The Government Strikes Back

State Secrets

In the four days since the Trump-Putin summit, we’ve seen a parade of justified emotion as Republicans joined the chorus of critics speaking out against the President’s performance at the Helsinki press conference.

But as prominent members of his own party began to find their voice, and the President tried, not-so-successfully, to walk back his statements and give the impression that he did actually believe his own Intelligence community over President Putin, something else was going on. President Trump’s top officials across the government began exhibiting a distinctive array of strategies for dealing with their boss, once famous for demanding loyalty.

Chalk it up to great timing, but a number of Trump officials have been working their way through Aspen, Colorado this week at a security conference, where nearly all of them were asked the same question:  ‘Have you considered resigning’?

It’s a question pushed to the forefront because of Helsinki, but the conversation has been going on in back rooms and government offices for months.  There was even a bit of an emotional exchange at The Cipher Brief’s Annual Threat Conference in April, where a previous director of an Intelligence Agency and a former senior CIA Officer pressed a current member of the President’s senior team after the President had held another press conference in which he offered blistering criticism of the FBI.  ‘How can you work for a liar?’ they both asked.

Time to pause and think about the answer.  You have a President who demands loyalty.  You have a person in a senior role in the intelligence community, in this case (but it could be any of the President’s senior leaders) who is forced to veer from talking about the importance of the threats the country is facing and what’s being done about them, to engage in conversation about the President’s highly-offensive communication style.  Understanding that this dynamic has been going on for months, helps set the scene for where are now.

Mike Hayden, in an Oped published in The Hill  this week wrote about the President’s statements about Russia “But the truth of the matter is that the American government knows what happened, and what continues to happen.  The American government, as opposed to the President, continues to state that truth.”

But the ‘government’ leaders are beginning to exhibit some key strategies of their own in dealing with this President, and they are sure to have consequences.

So what practical options do you have if you are the ‘government’?  You can resign in disgust and bank on the ‘hope’ that there will be a private sector job waiting for you – we haven’t seen this one executed yet, but we’ve certainly seen the signs that we’re getting close to it.  I can’t tell you how many times I heard that question, ‘Have you thought about resigning?’ this week.  (In fact, several Cipher Brief experts were of that state of mind as well in the hours after Helsinki.  Read our column earlier this week from Russia expert Rolf Mowatt-Larssen.)

You might also try to just keep your head low and stay out of the chaos as much as possible, or you can do what several senior officials did this week, and try your strategy out with the media.  There are three methods I saw clearly on display, and I’m curious to know where each of them will lead.

The Coats Method (go bold, accept the risk of potential self sacrifice)

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was among the first to publicly stand up for his work force, after the President’s comments in Helsinki.  In a statement on Monday, Coats reiterated the Intelligence Community’s finding that Russia did in fact interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.

Then, yesterday, Coats told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell in an interview, that he made the statement after Helsinki because he felt like he “needed to correct the record” since it was “undeniable that the Russians are taking a lead on this.”  But Coats went bolder, saying “Look, I think anybody who thinks that Vladimir Putin doesn’t have a stamp on everything that happens in Russia is misinformed.  It is very clear that virtually nothing happens there of any kind of consequence that Vladimir Putin doesn’t know about or hasn’t ordered.”

The Neilsen Method (Nothing to see here, I can understand where he’s coming from approach)

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Neilsen has a different strategy.  In a wide-ranging interview about the Department of Homeland Security this week, her approach, when pressed, was to say that she did in fact, agree with the IC’s assessment on Russia, but she also kind of understood where the President was coming from, reiterating President Trump’s message that having engagement with Russia is important and adding that President Trump is continuing to ‘work on’ the relationship with Vladimir Putin.  But she absolutely was clear in this interview that she believes the IC finding on Russian meddling.

The Rosenstein Method (I’m not paying attention to the President, I’m paying attention to my job)

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stepped around the political questions this week (by literally stating up front that he would not take questions) and went straight for the facts.

Rosenstein, taking a page from Trump’s Twitter playbook, said that the Department of Justice will go straight to the American public, companies and organizations when foreign actors are attempting to target U.S. campaigns.

And then he announced the release of a DOJ report detailing the steps that the department is taking against cyber espionage and covert information warfare.  The Department of Justice created a task force in February to look at two questions:  what the U.S. is doing right now to address cyber threats as well as what could be done better.

So just four days after Helsinki, Rosenstein told a national security audience in Aspen, “Today, the Department of Justice is releasing a report that responds to the first question, providing a detailed assessment of the cyber threats confronting America and the Department’s efforts to combat them.”  Of course, Rosenstein’s strategy will only be effective if the U.S. public actually reads the report and understands the depth and breadth of the Russian threat.

It’s important to note though, that all of these comments, statements and announcements came in the days following Helsinki and just as President Trump tasked his National Security Advisor to reach out to the Russian President and extend an invitation to The White House (an invitation that caught DNI Coats off guard).

We know this emotion-driven escalation over Russia is not over.  What we don’t know, is whether the President is OK with his intelligence and law enforcement communities continuing to hammer Russia for their actions, while he plays his own version of the diplomatic card, or whether the President truly wants his government to take a different tone on Russia, so much so, that he may consider firing anyone who doesn’t fall in line.


State Secrets

One Response

  1. Paul Kelly says:

    It’s just IO.

    It appears to me that President Trump had one message for the largely non-English speaking Russian audience consuming Russian state media (“I believe Putin over US intelligence”), and a different message for Americans, English speakers, and others (“I misspoke. US intelligence is correct.”).

    And everyone does it.

    This is consistent with a common information operations tactic, which involves crafting different messages for different audience. Actually, it is conceivable that the intelligence community generated the idea in the first place. If this is true, then the outrage in the IC is likely part of the tactic. While it is somewhat unconventional for heads of state to employ such tactics personally, Trump is a master of the unconventional.

    By way of example, Al Jazeera wordsmiths different messages for it’s non-English speaking Islamic audience versus English speakers every day. Here is a rather old but short and on-point article from Middle East Forum, a conservative US think tank:

    Plus it worked.

    As for strategic audience-specific messages in this matter, the intent was likely to paint both Putin and Trump in a good light for the home audience in Russia. I believe it worked in that regard. Meanwhile, Trump knows that nothing he says to Americans and other English speakers is going to change their opinions on him, his agenda, or his administration. It is reasonable to say that few people have a neutral or malleable opinion of Trump. Thus, he had little or nothing to lose at home by saying he “misspoke.” Those who supported him on Monday still support him today. Those who hated him on Monday obviously still hate him today. Incidentally, there is reason to believe that their behavior is harming their cause; the more disgracefully urban elites behave, the more profound and ardent heartland and rural Americans’ support of Trump grows — if one believes poles.

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