The Russian bounty story crystallizes questions about Trump’s presidency

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Unlike most intelligence, its existence was made public by the New York Times. Further reporting from The Washington Post, the Times and the Associated Press, among others, built out our understanding of what happened and when — and, crucially, who in President Trump’s administration was aware of what was alleged.

The murkiness of the available information, still mostly shrouded by the government apparatus intended to keep it secret, makes it hard to determine how much credence the allegations should have been given. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Monday insisted that the intelligence wouldn’t be brought to Trump until it was verified, a claim that runs contrary to both common sense (given the outsized risks that ignoring an unverified threat might pose) and reports suggesting that it in fact had been brought to the president’s attention.

Multiple outlets have reported that information about the bounty program was included in at least one of the president’s daily briefings at the end of February; the Associated Press has reported that it was included as early as last year and that then-National Security Adviser John Bolton briefed Trump on it directly. (Bolton declined to comment.)

This confluence of elements and the timeline of events with which it overlaps encompass a surprising number of questions that have become central to attempts to understand Trump’s presidency. The bounty program was clearly troublesome enough that some official presumably within the government brought it to the attention of the media, yet there’s no indication that Trump’s notoriously friendly position toward Russia changed after learning about it. Why not?

Was it a function of Trump’s approach to intelligence?

Again, it’s unclear if Trump was verbally briefed on it. A report from the Wall Street Journal published on Tuesday indicates that there was no direct briefing of Trump due to a conflict within the intelligence community about the validity of the report. That alone might explain the lack of response.

That said, it’s also well established by now that Trump’s interest in formal briefings is limited, to put it gently. Since the early days of his administration, as documented by The Post’s Aaron Blake, officials who’ve worked with Trump have described his unorthodox manner of assimilating information. Lengthy written documents are unsuccessful conduits, with Trump reportedly preferring bullet-pointed summaries of information loaded with maps and images. He’s been reported to put the opinions of casual acquaintances and conservative media figures on par with experts from within the government itself, muddying efforts to point him toward accurate analysis.

There’s another reason it might not have been prominent in the information given to Trump. The Daily Beast spoke with a former administration official who conveyed concern that the president might not be trusted to handle it appropriately.

“He also shows little respect for classified information and might tweet about it — which would counter to efforts to handle the issue out of the public eye,” the official said.

This idea is bolstered by past incidents in which Trump has done precisely that. Last year, he tweeted an image of an Iranian rocket launch site taken from an apparent spy satellite. In 2017, he appeared to confirm a covert CIA program in another tweet. And then there was his infamous sharing of classified information with Russia’s foreign minister during an Oval Office meeting a few months after his inauguration.

In other words, it’s more than possible that either Trump was briefed on the issue and it failed to stick or that it in fact wasn’t incorporated into the limited briefing periods for which he makes himself available.

It’s still certainly possible that the intelligence wasn’t robust enough to warrant a response. Given what we know about Trump’s approach to the intelligence-sharing and his administration’s casual interest in offering accurate information, though, it’s hard to simply give Trump the benefit of the doubt that this is the case.

Was it a function of Trump’s approach to foreign policy?

Overlapping with new developments in the Russia bounty story was a massive new CNN report from veteran journalist Carl Bernstein. Bernstein spent months talking to people familiar with Trump’s interactions with foreign leaders, building out a portrait of a president whose approach to foreign policy is predicated on personal interest and impulse.

Sources with whom Bernstein spoke “said there was little evidence that the President became more skillful or competent in his telephone conversations with most heads of state over time,” he reports. “Rather, he continued to believe that he could either charm, jawbone or bully almost any foreign leader into capitulating to his will, and often pursued goals more attuned to his own agenda than what many of his senior advisers considered the national interest.”

At another point, Bernstein reinforces the points above about Trump’s lack of confidence in intelligence experts.

“Almost never, according to CNN’s sources, would Trump read the briefing materials prepared for him by the CIA and [National Security Council] staff in advance of his calls with heads of state,” Bernstein writes. He describes the aftermath of an early call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which Trump cuts off criticism being offered by an NSC expert in favor of hearing praise from his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner.

To some extent, this is all a reflection of Trump’s repeated conflation of the nation and himself. He has repeatedly presented his mantra as a politician as “America first,” but in practice, as in Bernstein’s reporting, his intuition and efforts have been focused heavily on things like self-protection. His vision of what America should be obviously differs from past presidents, but in ways that are less likely to reflect his party than his personal piques.

