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What The President Knew

President Donald Trump looks at his facemask during the first presidential debate at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)
President Donald Trump looks at his facemask during the first presidential debate at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

Listen to the the First Person diary with the CIA’s former counterterrorism chief on the lead up to 9/11. We connected with Cofer Black with the help of Chris Whipple. Black is featured prominently in Whipple’s new book “The Spymasters.”

Why is it that sometimes Presidents know there is a danger to the wellbeing of Americans, and still do nothing? We talk with people who were in the room in 2001 and 2020.


Chris Whipple, journalist and documentary filmmaker. Author of “The Spymasters” and “The Gatekeepers.” (@ccwhip)

Olivia Troye, former homeland security, counterterrorism and coronavirus advisor for Vice President Mike Pence. Director of the Republican Accountability Project. (@OliviaTroye)

Also Featured

Cofer Black, former top level counterterrorism expert at the CIA.

Show Transcript

[Archival Tape] DONALD TRUMP: It goes through air Bob, that’s always tougher than the touch. You know, the touch, you don’t have to touch things, right? But the air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than your, you know, your even your strenuous flus.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is deadly stuff, President Trump said to Bob Woodward on February 7th. Three weeks later, though, to the American public, Trump was still downplaying the coronavirus threat.

[Archival Tape] DONALD TRUMP: And again, when you have 15 people and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.

CHAKRABARTI: Why do presidents sometimes do this? Know that there’s an urgent, even imminent threat to the American people, but still play it down or do little to thwart the danger? We’ve been here before, in 2001.

[Archival Tape] Congressional member: How high a priority was fighting al-Qaida in the Bush administration?

[Archival Tape] RICHARD CLARKE: I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue.

CHAKRABARTI: The attacks of September 11th, and the COVID pandemic. Now, we are not equating the two in cause or scale. Today, what we are doing is asking what happens inside the room, in the Oval Office, in the Situation Room, in conference rooms of the most powerful politicians in America. What happens in the earliest, most crucial days of a new threat? And what drives a president not to act as decisively or quickly as possible? Well Olivia Troye was in the room. She served as an advisor to Vice President Mike Pence on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism as well. Olivia, welcome back to the show.

OLIVIA TROYE: Thank you, Meghna. Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So the president announced the formation of the White House Coronavirus Task Force on January 29th, and you joined it that very day. What was the first meeting of the task force like? Who was there and what took place?

TROYE: Well, there had been a couple of smaller meetings prior to this big one where the interagency was convening with the National Security Council on, you know, what was going on in Wuhan and trying to understand that situation. So the time we get to this first task force meeting, there had certainly been meetings taking on before, taking place beforehand. And this was really just the formalization of all these people that had been working on tracking what was happening with COVID, and what was happening in China.

In this meeting were a lot of the people that you still see in the task force today, when the vice president took over leading it in February. So there was Secretary Azar and Dr. Fauci, people early on, the public health agencies, Dr. Redfield and others. And there were senior White House political staff. There is former chief of staff Mulvaney was there. Matt Pottinger played a big role at the very beginning. He was the deputy national security advisor. He was certainly chairing some of these meetings of the task force. This is kind of the composition early on.

CHAKRABARTI: And Pottinger is especially important right, in these early days. Because it was he who, according to reporting from the Washington Post just earlier in January, had told the president that this would be a worldwide health emergency, right? The pandemic would be a worldwide health emergency that could be on par with the flu of 1918. So in those early days after the task force then came together, there were some actions taken right by the White House. The Trump administration declared a public health emergency. At the same time, the president was still tweeting that experts were on top of the whole situation. So … as the days wore on, what was the attitude, what was the approach of these conversations with top level White House folks?

TROYE: Well, there was certainly a sense of urgency, and you are correct, Matt Pottinger from the beginning took this matter very seriously. He was definitely raising the red flags and sounding the alarm bells, saying, you know, we have a serious situation here. He had spent time as a reporter, I believe, in China during a previous pandemic, which was, I would say smaller scale affecting us here domestically. But he knew the type of misinformation that could possibly come out of China. And he was concerned that we were not getting forthcoming information from them, which was correct. We didn’t have access. We kept requesting access into Wuhan for the CDC, from the WHO.

