CNN sources: Intel deputy overstated claim at briefing that Russia is planning to help Trump in the election


To understand this Jake Tapper thread you need to have read the WaPo and NYT stories I wrote about yesterday. WaPo claimed Trump decided to oust Joseph Maguire as acting DNI because he believed — mistakenly — that Maguire’s deputy gave Adam Schiff a secret briefing about something having to do with election security that Democrats might be able to use against him. Schiff received no secret briefing, a source told the Post. The full House Intelligence Committee was briefed, with Republicans present.

As for the subject of the mysterious briefing and why it might have been juicy to Democrats, WaPo didn’t say.

But the Times did say. Supposedly, Maguire deputy Shelby Pierson told the committee that U.S. intelligence showed Russia was “interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Trump re-elected,” in the NYT’s words. The Times didn’t mention anything about a secret briefing for Schiff causing Trump concern; rather, he seemed to object that this information was shared with the full committee, fearing that Schiff and other Dems in attendance would leak it to damage him. (A well-founded fear, as it turned out.) But them’s the breaks: If American intel has good reason to believe Russia is planning to meddle again, particularly on behalf of one candidate, members of Congress tasked with intelligence oversight need to know.

Just one wrinkle. What if American intel has good reason to believe Russia’s planning to meddle but *doesn’t* have good reason to believe they’re planning to meddle on behalf of a specific candidate? That’s the politically explosive part. But according to Tapper’s sources, Pierson exaggerated that conclusion — an unconscionable mistake after the country’s Russiagate ordeal. CNN to the rescue?

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It sounds like the intel is more along the lines of “Russia isn’t working against the president” than “Russia is working on his behalf.” I’m intrigued by the detail too that Democrats were challenging Pierson on her conclusion. Maybe that was a case of them stress-testing the information to see how solid it was before they went running to the media to leak it, not wanting to have another big Trump/Russia scoop go bust on them after a round of hype. (Although they went ahead and leaked it anyway, so…?) But maybe too it was evident during the briefing that Pierson’s conclusion was shaky and both parties took to trying to pin her down on it, wanting to see just how much support she had for such an explosive scoop. If in fact this story leaked to the Times despite even Democrats having doubts about it, it’d be witheringly cynical even by the standards of American politics in 2020. Essentially the NYT story amounts to sources shouting, “Yes, Pierson told us Russia will meddle again for Trump!” and then whispering, sotto voce, “but we didn’t actually believe her.”

Tapper’s sources also don’t seem to know anything about Trump mistakenly believing that Schiff had been secretly briefed about this. Trump’s concerns with Maguire and Pierson as described here are more understandable:

I’m thinking he may have been peeved too at discovering that Pierson had dropped a bombshell that could ignite Russiagate 2.0 despite her core conclusion not being real solid — assuming that it isn’t solid, of course, per Tapper’s sources. No doubt reporters at various papers are working their own contacts today trying to decipher exactly what Pierson said and what was understood in the room. It’s conceivable that Trump-friendly sources reached out to Tapper to put the worst possible spin on the briefing in order to discredit last night’s big scoop. Which would seem … unlikely, given that CNN wouldn’t logically be Team Trump’s first choice for sympathetic treatment, but who knows how officials choose their targets for leaks. Maybe it’s precisely because a Trump-friendly report from Tapper would be taken more seriously by Trump critics than the same report from Fox News would be that they chose him.

But that’s not to suggest that the report is wrong either. Maybe Pierson really did screw up and CNN’s just the first to hear about it. No doubt Trump will want to fire her when he sees Tapper’s thread, although that would put him in a political dilemma: If he cans her, critics will claim he’s retaliating against her for exposing Russia’s latest plot to benefit him, but if he doesn’t can her, he’s stuck with someone on staff who’s either incompetent or out to get him per the Tapper version of all this.

He chimed in about last night’s stories earlier today:

Yeah, as I said yesterday, I don’t know that Russia would have a preference between him and a socialist. I do think they’d prefer him to a hawkish mainstream Democrat for the simple reason that Trump’s much more likely to withdraw internationally than a neoliberal is, and because a Democratic president of any stripe would come under pressure from his base to exact some sort of revenge on Russia for meddling in 2016. But just because they’d have a reason to prefer Trump to, say, Joe Biden or Mike Bloomberg doesn’t mean they’re doing anything or would do anything to make that preference clear. It’s often said that Russia’s game-playing with presidential elections is a psy op designed to breed distrust and bitterness between Americans. They don’t actually need to put a thumb on the scale for one candidate or the other to achieve that particular goal, only to make us think they might.

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