ASPEN, Colorado—In case you were wondering what Trump's national security team has been telling the commander in chief behind closed doors following his warm embrace of Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, they made it clear in Aspen: Russia is reckless and a near-term danger.
The assembled officials said it over and over, perhaps hoping President Donald Trump would take their words to heart when re-broadcast on TV—and perhaps as a message to allies and fellow Americans that they also don’t understand either why Trump seemed to take Putin’s word over theirs, and they don’t much like it.
It was definitely a signal to Moscow that Trump’s national security team knows exactly what Putin is up to, playing a bad cop to Trump’s good-cop performance in Finland. Their unified front on Russia came only days after Trump’s stumbling performance at the summit, which was then followed by his seesawing on what he said or meant to say. It was all capped with an invitation to Putin to visit the White House that surprised even Trump’s own intelligence director.
Meanwhile, Moscow has taken the messaging high-ground, selectively releasing in dribs and drabs the alleged agreements made at last week's summit between the two leaders where there was only a translator present. It’s left the White House in reactive mode as few senior officials have apparently been briefed on the contents on the Trump-Putin meeting.
Privately, current and former Trump officials who gathered at the annual national security retreat in Aspen spoke of both annoyance and awe over a mercurial president who openly challenges their precepts with “jaw-dropping” comments in the Oval Office—a process they contend often produces outside-the-box thinking, but just as often can produce chaos and confusion in their own ranks as they try to determine what the president really believes or wants done.
They bristle at suggestions that Trump’s near-obsequious treatment of Putin stems from some sort of Kremlin kompromat. But they also roll their eyes and huff in frustration over “the tweets,” and Trump’s penchant for riffing publicly about policies they thought had yet to be decided. Some described Trump’s national security policy-making as a sort of Whac-A-Mole exercise—with plans suddenly upended in a fit of pique by an emotional Trump apparently governing more from his gut or pride than advice from his team.
His pronouncements send them scrambling so frequently that the disruptions are now a regular part of the national security policymaking battle rhythm. Administration officials brief allies on what they think the president has signed off on, and then hope it sticks. Same goes for the allies.
Senior U.S. officials scrambled to reassure allies after Trump in a tweet rejected a G7 agreement he’d signed, angry that the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly rebuked Trump’s tariff moves. For a few hours, the parties were left wondering if the measures they’d agreed to were still moving forward? They were told by harried Trump aides to essentially ignore the tweet. All was proceeding as planned.
European officials in Aspen seemed to have settled into the same uncomfortable space as their Trump counterparts in assessing Trump’s allegiance, or not, to Moscow. They seem to have collectively settled on the explanation: “he’s a political neophyte, in over his head with a master operator trying to yank his strings."
So the performances at Aspen served to educate, including the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats risking his job by bluntly offering—more than once—that meeting with the Russian president alone was not advisable.
FBI Director Chris Wray was equally direct, publicly disagreeing with Trump’s initial acceptance of Putin’s denials that he meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “He's got his view…I can tell you what my view is. The intelligence community's assessment has not changed, my view has not changed, which is that Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and that it continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day….aimed at sowing discord and divisiveness in this country.”
China came in for plenty of criticism too, with Wray calling it “the broadest, most challenging, most significant threat we face as a country,” from a counterintelligence perspective, with Beijing aiming to replace the United States “as the sole dominant superpower, the sole dominant economic power.”
A CIA official went further. Michael Collins, the deputy assistant director of the CIA's East Asia Mission Center, said Beijing is waging a "cold war" against the United States, describing China as, “a country that exploits all avenues of power licit and illicit, public and private, economic and military, to undermine the standing of your rival relative to your own standing without resorting to conflict.”
But the officials kept coming back to the threat of Russia. “China is the greater long term strategic challenge,” said John Rood, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of Defense for Policy. “But in many ways, Russia is the larger near term threat because of the overwhelming lethality of its nuclear arsenal and also because of some the behavior that the Russian government has exhibited.”
Rood went on to list actions taken to dissuade Russian malign activity, including “expelling 60 Russian diplomats or intelligence agents” over the attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain, and “imposing sanctions on more than 180 Russian entities and individuals including 24 for cyber aggression.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stuck with the tough-on-Russia theme. told the crowd, “Tthe Russian effort to influence the 2016 presidential campaign is just one tree in a growing forest,” he said, as he outlined a new Justice Department plan to name, shame and hopefully prosecute Russian operatives. “Focusing merely on a single election misses the point…These actions are persistent," he said. "They are pervasive. They are meant to undermine democracy on a daily basis regardless of whether it is election time or not.”
That was a theme echoed by American allies at the forum—amounting to a veritable chorus of “Watch out!” The spokesman for Britain’s 10 Downing Street described the nerve agent attack that nearly killed Sergey Skripal and his daughter as a crucial moment, compounded by a more recent incident in which a British woman has died and her companion remains in critical condition after a mysterious exposure to the same nerve agent.
“The audacity of this attack, the sheer recklessness of it, is something which places us now into a different zip code in the way that we are handling our relations with Russia,” said the British prime minister’s spokesman, Andy Pike, of the original incident.
An intelligence official from NATO ally Estonia offered a cautionary tale of how his team battles Russian interference and cyber-probing on a daily basis.
“The thing we have detected during the last few years is the use of influence agents,” who use their status to promote Russia’s agenda, said Mikk Marran, head of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence ServiceEstonia’s intelligence service. “We have detected a network of politicians, journalists, diplomats, business people who are actually Russian influence agents and who are doing what they are told to do by Kremlin.”
The goal? “To be back at the big boys' table, to be a country that is respected,” and to break out of the international isolation imposed after Moscow seized Crimea and backed Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. “I think that they are exploiting every opportunity to do that,” he said, including the Helsinki summit.
Putin’s next opportunity to shine may be in the Oval Office, having been formally invited by Trump for a follow up visit. Trump’s team, his friends and allies are hoping this time, the U.S. president will steal the show. But they’re not counting on it.