It took weeks for us to finally get access on the ground. And by then, they actually I think they decreased the number of people that they would allow in. And we lost, we did lose valuable time during that period because we were still trying to understand the virus from a distance. And there were a lot of unknowns about it. There were just, frankly, things that I heard Dr. Redfield and Anne Schuchat at the CDC and others say, we just don’t know. We don’t know exactly the rate of the spread. We’re guessing. And that’s really where the conversations were at towards the beginning.

Now, I’ll also say we were trying to figure out at the time, you know, what are we going to do with Americans? What about the Americans in Wuhan and Americans that are stranded in areas near Wuhan? So there was also some focus there to figure out how we would take care of our own people and figure out how to bring them back to safety. So there was sort of a mix trying to understand the virus, and also figuring out the evolving situation and figuring out what that means domestically as well. Is this a problem that’s going to remain overseas, or is it coming our way?

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so while it sounds like there was a great deal of urgency, as you said, about trying to figure out the unknowns around the pandemic on the task force, at the same time, in virtually every public event that I can track, the president was, you know, mostly talking about beating this thing, having you know, we had 15 positive cases. It was going to be zero in a few days. There didn’t seem to be a lot of evidence to the public that the White House was gearing up to get as much testing out there as quickly as possible, the PPE, et cetera. So were you in meetings where the president was there and what was his approach to the urgency that the task force felt?

TROYE: This is where you see sort of the breakdown in the disconnect between the work of the task force and the consistent undermining displayed by the president along the way, the president certainly joined some of the task force meetings. He did not join a lot of them, but he was there at the beginning. In fact, I would say he attended them more frequently in the beginning than in the months to come down the road, further down the road. And he was briefed on the severity.

He, you know, at times I saw him ask the right questions in terms of, you know, is this the flu, is it worse than the flu? How does it compare? And I will say, you know, months later when I hear him quoted in the Woodward tapes, I was a little taken aback because I kept thinking, so you did process this? You were understanding what we were telling you, you were listening. You just chose to publicly relay a completely different narrative because he was trying to play it down. He didn’t want this to impact him, and his perhaps economic success and the narrative because he knew we were in an election year.

CHAKRABARTI: Play it down. And also, was there a similar, from your perspective on the task force, a similar lack of leadership in doing the functional things that only the federal government could do to protect the American people from the pandemic? In that critical, you know, that early four weeks, for example?

TROYE: I think there was certainly a scramble. It was a little chaotic at the beginning, and trying to figure out where resources and energy would be focused in. You know, until you’re fighting a pandemic of this magnitude first hand, it is hard. And it was not something that was expected to the magnitude. And also just the understanding of the virus was evolving in terms of how it spreads, and understanding how we would keep Americans safe. At the same time, we were also, you know, along the way you see us focused on trying to figure out how we evacuate people from cruise ships that are stuck on cruise ships, or they’re globally located.

I have to tell you that it takes an extraordinary amount of effort, focus and resources across the U.S. government for things like that, in terms of figuring out where we would quarantine people and negotiating with governors and mayors in cities about can we dock the ship there? Will you accept these people? And working with the Department of Defense. So there’s just so many layers to this complicated problem. And for the most part, in those areas, the president wasn’t really involved personally or he kind of stayed out of the way.

But I will say this. What was striking to me was the fact that we would rescue people, but his reaction wasn’t one of, Hey, thank you for doing this, and thank you for protecting Americans. The reaction was, Why did you bring these sick people back to our place? Our cases are going to increase. That right there, I think, says everything about a president dealing with probably the greatest national security crisis we’ve had in a long time domestically, and his feelings about where he is in his mindset in terms of what we’re doing.

CHAKRABARTI: When he would say things like that in these meetings, what were the responses from the people surrounding him?

