Hot Air

Did OBrien lie in claiming that Russia wants Bernie to become president?

Pay attention to his phrasing at the start, then read on.

He says there are “reports” circulating that the Russians want President Bernie. That’s half-true: There are reports that Russia is trying to help his campaign but they stop short of claiming that they want him to go all the way to the White House. WaPo’s bombshell on Friday afternoon opened this way: “U.S. officials have told Sen. Bernie Sanders that Russia is attempting to help his presidential campaign as part of an effort to interfere with the Democratic contest, according to people familiar with the matter.” They prefer Bernie as the nominee, it seems, but do they prefer him to Trump? The Times wondered:

But some current and former officials expressed doubt that Russian officials think that Mr. Sanders has a hidden affinity for Moscow. Instead, they said that a Russian campaign to support Mr. Sanders might ultimately be aimed at aiding Mr. Trump. Moscow could potentially consider Mr. Sanders a weaker general election opponent for the president than a more moderate Democratic nominee, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Not a crazy theory, particularly since a lot of Trump’s own fans share the view that Bernie would be a weak opponent for him. There’s even been chatter in the early primary states about pro-Trump independents staging an “Operation Chaos” effort to cross over and vote for Sanders in the Democratic contest in order to make things easier for the president this fall. Maybe Russia’s interference on Bernie’s behalf is towards the same end. “Operation Chaos” Kremlin-style.

Or maybe they do want him elected. A socialist America is a weaker America, especially militarily. Sanders might be less likely to intervene in Russia’s spheres of interest than Trump would. And a Bernie-fied government that’s struggling for ways to pay for Medicare for All and limitless student-loan forgiveness will necessarily have much less money available for the Pentagon. There are good reasons for Putin to prefer Sanders to Trump. But there are reasons for him to prefer Trump too. Trump’s always been keen on rapprochement with Russia; it’s an open question how much more aggressively he might pursue that in a second term, once he no longer has to worry about facing voters. Did he give military aid to Ukraine, a country he loathes, because he supports their independence effort — or because he knew it’d weaken the Democrats’ Russia-related attacks on him this fall? Has he stuck with NATO because he’s grudgingly come around to seeing the virtues of a European alliance — or because he thought voters would hold it against him in November if he withdrew? The calculus might change after Election Day.

You can argue it both ways, but it is arguable. A guy who’d stand next to Putin in Helsinki and echo Russia’s talking points about campaign interference over the disagreement of the entire U.S. intel community isn’t a guy who’s obviously worse as president for Russia than even a useful idiot like Bernie.

But I digress. If O’Brien has reason to believe that the Russians really do prefer Sanders in the White House, why didn’t he make that clearer this morning in the Stephanopoulos interview? For that matter, why did he rely on what “reports” say about this instead of saying what he knows about it firsthand from the intelligence? It’s weaselly — and maybe deliberately so:

“There is no preference right now.” If that’s what the intel says, O’Brien must know it and lied this morning. Also, it sounds like the source here is the same official who told Tapper on Friday about that recent briefing to Schiff’s committee in which a deputy in the DNI’s office claimed Russia was trying to get Trump reelected. Not true, the official told Tapper; Russia isn’t opposed to a second term for him but they haven’t committed to helping him. That scoop pleased the president enough that he made a point of highlighting it at a campaign rally afterward. The point is, we can’t assume that Tapper’s source is challenging O’Brien on this due to some bias against Trump. If he were biased, presumably he wouldn’t have tried to correct the record about Russia’s alleged preference for Trump on Friday.

Anyway, why is O’Brien distorting the reports about Bernie and Russian help? Presumably, he’s a political hack:

He doesn’t try to hide it in the Stephanopoulos clip, sliding easily into campaign talking points about Bernie’s Russian honeymoon and Trump rebuilding the military. Between this and the reports that O’Brien is remaking the National Security Council to limit its ability to inform the president (“he sometimes opens [meetings] by distributing printouts of Mr. Trump’s latest tweets on the subject at hand”), you’re left to wonder what quality of information is making its way up to Trump and what quality of information is making its way down to the public. How does the emerging team of loyalists balance its duty to do the public’s business with its mission of getting POTUS reelected? This bit from a story about the administration’s response to coronavirus caught my eye this morning too:

Although the United States has so far effectively contained the virus, some senior administration officials said there have been tensions within the administration over what information the president should receive, his posture toward China and what message to send to the American public. And several officials said there has been too much focus on evacuating Americans overseas — and too little on what to do if the epidemic spreads within the United States, given the continued growth of the virus…

The markets fell as the outbreak grew. On Jan. 31, the same day several airlines suspended flights and the United States announced its escalated response, the Dow Jones industrial average dropped 600 points, or 2 percent. Trump grew concerned that any stronger action by his administration would hurt the economy, and he has told advisers that he does not want the administration to do or say anything that would further spook the markets. He remains worried that any large-scale outbreak could hurt his reelection bid.

The idea that certain unhappy but important subjects shouldn’t be broached with the president isn’t new. Last year there were stories about Kirstjen Nielsen, then the head of DHS, worrying about the very thing that O’Brien was asked about today, potential Russian interference in the 2020 election. Nielsen wanted a cabinet meeting to coordinate strategy to counter it but was warned that the president wouldn’t like it: “Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, made it clear that Mr. Trump still equated any public discussion of malign Russian election activity with questions about the legitimacy of his victory. According to one senior administration official, Mr. Mulvaney said it ‘wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level.’” She eventually gave up on the meeting. Now here we are.

But it’s pointless to complain about this in an era defined by garbage intelligence with far more momentous consequences than this, from WMDs in Iraq to the Steele dossier. We have a chronic problem with bad information making its way up to presidents and out into the public. The wrinkle this time is that that problem will play out within an administration that’s placed a new emphasis among hires on personal loyalty to Trump, which logically means fewer people who are willing to tell him what he doesn’t want — but needs — to hear and possibly more people willing to tell the public things that aren’t quite true in the interest of helping him win. That’s what O’Brien’s shtick today sounds like.

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