Team Trump Admits Its ‘Russiagate’ Head Fake Has Been a Flop

Asawin Suebsaeng, Spencer Ackerman
·9 min read
Alex Wong/Getty
Alex Wong/Getty

With coronavirus running through his body in competition with a heavy steroidal dose, President Trump is frustrated that a country where over 210,000 people have died from the virus seems uninterested in the “hoax” of Russiagate.

Trump spent part of his week demanding the latest version of his Russia counter-narrative—that the intelligence officials teamed up with Democrats to invent Russian collusion in 2016—be used to prosecute his political enemies. “I say, ‘Bill [Barr], we have plenty [of evidence], we don’t need any more,” Trump told Maria Bartiromo on Thursday. On Friday, he fumed to Rush Limbaugh that Republicans are “afraid they’re going to influence the election… they don’t play the tough game.”

Providing that “evidence” to Attorney General William Barr’s special prosecutor is loyalist Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe. Intelligence veterans are seething as Ratcliffe helps Trump concoct a narrative to aid him in an election. “Everyone knows the deal here,” said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA officer. “They know Ratcliffe is irresponsible. It’s just everything goes.”

Yet Trump and his aides, in recent weeks, have recognized that the public isn’t captivated by the Breitbart-friendly accounts of uncovered notes from former CIA officials four years ago, according to two sources familiar with the private complaints.

“Mainstream media isn’t covering it. So most voters aren’t aware of the facts,” John McLaughlin, a top Trump pollster, told The Daily Beast. “You’re [the] first reporter who’s ever asked me and it has yet to be a question in the debates.”

Other political advisers don’t even think it’s worth the bother at this point. Some senior Trump aides have privately insisted that amplifying the inquiry from special prosecutor John Durham is a waste of time, at least electorally. “It is not going to move any votes that aren’t already in our column,” one said.

“The media has worked hard to keep voters in the dark about Joe Biden colluding with Hillary Clinton to spread the Russia collusion hoax and undermining the peaceful transition of power in 2017,” Matt Wolking, the Trump campaign’s deputy communications director, said in response to a request for comment Friday.

One person who has repeatedly talked to Trump about Durham’s probe and the president’s desire to imprison many of his political enemies recounted how Trump has lamented how more people aren’t defecting from the Democratic Party for what is supposedly the “biggest scandal” in recent U.S. political history. The president also blames media outlets—including Fox—for not covering Durham-related developments as aggressively as he’d like. They’re “cover[ing] it up” for the voters and American public, Trump has said.

Another source with knowledge of the president’s griping on the matter said that there was at least one instance in the past two months when President Trump had flipped through cable-news channels looking for coverage of the probe one day, only to voice his irritation when he couldn’t find any.

Trump is leaning heavily on Barr, through Durham, to produce the electoral deus ex machina of indictments. “Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes, the greatest political crime in the history of our country, then we’re going to get little satisfaction, unless I win,” he told Bartiromo.

Trump may not be satisfied. Multiple outlets have reported that Durham is unlikely to either indict anyone before the election or release a public report. Durham’s probe already confronts deep skepticism, particularly after a key aide resigned in protest of Barr’s pressure on it. The unlikelihood of Durham delivering has now strained Trump’s relationship with his attorney general, according to the AP.

That’s a reflection of the importance Trump’s desired narrative provides for his supporters—in defeat as well as in victory. It portrays them as hobbled from the start by a disloyal security establishment bent on persecution. That doesn’t necessarily require prosecutions. But it does require public disclosures of intelligence fitting that narrative. Those stakes have been on display this week, as MAGA turned on Trump’s CIA director and championed Ratcliffe.

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It’s a proxy fight with implications for the future of U.S. intelligence. Trump’s approach to intelligence was on display during Rudy Giuliani’s dirt-hunts in Ukraine, and even earlier, in 2011, when he claimed to have “investigators” in Hawaii searching for Barack Obama’s birth certificate: to gather information useful against his domestic enemies. That’s been embraced by Trump’s allies—especially Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House intelligence community—while frustrating Democrats and alarming intelligence veterans, both of whom hope for a return to the status quo ante. Some wonder if this style of intelligence weaponization will endure on the right, beyond Trump’s presidency.

“That’s just everything now—the Post Office as a domestic political weapon, the census is being used as one,” said a former senior intelligence official. “The right wing has come around to the view that it is legitimate to use every aspect of government as leverage to preserve their own political power and destroy their enemies. That’s the reality of where we are. There’s no rational view of the proper job of intelligence agencies that says it’s to protect the president.”

Intelligence veterans are quick to point to the very long history of politicized intelligence, from the Bay of Pigs to Iran-Contra to Iraq. They also observe that previous politicization was typically tied to a foreign target, rather than a domestic political fight, something that highlights the blatancy of Ratcliffe and Trump’s efforts. “There was a set of rules both sides played by, even if they politicized their analysis like [Bush-era Undersecretary of Defense] Doug Feith did to support a desired policy,” Mowatt-Larsen said. “The aberration here is that it's being used purely to support the president in an election context. That’s an unacceptable politicization.”