TROYE: I think we were shocked. It was somewhat a little bit of feeling humiliated and embarrassed. And I think for the people at the very top, such as Secretary Azar and others, how do you counter that? I mean, you just pulled off this, what I would say, important operation, logistic, logistical nightmare. And you made it come together, and your staff and people in this entire team is able to come together and execute it and implement it. And then the thanks you get is, Why do we have 40 people who are infected that’s going to, you know, 30 people that increases their number domestically to 40. Now we have a new story about how 40 people are positive in the United States. And you’ll see early on the administration talk about the numbers in separate categories.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Olivia Troye, stand by. Today, we are talking with people who were in the room when big decisions needed to be made to protect the American people from an imminent threat. In a few minutes, we’ll hear from a former member of the CIA and a little later in the show from a journalist who’s covered multiple administrations.

CHAKRABARTI: We’re exploring what goes on inside the Oval Office or in The Situation Room, what are the forces that lead a president and his staff not to act as early and decisively as possible, even when they know about an imminent threat to the American people? Olivia Troye is with us.

And a little later, we’re going to hear from a journalist who has covered multiple administrations. So, Olivia, though, I wonder if you could just sit back and listen with me to another story, because, of course, the COVID pandemic is the big example that we’re talking about. But there is another one, the attacks of September 11th. So let’s trace back over some history.

We recently spoke with Cofer Black, a former top level counterterrorism expert at the CIA:

First Person: The CIA’s Former Counterterrorism Chief On The Lead Up To 9/11

Cofer Black begins with a visual, inside the office of a man named Richard Blee, in the months before 9/11.

“By the time 9/11 rolled around he had stacks of paper along this 15-foot wall. The lowest pile was waste high. The highest was, I’m 6 foot 3, shoulder high,” Black says.

Blee was the head of the CIA’s al-Qaida unit. So Black asked him, what’s all that?

“He would say, ‘Oh, that’s for when we have the catastrophe and get struck and a lot of Americans die,'” Black recalls. “‘This is so the investigators know where to come, and they’ll come and ask, ‘Did you tell anybody?’ And we’ll say ‘Yeah, there it is. Here’s a copy of every briefing we gave on the threat.'”

Blee was prescient. After the attacks, investigators from across government swarmed the CIA’s al-Qaida unit.

Black says they all asked the same question: “‘So, did you warn anybody?'”

“‘Yeah, come to my office. Here’s one copy of every briefing we gave.’ And they’d say, ‘Man that’s a lot of briefings.’ And he’d say, ‘Yes, it is.'”

Cofer Black is a career spy. He served in London, Latin America, South Asia. He served as CIA station chief in Khartoum, where al-Qaida targeted him for assassination. From 1999-2002, Black ran the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and reported directly to then-CIA director George Tenet.

Black has since been called everything from patriot, to assassin, to torture advocate — the epitome of all that’s wrong with America’s clandestine services.

But in the spring of 2001 — before the Afghanistan war, before the Iraq war, before 9/11 — Black was among a few in the CIA who tried to get the Bush Administration’s attention about the growing al-Qaida threat.

By May of 2001, finished intelligence on al-Qaida related intelligence activity escalated greatly — not just about their activity targeting U.S. military bases and embassies abroad, but about active cells within the U.S.

Black says that in 2001, from the beginning of the year on, intelligence about a potential attack took on an “escalatory path.”

The raw intelligence was sent to CIA analysts who prepped the briefings, some of which would travel all the way up the Washington food chain to the White House.

“We were producing, I would say, in 2001, it would be hundreds,” Black says of the amount of briefings the CIA churning out about al-Qaida.

al-Qaida had already proven how deadly it could be. In 1998 and 2000, the terrorist group had pulled off two sets of horrific attacks, outside the United States.

On Aug. 7, 1998, nearly simultaneous suicide bombings destroyed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200, injuring more than 4,500.

Then, a little more than two years later, on Oct. 12, 2000, 17 sailors died on the USS Cole in Yemen. President Bill Clinton called the bombing a “despicable and cowardly act.”

To this day, Cofer Black remains critical of the Clinton administration. He says it took the Clinton camp “eight years to figure out counterterrorism.” By that time, it was too late. An election and change in administration intervened. President George W. Bush took office in January 2001.

