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Analysis: Who does the president trust?
An intelligence scandal. Coronavirus. Calls to foreign leaders. Racially incendiary rhetoric.
These are the four brewing crises that the White House faces this morning. Each can be boiled down to one looming question: who does the president trust?
As chronicled in several books and countless news articles throughout his presidency, aides inside the West Wing have sparred over how Trump receives information since he first took office. These battles are now reverberating throughout the international stage, with major consequences for the future of the Trump presidency. Here are the four main pressure points:
1) The president rejects, or ignores, the conclusions of his intelligence experts. President Trump has clashed with the intelligence community since the transition, when he publicly expressed doubt about their conclusion that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. His acceptance of information from intelligence experts has now become the main question coursing through the biggest story in Washington.
The New York Times reported Monday that intelligence officials provided a written briefing to the president in late February “laying out their conclusion that a Russian military intelligence unit offered and paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.” According to the Associated Press, that conclusion appeared in the President’s Daily Brief in early 2019 as well, and former national security John Bolton has “told colleagues he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019.”
These reports would undercut the White House’s insistence that President Trump was never briefed about the intelligence because of “dissenting opinions within the intelligence community,” as press secretary Kayleigh McEnany claimed on Monday.
However, the White House may be attempting to make a semantic difference, separating the president’s written briefings from oral ones, especially if he did was given but did not read one of the former. As the Washington Post reported earlier this year, Trump “routinely skips reading the PDB,” the briefing book which reportedly included the intelligence assessment about the bounties at least twice.
Trump is now facing fierce criticism from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill about why he was unaware — by his own account — of the intelligence conclusion about Russia placing bounties on U.S. soldiers. Much of the explanation may involve his aversion to reading the briefings provided to him by the intelligence communities, which has been a theme since the outset of his presidency.
2) The president is similarly skeptical of his public health advisers. Trump’s problems with the coronavirus pandemic, which continue to haunt his presidency as about 40,000 new cases are confirmed in the U.S. each day, can also be traced back to his relationship with experts within his administration.
Throughout the pandemic, Trump has ignored warnings from the doctors on his coronavirus task force, pushing to reopen the country, promoting an unproven drug, and holding a campaign rally against their advice.
Even as the outbreak worsens in the South and West, the White House continues to send mixed signals: as Politico reports, President Trump is continuing to cling to a “mission-accomplished message,” but Vice President Mike Pence and others are now distancing themselves from that victorious tone. Trump and Pence are even divided on the question of masks, as the president refuses to don one publicly but the vice president and other task force members urge Americans to wear them.
The president’s late response to the virus can even be pinned on the same source as his professed ignorance of the Russian bounties: the PDB, which reportedly cited the threat of the coronavirus repeatedly even as Trump played it down.
3) The president has an affinity for autocratic leaders. At the same time that he has questioned officials within his intelligence community, Trump has often accepted the accounts of foreign adversaries in international disputes.
This pattern has included well-documented rapports with heads of state like Vladmir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, and Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
It has re-entered the news cycle because of a bombshell report by CNN on Monday, which detailed “hundreds of highly classified phone calls with foreign heads of state” in which President Trump was “consistently unprepared for discussion of serious issues” and “outplayed” by leaders such as Putin and Erdogan.
According to the report, Trump’s “fawning over authoritarian strongmen,” led senior officials (including his national security adviser, chief of staff, and Cabinet secretaries) to conclude that the president was “delusional” and “posed a danger to the national security of the United States.”
Additionally, while he had congenial calls with adversaries, Trump was reportedly “abusive” to top allies, as he “bullied and disparaged” leaders such as Emmanuel Macron of France, Justin Trudeau of Canada, Angela Merkel of Germany, and Theresa May of the United Kingdom.
As CNN notes, “these officials' concerns about the calls, and particularly Trump's deference to Putin, take on new resonance with reports the President may have learned in March that Russia had offered the Taliban bounties to kill US troops in Afghanistan — and yet took no action.”
4) The president has declined to distance himself from racists. The final crisis facing the White House this morning involves another dynamic that has followed the president since the 2016 campaign: his refusal to disassociate with allies who have espoused racist views.
