In denial: Trump on both climate and intelligence

By Dawn Stover | December 16, 2016

President-elect Donald Trump has a history of climate denial. Recently it became obvious that he is an intelligence denier as well. Trump refuses to believe the Central Intelligence Agency’s conclusion that the Russian government meddled in the 2016 presidential election. He’s not eager to hear intelligence briefings on other subjects either.

Environmental issues are among the most politically polarized in the United States, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Trump is allied with much of the Republican Party on climate change. Russian hacking, however, is another matter: Republicans tend to take a serious interest in national security, and they ought to find it deeply troubling that Trump seems to have so little regard for the intelligence community’s findings.

Media outlets are treating Trump’s climate denial and his intelligence denial as two separate issues, but his language on both subjects is oddly parallel. It reveals that the president-elect doesn’t reject expertise on partisan grounds, or because he disagrees with the details. He simply refuses to believe any inconvenient truth, and then stubbornly insists that nobody knows the truth.

Trump appears to have less respect for expertise than any president in modern history—an attitude that puts all Americans at grave risk. Here’s a look at the pattern of denial that is emerging, and the tropes Trump uses to describe his positions on global warming and Russian hacking:

“I don’t believe it.” Trump has repeatedly said that he is “not a big believer in man-made climate change.” He has chosen climate deniers and fossil fuel advocates to lead his transition teams, as well as the federal agencies that deal with climate change. Don’t be fooled by his recent statement, in a November 22 interview with reporters and editors at the New York Times, that he has an “open mind” on climate. In the full transcript of the interview, Trump alludes to “people on the other side of that issue,” a veiled reference to the few scientists who disagree that humans are driving climate change, and “those horrible emails that were sent between the scientists.” These are both standard talking points for climate deniers.

Trump’s statements on Russia’s interference in the US election are similar: “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe they interfered,” Trump told Time magazine. His disbelief is thus far baseless. A month before the election, the Departments of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a joint statement saying the US intelligence community “is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. . . . These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process.” As White House press secretary Josh Earnest recently observed, “the official revelation didn’t stop any media organizations from reporting on what essentially amounted to stolen and leaked information provided by Russian agents to influence American voters.”

On December 9, the Washington Post reported that the Russian interference had a specific purpose: A CIA secret assessment concluded that it was intended to help Trump win the election. Trump denies that, too.

Even more recently, NBC News reported that senior US intelligence officials with direct access to the hacking information “now believe with a ‘high level of confidence’ that Russian President Vladimir Putin became personally involved in the covert Russian campaign to interfere in the US presidential election.”

“Nobody really knows.” On December 11, Trump said “nobody really knows” whether climate change is real. That same day, in an interview with Fox News, he said exactly the same thing about Russian government interference in the election: “Nobody really knows, and hacking is very interesting. Once they hack, if you don’t catch them in the act, you’re not going to catch them.”

In fact, experts do know whether climate change is real. There is near-unanimous consensus among scientists who study the climate that global warming is primarily driven by human activities.

Experts also know how to detect the electronic fingerprints and other circumstantial evidence left by hackers; it is not necessary to catch hackers in the act. Further, although the FBI and the Office of the National Director of Intelligence have not fully embraced the CIA’s conclusions, all 17 federal agencies that constitute the US intelligence community agree that the Russian government directed the hacking.

If Trump believes that “nobody really knows” whether the Russian government interfered in the US election, he should be calling for an investigation to learn the truth. Instead, he has dismissed the intelligence community’s finding as “ridiculous,” while failing to offer any opposing evidence.

John Bolton (who Trump is reportedly considering for a high-level position at the State Department) didn’t bother presenting any evidence either, when he suggested on December 11 that the Russian election hacking was a “false flag” operation by the Obama administration. Bolton and Trump aren’t even trying to build a serious case against the CIA reports; they’re content to simply sow doubt—a classic denial strategy.

“I won’t use them.” Once Trump is in office, it will be even easier for him to ignore expert advice. For example, he has nominated cabinet members who have made it their mission to eliminate programs that provide information about how our climate is changing, and what to do about it. This sends a signal that Trump won’t use the federal government’s climate expertise.

He takes a similar approach to intelligence. In an August interview with Fox News, just after his first intelligence briefing, Trump said of the people who have provided the president with intelligence for the past decade: “I won’t use them.” Trump sits for intelligence briefings sporadically, rather than daily (as his predecessors have).

Trump’s team rejected the CIA’s conclusions with a statement saying, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” This rebuttal shows a lack of understanding—or an intentional distortion—of what actually happened in Iraq. It was President George W. Bush and other top White House officials who pushed the false claim about Hussein, not intelligence experts. In fact, intelligence agents warned Bush that the information came from an unreliable source. Like Trump, Bush was an intelligence denier.

Unintelligence in the Oval Office. When a president doesn’t trust the intelligence community, and relies instead on his own judgment and that of confidants who lack intelligence expertise—or are compromised by lucrative, personal ties to the Kremlin—he can cause huge problems for both foreign relations and the American people.

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, for example, might have been avoided if President George W. Bush had paid more attention to an August 2001 presidential briefing warning that Al Qaeda was preparing to strike the United States. Afterward, Bush chose to believe that Saddam Hussein—rather than Osama bin Laden—was behind the attacks, and that the CIA had been fooled, despite protestations from intelligence officials.

In the case of the Russian election hacking, Americans may never know whether it affected the outcome of the election. But we do know that Putin has powerful friends within Trump’s inner circle, and that Trump’s businesses have significant financial connections to Russia. If a President Trump remains unwilling to believe intelligence about Russia, or disinterested in hearing it, that creates a huge blind spot surrounding one of America’s most powerful adversaries. And if one of the unnamed officials quoted in the NBC News report is correct, Putin’s goals were not only to carry out a “vendetta” against Hillary Clinton, but also to convince America’s allies that they can no longer depend on the United States “to be a credible global leader.”

Intelligence denial and climate denial are dangerous for the United States’ international standing and ultimately for the security of the whole planet. If Trump doesn’t believe a solid scientific consensus, or a firm assessment by the US intelligence community, what other information will he choose to disbelieve in the future?

To be an effective president, Trump and his cabinet picks must move beyond denial and begin to engage constructively with the expertise of a federal workforce that is more than two million strong—only about 4,000 of whom are politically appointed. The collective knowledge of this workforce is formidable. Disagreeing with the experts who work for him is a reasonable option for a president; disbelief and disregard are not. As President Obama said, speaking to The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, “It doesn’t matter how smart you are. You have to have the best information possible to make the best decisions possible.”

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