Black says by May 2001, a mere seven months after the USS Cole bombing, intelligence on al-Qaida related terrorist activity began to crescendo.

Then, in July 2001, a sudden decrease in terrorist activity.  In intelligence, Cofer Black says, it’s the worst kind of silence.

According to Black, George W. Bush didn’t much understood the nature of this new threat. When it came to threats specific to the United States, the Bush Administration’s most intense focus was squarely on nuclear proliferation and weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, Black’s small team of al-Qaida experts says their alarm only grew.

Then came the morning of July 10, 2001.

Richard Blee was the head of the CIA’s al-Qaida unit. As counterterrorism chief, Cofer Black was his boss. Blee had compiled compelling, multiple-sourced information about an imminent attack on the United States. They took it straight to CIA director George Tenet.

Black says Tenet got it immediately. Tenet called the White House and told national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, “I have to come see you. We’re coming right now.”

It’s been almost 20 years, but Black remembers the meeting in detail.

“Go in, sit down, and George Tenet says to Rich, ‘Please start,'” he says.

Richard Blee told Rice and her national security team that there would be significant terrorist attacks against the United States in the coming weeks or months.

“The attacks will be spectacular. They may be multiple. al-Qaida’s intention is the destruction of the United States,” Blee said.

In one of her memoirs, Condoleezza Rice says her memory of the July 10 meeting isn’t crisp because “we were discussing the threat every day.”

Following the meeting, Rice did raise the threat level for U.S. personnel overseas. But beyond that, Cofer Black says nothing happened.

“Nothing went out to order, direct, or even encourage domestic agencies to mobilize in response to this threat,” Black says. “And then, these are not my decisions to make, the public was not warned.”

Two days after that July 10th meeting, Condoleezza Rice gave a speech at the National Press Club. No one would have expected her to talk publicly about a top-level classified briefing she’d just received. However, Rice did talk about what the Bush administration saw as the highest-level security threats to the United States: nuclear weapons proliferation.

“As the president has made clear, we must deal with today’s world, and today’s threats,” Rice said. “Including weapons of mass destruction and missiles in the hands of states that would blackmail us from coming to the aid of friends and allies.”

She did not mention the threat posed by possible terrorist attacks.

By late July, Black, Tenet and Blee all believed that an attack within the United States was imminent. They’d gathered in Tenet’s conference room at the CIA. “They’re coming here,” Blee said.

On August 6, 2001, President Bush’s daily briefing included the now-infamous memo titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”

A little less than three weeks later, on August 24th, Bush announced a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “Terrorism is prevalent, in the Middle East,” Bush said.

Regarding direct threats to the United States, Bush said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was actively assessing the security landscape at that time.

“One of the threats that faces America is the threat of blackmail as a result of some rogue nation having a weapon of mass destruction,” Bush said. He did not mention the possibility of terrorist activity on U.S. soil.

18 days later, Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacked the United States.

Intelligence failures, particularly at the CIA, are at the center of the exhaustive report published by the 9/11 Commission in July 2004. Cofer Black is candid about those failings. They knew something was going to happen, but they never knew exactly when, or exactly who, or exactly how.

And without that detailed intel, could the attacks have been stopped? What could have been different?

Black wishes someone in the White House had called a principals meeting — with the president and the heads of defense and national security — specifically to consider the al-Qaida threat.

“The national leaders all come together — and they do on other issues, I just don’t understand why they didn’t on this one — all come together, and they make a determination of what course as a nation should be followed, from which they might want to say, ‘OK, let’s light a fire in the domestic agencies.’”

But would that have made enough of a difference? Black admits that maybe nothing would have changed. But maybe something would have. Because we know what the consequences were of doing nothing.

“You know, it might have caught some of these guys, so maybe you only have one group of hijackers instead of four,” he says. “It just gives you a bit more opportunity to get lucky, than doing nothing.”

Black comes back to this point again and again. People in the White House bring in their old biases. They have to unlearn those biases, and rarely do. Instead, in the face of new information, they lean into their own expertise.

