Former FBI Director James Comey testified last week that President Donald Trump seemed exclusively concerned with Russia's election meddling as it related to him personally, rather than its impact on national security.
- Trump's focus on how the FBI's Russia investigation is affecting him politically, and his lack of interest in holding Moscow accountable, fits a pattern dating back to at least January.
- Experts say Trump's unwillingness to better understand whom Russia is hacking and how it is weaponizing information to influence voters increases the probability that Moscow will continue to meddle in future local and national elections.
Former FBI Director James Comey, in a little-noticed moment during his Senate Intelligence Committee testimony last week, said President Donald Trump never once asked him about Russia's interference in the US election as it related to national security in their nine conversations before he fired Comey in early May.
"Did the president, in any of those interactions that you've shared with us today, ask you what you should be doing, or what our government should be doing, or the intelligence community, to protect America against Russian interference in our election system?" Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich asked Comey.
"I don't recall a conversation like that," Comey said.
Heinrich pressed: "Never?"
"No," Comey said. "Not with President Trump. I attended a fair number of meetings on that with President Obama."
Comey later said he didn't recall ever having a conversation with Trump that suggested the president was taking the Russia threat seriously.
"I don't remember any conversations with him at all about that," Comey said.
Did Trump ever ask "what our government should be doing…to protect America against Russian interference?"
— Justin Miller (@justinjm1) June 10, 2017
'Russia says nothing exists'
Ned Price, a former CIA officer and top National Security Council official under Obama, said Trump's "exclusive focus on his own reputation and the well-being of his allies, including Mike Flynn, fits a pattern."
"This is a president who puts himself, not America, first," Price said Monday. "Whether it's his financial conflicts of interest or foreign policy contoured to his — not our — economic interests, Trump has continued to operate as if he were CEO of a private, family-owned corporation."
Comey's testimony suggested Trump seemed concerned only with how the FBI's investigation into Russia's election interference affected him personally, rather than what the investigation was uncovering about Moscow's disinformation and hacking campaigns throughout 2016 and whether it was poised to do it again. It aligns with Trump's reaction after an initial briefing in January from top intelligence officials about Russian meddling.
Days before the briefing, the US intelligence community published an unclassified report concluding that Russia had interfered in the election to try to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Trump win. Obama and Trump, then the president-elect, were briefed on the classified version of that report, along with another unverified document: the dossier containing explosive and at times salacious claims about Trump's ties to Russia.
But Trump's initial approach to the burgeoning controversy centered on blasting reporting on the dossier as "fake news" and refusing to accept Russia's role in the election meddling.
"Totally made up facts by sleazebag political operatives, both Democrats and Republicans, FAKE NEWS!" Trump tweeted on January 13, apparently referring to the dossier. "Russia says nothing exists."
He also attacked US intelligence officials for "allowing" the dossier to leak to the press, implying they were politically motivated, and compared them to Nazis.
"Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to 'leak' into the public," Trump tweeted on January 11. "One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?"
Trump also did not broach the topic of Russian aggression in closed-door meetings with world leaders at the headquarters of NATO, the defense organization founded in 1949 as Europe's answer to the Soviet Union that continues to serve as a counterweight to Russia's ambitions in eastern Europe.
The White House has also reportedly twice looked into lifting the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration in 2014 and late 2016 — over Russia's annexation of Crimea and election-related meddling, respectively — since Trump took office.
"The war is in the shadows. And, right now, Russia is winning," Molly McKew, an expert on information warfare, wrote on Sunday. "There is only one question that we should be asking: What are we going to do to protect the American people from Russian acts of war — and why doesn't the president want to talk about it?"
Ian Bremmer, the president of the political-risk firm Eurasia Group, has a theory: It's bad for Trump's brand.
"The question of Trump's orientation towards Russia remains the single most challenging unanswered question for the president," Bremmer said. "You can understand why he might not be interested in getting to the bottom of hacks that could potentially undermine the validity/legitimacy of his election. That's not very presidential, but it's rational behavior from somebody who's into promoting his own brand."
Still, that alone doesn't explain why Trump "continually appears to go out of his way to support Russia, in a way that seems unique compared to literally every other country," Bremmer said. "His personal behavior around Russia raises questions that aren't sufficiently answered just by the connections of several of his former advisers with the Kremlin."
Comey's testimony 'is, in the end, a sideshow'
Those who have defended Trump, like former CIA Director James Woolsey, say the president simply had nothing further to ask Comey about the Russian hacking campaign. But Trump's critics say his apparent lack of interest in learning more about what Russia did, and how it could be prevented in the future, stems from hubris, guilt, or both.
"In the nine times Trump met with or called Comey, it was always to discuss how the investigation into Russia's election interference was affecting him personally, rather than the security of the country," Asha Rangappa, an associate dean at Yale Law School and former FBI special agent, wrote last week.
"He apparently cared little about understanding either the magnitude of the Russian intelligence threat, or how the FBI might be able to prevent another attack in future elections," she said. "Regardless of which storyline you believe about Comey's testimony, it is, in the end, a sideshow. The real issue is Russia's assault on our democracy and how we respond to it."
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Comey testified last week that he became aware in the summer of 2015 of Russia-connected cyber intrusions, which he described as "a massive effort" to target both government and nongovernmental agencies.
"What would be the estimate of how many entities out there the Russians specifically targeted in that time frame?" Republican Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked Comey.
"It's hundreds," Comey replied. "I suppose it could be more than 1,000, but it's at least hundreds."
Russia's use of so-called active measures — including propaganda, fake news, and social media trolls — to attempt to influence Americans and turn them against the institutions that Moscow reviles are not limited to Democratic organizations like the Democratic National Committee.
Politico reported Monday that Russian state actors were trying to infiltrate the social media feeds of current and former US military personnel for intelligence-gathering and influence-campaign purposes, most likely in an attempt to weaken service members' resolve "to counter future Russian military aggression elsewhere."
"There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever," Comey said last week. "The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. It was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government. … This is about America, not about a particular party."
Price said Trump's "lack of leadership on the issue of Russia's meddling could well have profound consequences for our country," including continued interference from a hostile power that has seen little or no consequences for a targeted hacking and disinformation campaign that was undoubtedly successful.
Trump "seems content to leave America vulnerable to Moscow's aggression going forward," Price said. "And without principled, focused leadership, such meddling will be a certainty."