, which he first had in 1992 as director the National Security Agency, Clapper said, “We’ve all tried to have a dialogue with the Russians…Dialogue with them is a one-way street. Give us what you’ve got and they are not going to reciprocate…and they are not going to do anything in any way that compromises them or gives any insight into what they are doing. And they will use it as an opportunity to gain intelligence on us.”

Brennan was also skeptical, saying he found the Russians often say one thing and do another, but he supported the idea of a dialogue “when it comes to counterterrorism.”

The Times interview also illustrated a less dangerous Trump writing or speaking habit, one that shows either a faulty memory, a lack of knowledge, or a purposeful mix-up of facts. Trump’s critics smile and use them to demean the president.

One can only guess their effect abroad on foreigners with direct knowledge of what he is talking about.

There already has been commentary on his botching up history with his stories about Napoleon and Hitler when it came to their separate invasions of Russia.

No one has pointed out his repeated claim about going to the opera before his second G20 conversation with Putin on July 7.

Trump appeared to be portraying what a long opening day it had been. After hours of G20 meetings, he first described a photo session where “a picture of everybody, the wives and the leaders, and then the leaders, and, you know, numerous pictures outside on the river. Then everybody walked in to see the opera. Then the opera ended.”

He even added, “I think it even said on the list, at the request of the German chancellor and Germany, it’s going to be the opera.”

But there never was an opera.

What Trump attended was an hour-and-ten-minute performance, at Hamburg’s new concert hall, by the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which includes the famous “Ode to Joy.” There are pictures of Trump’s arrival with his wife Melania at the hall with the orchestra on stage.

Of course the Ninth has soloists and a chorus, so Trump may have mistakenly considered it an opera.

Apparently having it wrong does not bother Trump. But what if such mistakes are made on more serious things?

The Times interview had many of the traditional Trump falsehoods and floating of unproven stories.

Asked if he had sent people out of the Oval Office to speak alone with then-FBI Director James Comey about the investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Trump first responded, “No. That was the other thing. I told people to get out of the room. Why would I do that?”

To the follow up question, “Did you actually have a one-on-one with Comey then?” Trump replied, “Not even that I remember. He was sitting, and I don’t remember even talking to him about any of this stuff. He said I asked people to go. Look, you look at his testimony. His testimony is loaded up with lies, O.K.?”

Not only did Comey testify last month under oath before the Senate Intelligence Committee about the meeting, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions also last month, during testimony before that same committee, confirmed Trump asked everyone to leave and “everyone else did depart.”

Trump claimed to the Times reporters that Hillary Clinton, while Secretary of State, “was totally opposed to any sanctions for Russia.”

When asked when that occurred, Trump replied, “I just saw it. I just saw it. She was opposed to sanctions, strongly opposed to sanctions on Russia”

It turns out that on July 13, 12 days ago, WikiLeaks reached back and published a hacked email, dated May 21, 2015 from a Clinton campaign staffer that was among the thousands that WikiLeaks initially disclosed last year. In the email, the Clinton staffer claimed he had helped kill a Bloomberg News story “trying to link HRC’s opposition to the Magnitsky bill to a $500,000 speech that WJC [Bill Clinton] gave in Moscow.“

That same day, July 13, a reference to it appeared on the New York Observer website, the publication once owned by Jared Kushner, Trump’s White House-based, son-in-law, and now turned over to the Kushner family.

On July 18, the day before the Times interview, Fox News had published a story headlined, “Hillary Clinton sided with Russia on sanctions as Bill made $500G on Moscow speech.”

It appears the same system the alt-news network used that worked in the 2016 campaign is still at work today.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.

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