CHAKRABARTI: Cofer Black, he was director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from 1999 to 2002. Olivia Troye, you’ve been patiently listening along with us. You joined DHS after 9/11. Do you hear any of the echoes the Black was talking about in the current administration?

TROYE: Yes, I certainly have seen what he has been talking about for years, being in the counterterrorism world and working around some of these great leaders, and I can certainly, you know, when I was listening to some of the descriptions of the warnings and the briefings, I was having flashbacks to all of the previous months of my tenure on the COVID task force and what was happening. And we were doing the briefings. We had the intelligence warning us about certain aspects. I can’t get into it now. And just the doctors and the experts talking about the data and the science and what they were seeing. And certainly it was all there. I mean, we knew what was to come and we knew it was going to be bad. And, you know the quote said by several, whereas it’s not a matter of if, this is a matter of when.

CHAKRABARTI: When we come back, we’ll hear from a journalist who’s covered multiple administrations about what we all need to learn as a nation about pushing back against those old biases and the leaning into one’s own expertise in the face of new information.

CHAKRABARTI: This hour, we’re trying to go in the room in the White House to really understand what stops a president from taking more decisive early action to protect the American people when they are informed of an imminent threat. I’m joined today by Olivia Troye. She served as advisor to Vice President Mike Pence on the White House COVID task force. She left that post in August. Now on March 19th of this year regarding the pandemic, here is what President Trump told Bob Woodward.

[Archival Tape] TRUMP: Well, I think, Bob, really, to be honest with you, I wanted to, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down. Because I don’t want to create a panic.

CHAKRABARTI: And in fact, as we know, the president had been doing exactly that for months, playing down the COVID danger in almost every public briefing he gave about the pandemic. Here’s a selection from those briefings, even as the death toll rose.

[Tape Montage] TRUMP: We have it totally under control, it’s one person coming in from China and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine. … We have the greatest doctors in the world. We have it very much under control. … When you have 15 people and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero. … We have done an incredible job. We’re going to continue. It’s going to disappear one day. It’s like a miracle. It will disappear. … We’re prepared and we’re doing a great job with it and it will go away. Just stay calm. … Anybody that wants a test can get a test. … I just don’t want to wear one myself. It’s a recommendation. They recommend it. I’m feeling good. … When we have a lot of cases, I don’t look at that as a bad thing. I look at that as in a certain respect, as being a good thing because it means our testing is much better. I view it as a badge of honor.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, joining us now is Chris Whipple. He has covered multiple administrations and is author of “The Gatekeepers.” And his new book is “The Spymasters.” Chris, welcome to On Point.

CHRIS WHIPPLE: Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, you detail the story that we heard from Cofer Black, and you’ve done so in your reporting over many years. And Black talked about a key process mistake in the previous segment that contributed to the lack of action before 9/11. The fact that there wasn’t that key principals meeting called, as he had hoped for. Why is that so important? And is that theme relevant to how the Trump administration has handled the pandemic?

WHIPPLE: It absolutely is. And as you say, I get into this in exacting detail in my book, “The Spymasters,” the whole walk up to 9/11 and the Bush administration’s failure to heed the warnings. The reason that a so-called principals meeting is so important is because when you get the heads of the departments around the table, head of CIA, FBI, Homeland Security and others, and you shake the trees, as they put it, stuff tends to fall out. You tend to discover things.

For example, I think in all likelihood, if they had convened a principals meeting on before 9/11, they would have discovered that two of the al-Qaida hijackers, al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, were on U.S. soil and had been for months prior. There were people at CIA who knew this. The FBI should have gone and rounded them up. In all likelihood, that might have come out. And so there’s no question that the Bush administration failure to heed those warnings about 9/11 was egregious.

But it’s really important to emphasize that we are right now experiencing the catastrophic consequences of a president who ignored not just repeated warnings in January and February in his president’s daily brief, but also advisors, officials from the CDC and HHS, as Olivia has pointed out. And so I think the Trump White House failure is far worse. You know, 9/11 was red lights flashing. The coronavirus was, by comparison, a parade down Main Street. Trump looked the other way. And the result is we now have 215,000 dead and counting.

