The Trump administration has shifted from one post-impeachment crisis in the Department of Justice to another in the intelligence community. Last week, after Trump named a director of national intelligence without any intelligence experience, reports emerged that House lawmakers had been informed of Russian plans to interfere in the 2020 election to benefit the president. When word of the briefing got back to Trump, he reportedly flip out at former acting DNI Joseph Maguire, fearing that information would be used against him; Maguire was soon out of the role, substituted by loyalist Richard Grenell.
But on Sunday, national security adviser Robert O’Brien flatly denied Russian interference that would benefit the incumbent. “There’s no briefing that I’ve received, that the president has received, that says that president Putin is doing anything to try and influence the elections in favor of President Trump,” O’Brien said on CBS News’ Face the Nation.
The national security adviser did not extend that analysis to the Democratic frontrunner; on Friday, the Washington Post reported that Russia is attempting to interfere on the behalf of Bernie Sanders. “There are these reports that [Russia] wants Bernie Sanders to get elected, but that’s no surprise,” O’Brien said on ABC’s This Week, leading to allegations that he is politicizing intelligence. “He honeymooned in Moscow… I haven’t seen any intel that Russia is doing anything to get Trump reelected.” O’Brien also suggested that the Kremlin would support a Sanders presidency because “he wants to spend money on social programs and probably would have to take it out of the military,” but did not address the bounty of reasons Russia might want a second Trump administration, nor attempt to back-up the report of meddling in favor of Sanders. Another official told CNN on Saturday that Russian interference has “no preference right now … not Bernie, not Trump.”
There was broader push-back from the intelligence community over the weekend too: Three national security officials told CNN that the briefing by election security expert Shelby Pierson to House lawmakers that irked Trump may have been overstated. “A more reasonable interpretation of the intelligence is not that they have a preference, it’s a step short of that,” a senior official said. “It’s more that they understand the president is someone they can work with, he’s a dealmaker.” Considering that Trump does not trust his own intelligence community and has actively worked to undermine it, while blindly accepting Putin’s word on national security matters, stating that the Russian president is aware that he can work with Trump is not exactly an intelligence rout.
Whether or not Moscow has “developed a preference” for either candidate, CNN reports that “one national security official said Russia’s only clear aim, as of now, is to sow discord in the United States.” With the intelligence apparatus scrambling to defend the president, on top of the appointment of Acting DNI Richard Grenell — a loyalist with no intel experience who has reportedly informed a senior adviser to clean house “top to bottom” — the discord campaign appears to be working.