President Trump’s bungled effort to warm up to Russian President Vladimir Putin has driven a wedge between him and his own administration as it seeks to crack down on Moscow’s hostile activities.
Rank-and-file intelligence and national security officials feel demoralized by the president’s failure to publicly call out Putin for interfering in the 2016 election, according to sources inside and outside the federal government.
“It’s just another day in paradise,” said one former White House official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Russia narratives have been a daily ordeal for two years. Nobody knows what the president will do or say and nobody knows what they don’t know.”
One U.S. official who formerly worked as an intelligence analyst said the general attitude within government is that “it does damage to our reputation globally” when Trump refuses to acknowledge the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 contest.
But the official said there is “strong faith that our intel folks will continue to do their job, regardless of the undermining.”
The dizzying and often contradictory array of statements from the president and White House have also posed a dilemma for handpicked aides and advisers who are hawkish on Russia: remain on board or resign.
On Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray declined to shoot down reports he has considered stepping down.
“I’m a low-key, understated guy. But that should not be mistaken for what my spine is made out of,” Wray said when asked at the Aspen Security Forum if he has threatened to resign.
Top national security officials, including Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, have publicly backed the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment on Russia’s involvement in the election since Trump cast doubt on it in Helsinki.
“I was just doing my job,” Coats said Thursday in Aspen. “I believed I needed to correct the record … I wish he had made a different statement but I think that, now, has been clarified.”
There have been no resignations in response to Trump’s Russia meeting and people close to the administration predicted officials would rather air their concerns privately with the president than quit in protest.
Two high-ranking members of the Trump administration, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, reportedly urged the president to clean up the explosive comments he made at his press conference with Putin.
“They’re not bashful about expressing their views or sticking up for their agencies in private, but in public, they are smart to be careful about being consistent and being respectful of the commander in chief,” said Andy Keiser, a former Trump transition official who was also once a senior staffer on the House Intelligence Committee.
Keiser added that many top Trump advisers “feel like they are not doing their jobs if they do not communicate those views to the president privately.”
Many members of Trump’s team have long held different views on Russia than the president, but this week’s summit meeting with Putin deepened the divide and thrust it into the spotlight.
The controversy stretched into a third day, when the White House on Thursday was forced to clarify it rejects Putin’s proposal to allow Russia to interrogate Americans, including former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a written statement that Trump “disagrees” with the plan, even though the president called it an “incredible offer” while standing on stage beside the Russian leader in Helsinki.
That clean-up effort came one day after Trump said he does not believe Russia is still targeting the U.S., a comment Sanders later denied he made.
Trump on Tuesday claimed he misspoke when he said in Helsinki that he does not see “any reason why it would be” Russia that was responsible for election meddling, telling reporters he meant to say, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.”
The shifting remarks put an embattled communications team in a difficult spot, sending them scrambling to do damage control amid backlash from lawmakers and U.S. allies.
Sanders on Wednesday refused to rule out whether Trump would allow the Kremlin to interview Americans accused of unspecified crimes by Russia, just before State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert dismissed the idea as “absurd.”
Pompeo also rejected the idea out of hand, saying in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, “that’s not going to happen.”
Even Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who has previously been outspoken about Russian election interference, struggled to explain the administration’s position.
Speaking in Aspen, Nielsen backed up the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference, but would not at first definitively endorse the conclusion that Russia worked to help Trump win.
Later, she clarified that she agrees “full stop” with the assessment.
“Trump’s communicators have an impossible job. They’re trying to explain inconsistencies that defy any explanation,” said Alex Conant, former communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) presidential campaign. “To be an effective communicator you have to know what your boss thinks. It’s not clear what Trump thinks about Russia.”
The president made his staff’s job even tougher by deciding to meet one-on-one with Putin without advisers or transcribers present.
That means spokespeople and top officials have had to rely on the president’s own account of the meeting to describe what happened. Meanwhile, Russian officials have spoken about several agreements that were purportedly made during the meeting.
Certain key advisers appear to have been cut out of the loop.
On Wednesday, NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell broke the news to Coats that the president had invited Putin to the White House in the fall.
“Did I hear you right?” Coats said. “Okay, that’s going to be special.”
Even the president’s supporters admit that his summit with Putin in Helsinki was a missed opportunity to focus on his administration’s efforts to punish Moscow for its interventions in Ukraine and Syria and its efforts to meddle in U.S. political affairs.
“He could have avoided all of this if he said literally one and a half sentences in Helsinki,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “But he didn’t do that.”
“Look, he has got to stick to one thing, and that is, ‘I have been tougher on Russia than Obama and Bush,’” O’Connell said.