This dynamic has returned to the headlines this week as President Trump has made a pair of eyebrow-raising retweets: one of a video that included a supporter shouting “white power” on Sunday, and another of a white couple confronting protesters with firearms on Monday.
According to NBC, the “white power” retweet set off a “five-alarm fire” within the White House, as aides tried (and failed) to reach the president on the golf course to urge him to take it down. Three hours later, officials were able to reach the president and he agreed to delete the retweet, although Trump and his spokespeople have yet to condemn the sentiment expressed in the video.
The president has repeatedly stoked racial tension in the country, even throughout the unrest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, as he has continued to amplify controversial videos of the protests and incendiary rhetoric about Confederate statues, much of it stemming from conservative media sources that he has been known to consume.
Taken together, these four crises reveal a president who accepts information from autocratic leaders and racially divisive figures but ignores warnings from intelligence experts and top doctors. These realities have dogged Trump presidency since the beginning of his political life but are coming into focus now due to their resonance to the growing threats he faces.
According to Axios, “widespread panic and pessimism have set in” at the White House as President Trump’s re-election prospects have suffered while he continues “committing egregious self-defeating acts.”
Meanwhile, “Trump’s allies — even some in his own administration — are distancing themselves from his policies,” the Associated Press reports, chronicling a growing number of congressional Republicans rebuking him.
And if it is one (or more) of these crises that dooms Trump on Election Day just over four months from now, it may well have been the president’s decisions surrounding who he chose to trust — and who he chose to spurn — that sealed his fate.
Supreme Court strikes down restrictive abortion law: “The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Louisiana law that could have left the state with a single abortion clinic, dashing the hopes of conservatives who were counting on President Trump’s appointments to lead the court to sustain restrictions on abortion rights and, eventually, to overrule Roe v. Wade.”
“Instead, conservatives suffered a setback, and from an unlikely source. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. added his crucial fifth vote to those of the court’s four-member liberal wing, saying that respect for precedent compelled him to do so, even though he had voted to uphold an essentially identical Texas law in a 2016 dissent.”
“In the past two weeks, the chief justice has voted with the court’s liberal wing in three major cases: on job discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers, on a program protecting young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers and now on abortion. While he has on occasion disappointed his usual conservative allies, notably on the Affordable Care Act and adding a citizenship question to the census, nothing in his 15-year tenure on the court compares to the recent run of liberal votes in major cases.” (New York Times)
Colorado, Utah, and Oklahoma to hold primaries: “Former Gov. John Hickenlooper, whom Democrats recruited into the race after he abandoned a poorly performing presidential campaign, is trying to fend off challenger Andrew Romanoff from his left and secure the nomination to face GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, one of the two most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection this year.”
. . . “Elsewhere on Tuesday, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is locked in a tight race in his comeback bid, going down to the wire in the GOP primary against Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.”
. . . “Oklahoma’s 5th District is arguably House Republicans’ best pickup opportunity in the country, but the state’s primary calendar offers Democrats a big reason for optimism. . . A massive field of nine Republicans are vying for the top two slots in this Oklahoma City-based seat, which now-Democratic Rep. Kendra Horn won by fewer than 3,500 votes in 2018’s biggest House upset.” (Politico)
States reverse coronavirus reopenings: “Governors in Washington, California, Florida and Texas are walking back some of their reopening plans as coronavirus cases rise in more than 30 states across the U.S., according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.”
“As of Sunday, new Covid-19 cases jumped by at least 5% over the previous week in 37 states across the country, based on a seven-day moving average, according to the Johns Hopkins data. Those states include California, Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Nevada.”
“The number of new daily Covid-19 cases across the nation jumped 42% over the past week to an average of about 38,200 on Sunday, based on a seven-day moving average.” (CNBC)
*All times Eastern
President Donald Trump will receive his intelligence briefing at 3:30 p.m.
The Senate will convene at 10 a.m. and resume consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, the $740 billion defense policy bill. The chamber will recess from 12:30 p.m. to 2:15 p.m. for weekly caucus meetings.
The House will convene at 9 a.m. and begin consideration of the Moving Forward Act, a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package with significant investments in clean energy.
The Supreme Court will release opinions at 10 a.m.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden will deliver remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, at 1 p.m. and attend a virtual fundraiser in the evening.
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