Letters From an American

So Much Spin: How May Plates Can Trump Keep in the Air?

So Much Spin. How Many Plates Can the President Keep in the Air?

June 29, 2020

If you feel overwhelmed, there is good reason. We are currently in the midst of a number of storylines, any one of which would define any other administration. And the news comes so fast you can barely figure out who the players are before there’s another twist.

Friday’s news that Russia offered—and paid—bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American soldiers, and that Trump chose to make friendly overtures to Russia President Vladimir Putin rather than retaliating, is huge. People trying to downplay it are saying that of course other countries want to kill American soldiers, and yes, that seems rather a given. But in this case, the president was informed of a direct plot on the part of a country not officially involved in a hostile situation to pay militants to kill our soldiers, and rather than retaliate for that engagement, the president has extended friendly overtures to that country. This behavior is both unprecedented and unfathomable.

After the story broke, the White House stayed quiet for almost 24 hours, then White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that the president and Vice President Mike Pence had not been briefed on the issue. First thing Sunday morning, Trump tweeted: “Nobody briefed or told me, [Vice President] Pence, or Chief of Staff [Mark Meadows] about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an ‘anonymous source’ by the Fake News [New York Times]….”

But news broke yesterday that US intelligence officers had, in fact, notified their superiors back in January about the Russian plot, which they believed resulted in at least one US death. Two intelligence officials told reporters that the information had been delivered to the president and that last week, American officials shared the information with the British government. Today, it was confirmed that the president had gotten a written briefing on the issue in February.

Today, Trump and White House officials tried to argue that the intelligence was not credible, and the newly confirmed Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, warned that any leaks about the issue are a crime.


But in response to congressional outcry, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, DNI Ratcliffe, and National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien briefed seven House Republicans from the Armed Service and Foreign Affairs committee: Liz Cheney (R-WY), “Mac” Thornberry (R-TX), Michael McCaul (R-TX), Jim Banks (R-IN), Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), and Elise Stefanik (R-NY). Also present was Andy Biggs (R-AZ), who is chair of the far-right Freedom Caucus.

A few Democrats will be briefed tomorrow, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has demanded a briefing for the whole House. This procedure is irregular: there is a process for informing Congress of military threats that involves leaders of both parties equally, not by party in different groups.

More news broke at 11:30 tonight, when the Associated Press published a story saying that “top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans, a full year earlier than has been previously reported, according to US officials with direct knowledge of the intelligence.”

That story alone should define a presidency, but the upcoming election is also huge. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that Trump’s advisors are worried about his falling poll numbers and have urged him to try to appeal to a wider group of voters than the base to which he continues to cater.

But the story appeared shortly after the president retweeted a video of a man in the Florida retirement community The Villages shouting “white power” at protesters. Trump wrote: “Thank you to the great people of The Villages. The Radical Left Do Nothing Democrats will Fall in the Fall. Corrupt Joe is shot. See you soon!!!”

White House aides immediately recognized they had a problem, but it took them three hours to delete the tweet, and even then, no one in the White House denounced it. White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere simply said that the president did not hear the “white power” slogan on the video. Today, McEnany said that Trump had retweeted the video “to stand with his supporters, who are oftentimes demonized.”

As Trump focuses on his base, he is losing important support.

At the Supreme Court today, Chief Justice Roberts joined the majority to strike down a Louisiana law that put restrictions on abortion providers disproportionate to those put on other procedures with similar risks. The Supreme Court decided a Texas case much like this one four years ago, and while Roberts wrote that he thought the previous case was wrongly decided, he deferred to that legal precedent, sending a strong signal that he wants his court to defend the rule of law.

Republican leaders are also changing their tune on the pandemic, as we now have more than 2.5 million confirmed cases, and southern and western states have severe new spikes. Many have refused to wear masks as they tried to downplay the virus and urge people to jump start the economy. But today, Pence urged Americans to wear masks and keep distance from each other, and on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said “We must have no stigma — none — about wearing masks when we leave our homes and come near other people. Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves. It is about protecting everyone we encounter.”

Finally, Carl Bernstein tonight published a deeply researched piece in CNN about Trump’s phone calls with world leaders. Trump is unprepared, boastful, and deferential to Putin and Turkey’s autocratic ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom he talks frequently. When he picks up the phone, he is unable to distinguish between his own interests in revenge and reelection and the interests of the nation. According to Bernstein, U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria and abandonment of our Kurdish allies to a Turkish invasion last fall was at Erdogan’s urging.

Trump caves to autocrats but bullies allies, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Theresa May. He also denigrates former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush to foreign leaders.

According to the piece, Trump’s senior officials, “including his former secretaries of state and defense, two national security advisers and his longest-serving chief of staff,” have concluded “that the President himself” is “a danger to the national security of the United States.”

Aside from the content in this piece, this level of leaking suggests that Trump has lost his grip on the White House. Bernstein’s sources told him—and through him, Congress—that almost all of Trump’s phone chats with foreign leaders were caught on dictation programs, supplemented by extensive note taking.

They suggested that a reexamination of Russia expert Fiona Hill’s testimony might provide a road map to the calls, and that if revealed, the contents of the calls would “be devastating to the President’s standing” with members of both parties as well as with the public. Recognizing that Trump would try to stop investigations with claims of executive privilege, some former officials suggested they would be willing to testify to what they had heard.

Tomorrow will likely be wild….

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.