One implication is that the issue of the Russian bounties is simply not something about which Trump cares that much, being presented by those same intelligence officials he’s so often ignored and not overlapping significantly with the things to which he’s paying attention.

But it’s also possible that Trump’s response to the reports about Russia’s activity was colored by another motivation that has powered his presidency: curtailing the conflict in Afghanistan.

CBS News’ Weijia Jiang noted that the day after Trump’s daily intelligence briefing reportedly included an update on the Russia allegations, he announced a tentative peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Russia’s activity didn’t exist in a vacuum absent other considerations in the region, of course, and the American effort to end the conflict in Afghanistan might have moderated a potential response from the White House.

This effort was long-standing. In September, Trump had planned to welcome Taliban leaders to Camp David to hammer out an agreement — a plan that was scrapped after an attack that killed an American soldier.

According to the Daily Beast report, the conflict itself was the thrust of Trump’s response to the Times report about the bounties, as well. “Why are we still there?” he reportedly asked advisers after the Times reintroduced the complex topic.

Was it a function of Trump’s approach to Russia?

If Bolton indeed briefed Trump on the subject in March 2019, consider the broader context of the moment: That same month, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was handing over the results of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential overlap with Trump’s campaign. (The investigation found that the Trump campaign welcomed Russia’s efforts, but it didn’t find enough evidence to bring criminal charges centered on a conspiracy between the two groups.)

Trump’s relationship with Russia has been a source of political tension since before he took office. That interference effort, reported during the transition in 2016 and 2017, became an obsession for Trump, coloring his views of the intelligence community (which first uncovered it) and how he looked at nearly every other facet of his new job.

Of course, the reports about Russia’s attempts to aid his election were also informed by Trump’s own unusual embrace of Russia and Putin. During the campaign, he repeatedly implied that he had a personal relationship with the autocrat, only backing away from the claim after it became politically problematic. His personal attorney was working on a potential real estate deal in Moscow early in 2016, and Trump publicly exhorted Russia to uncover emails deleted by his opponent in the election, Hillary Clinton, that July.

Since taking office, Trump’s solicitousness toward Putin and Russia has consistently been a source of bemusement for observers.

“In numerous calls with Putin that were described to CNN,” Bernstein writes of this relationship, “Trump left top national security aides and his chiefs of staff flabbergasted, less because of specific concessions he made than because of his manner — inordinately solicitous of Putin’s admiration and seemingly seeking his approval — while usually ignoring substantive policy expertise and important matters on the standing bilateral agenda, including human rights; and an arms control agreement, which never got dealt with in a way that advanced shared Russian and American goals that both Putin and Trump professed to favor.”

Trump’s formal position has long been that he seeks to build a stronger relationship with Russia, often again conflating his own interests with those of the nation. At a news conference before his summit with Putin in Helsinki two years ago, he explicitly referred to his relationship with Putin as a proxy for the country’s.

“He’s a competitor. He’s been very nice to me the times I’ve met him. I’ve been nice to him. He’s a competitor,” Trump said of Putin. “Somebody was saying, is he an enemy? He’s not my enemy. Is he a friend? No, I don’t know him well enough. But the couple of times I’ve gotten to meet him, we get along very well.”

Bernstein’s reporting suggests that Putin is very aware of how Trump puts more significance on his personal interactions with the leader than on the geopolitical relationship of the leaders’ two countries.

Given that, the bounty story gets a new bit of color. A president interested in building a personal relationship with Putin might be inclined to let something like targeting of American troops slide, just as Trump let Saudi Arabia’s crown prince slide following the murder of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of top allies of the prince. Again, Trump’s demonstrated history makes it hard to give him the benefit of the doubt on these complicated questions.

And that, in a nutshell, is the frustration with Trump’s presidency. It’s hard to take assertions from him or his staff at face value and impossible to accept their collective denials of reports about his activities. His sharply unusual approach to America’s historic enemies and to his role contributes intentionally and unintentionally to this broader befuddlement. Trump then leverages this uncertainty both to present as innocuous a face as possible to his supporters and to portray the media as overreaching.

Maybe the Russian bounty story is just an intelligence blip that under past presidents wouldn’t have warranted much attention either. Or perhaps it’s a demonstrated failure driven by Trump’s approach to Russia specifically and foreign policy broadly. Over time, we’ll get a better sense of where on that spectrum the story lies. But until then, the vagueness sitting over top of what we know seems distinctly driven by how Trump acts as president.

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