Hours before the vice presidential debate, Ratcliffe announced he gave Durham almost 1,000 pages of documents. Ratcliffe, in a statement, pledged to “continue to ensure the Intelligence Community’s responsiveness to the DOJ’s requests.” The week before, Ratcliffe released summaries of intercepted 2016-era Russian intelligence analysis fitting Trump’s desired narrative, despite conceding it “may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.” He subsequently insisted, after an uproar, that he wasn’t laundering Russian disinformation.

“You’re just declassifying things that are essentially raw intelligence with no context, with no reason to do it,” said a former top Trump-era senior intelligence official. “Except the timing that makes it feel as though it is designed to serve one of the candidates.”

Former CIA Director John Brennan, whose notes are among Ratcliffe’s disclosures and provisions, excoriated Ratcliffe for politicizing intelligence. “It is appalling his selective declassification of information. It is designed to advance the political interests of Donald Trump and Republicans who are aligned with him,” Brennan told CNN. CIA allies are quick to point out that none of the multiple inquiries into Russian election interference have substantiated Trump’s narrative of Clinton’s campaign inventing a hoax of Russia collusion. Instead, they’ve validated the 2017 intelligence assessment that Russia intervened on Trump’s behalf.

Now the CIA director Trump appointed has come under the sustained ire of MAGA.

Two key Trump allies in the Senate, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Ron Johnson (R-WI), excoriated CIA Director Gina Haspel on Wednesday for allegedly obstructing document production in their own probe of the FBI’s Trump-Russia inquiries. “This cannot continue–the American public has a right to know about the rampant mistakes and biased decisions that occurred during the Obama administration that undermined a peaceful transition of power,” they wrote.

It threw into relief MAGA’s increasing dissatisfaction with Haspel, the torture veteran and CIA institutionalist whom Trump placed at Langley. Haspel faces internal dissatisfaction for, reportedly, muzzling the CIA’s Russia analysts on Trump’s behalf. (“She calls analysts liars all the time,” an ex-official told Politico.) Additional pressure on Haspel has come from Nunes, who recently said he hoped Haspel would support “the maximum release of documentation.” This week, the MAGA publication The Federalist, citing intelligence sources, accused Haspel “personally” of obstructing the release of “key Russiagate documents” so Trump will lose re-election.

Trump has set the tone for it. “You have a Deep State, you have a group of people that don’t want to have documents shown, which tells you a bad thing. But you have to give them, and we’re getting them, ultimately,” Trump told Bartiromo. He praised Ratcliffe as “terrific.” He didn’t mention Haspel.

Both ODNI and the CIA declined to answer Daily Beast questions about whether Haspel disagreed with any of Ratcliffe’s document provisions to Durham. The New York Times reported Friday that she opposed Ratcliffe’s earlier declassifications. Asked about Grassley and Johnson’s accusation, CIA spokesperson Nicole de Haay said, “We’ve received the letter, and of course, we intend on responding as quickly as possible.”

Two former intelligence officials said Haspel, a CIA lifer, had little choice but to protect the agency’s interests against Trump. One suggested that declassification risked exposing agency sources. “Aside from selective declassification, which is clearly going on here, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s reached the stage where people at the agency say to Haspel, ‘You do this and you’ll blow our sources,’ and that’s where Gina will be forced into taking a stand,” the ex-official said.

That former official thought the domestic weaponization of intelligence wasn’t necessarily a permanent feature of elite American politics. But the official said it depended on Republican moneymen repudiating Trump and compelling the party to abandon his mode of politics. That’s something that they haven’t done in four years–and something capital, historically, never does against nationalisms.

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“Is the result of this election definitive enough that the Republican Party decides we’re going to change our approach, or are they locked in?” the ex-official said. “It’s all going to come down to the plutocrats that fund the Republican Party.”

Mowatt-Larssen, author of the memoir A State of Mind: Faith and The CIA, agreed there was nothing inevitable about permanent domestic politicization of intelligence. But he said the intelligence agencies needed to “purge” themselves of habits of acquiescence to political figures.

“The first thing you need to do is restore your reputation and purgeI use that word deliberatelyall the ways you’ve been intimidated, cajoled and persuaded to join a political enterprise. The intelligence agencies have to recognize there is now a problem with their truth-seeking character, objectivity, independence and nonpolitical role now being in question,” he said. “What’s clear is there’s been a trend toward politicization that has gotten really bad, and the intelligence community is aware they’re under assault.”

Trump is confident that a nation mired in a pandemic and corresponding economic disaster cares about relitigating the Russia investigations. “The American people are totally aware of this,” he assured Limbaugh.

—with additional reporting by Erin Banco

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