CHAKRABARTI: So Olivia is another way of putting this that, you know, there was a failure of process prior to 9/11. But in the Trump administration, the process itself feels like it was kind of blown up?

TROYE: I mean, I think the process was indeed somewhat blown up. But there were briefings early on at the principals committee level and I remember the former director of National Intelligence, Admiral Maguire, warning about what was happening in Wuhan and some of the signs that we should be taking very seriously, such as canceling the Chinese New Year celebrations and things like that. So these meetings were convened early on and then the task force gets developed specifically to tackle some of these main issues that I think that where I agree things went sideways was there was a greater political influence that overshadowed everything, regardless of what the experts would say.

CHAKRABARTI: Chris, did you want to respond to that?

WHIPPLE: Yeah, you know, the problem is that the fish rots from the head. You can have all the principals meetings and all the process you want. But if the president of the United States believes in magical thinking, and who is not only incapable of governing but frankly isn’t interested in governing, who’s declared war on competence from the beginning, this is somebody who again agreed to the dismantling of the pandemic unit.

This is someone who was briefed on January 23rd by his intelligence briefer and later claimed that he was told it was, quote, no big deal. Well, the so-called PDB, the president’s daily brief, is by definition a big deal. And when it’s verbally briefed, it’s an even bigger deal. So that makes no sense. But, you know, this goes almost all the way back. As I write in my book, “The Spymasters,” it goes back to Richard Helms, the quintessential CIA director, who said famously, It’s not enough to ring the bell. You have to make sure the president hears it.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, so but Olivia, a little earlier in the show, you said that after the Woodward tapes came out, there was evidence, at least privately, that President Trump had heard what the experts were telling him, what members of the task force were telling him. And yet, I mean, there was just this gap between what he had heard versus what he was publicly willing to do or say. And it’s that gap that that I think still some people deeply struggle with. I mean, you keep saying the word politics. Is it as simple as that? Or should we be looking to also who else was surrounding the president?

TROYE: I think, you know, I think he’s right. It comes, it all trickles down from the top, down to the inner circle and down to the execution of it. And so when you have a leader that is fundamentally not going to heed the advice of the doctors, and the experts on the task force and the intelligence community. And by the way, you’ve seen this. Throughout his administration, right, he disregards the intelligence community, he completely discredits the national security community. So discrediting the public health community is really no different than what he’s been doing for the past couple of years, at least from a national security optic that I see it.

This is a similar thing. This is who Donald Trump is. This is a repeated pattern. It’s a pattern of recognition that we are all familiar with. He does this on every issue. Unfortunately, on this issue, it’s impacting human life directly every single day. And so I think, yes, he was understanding what he was being briefed on, but his character and who he is, he is so focused on his own success and the image of himself.

And I say this because I think that’s critical to this pandemic response, because there’s no way to overcome that. And whether it’s, you know, politicizing masks, which you see first hand, it’s also a vanity thing for him. And that is where we still are fighting this dynamic where a mask is critical, wear it, it is important. But he still would not get on board with that message.

WHIPPLE: The almost unbelievable thing here to me is how not just the president, but his key advisors. Mick Mulvaney, his former acting chief of staff. And later, Mark Meadows, his current chief of staff, have conspired in the president’s just wholesale denial of basic science. I mean, as a result, we have more than 200,000 people dead. There were no safety protocols in the White House.

And so White House staffers are now dropping like flies. It’s really remarkable. And but again, as Olivia says, it goes back to the very top. I think that back in January of 2017, people worried about Donald Trump being in charge of war and peace. It turns out it wasn’t so much the nuclear codes that posed the threats. It was the fact that during a major crisis, there was simply an empty chair. There was no one acting to keep the American people safe.

CHAKRABARTI: So here’s where I want to dig deep with the two of you, because, Olivia, you said about the president, President Trump being so focused on his personal success and his image. It’s that concept of how powerful presidential focus is that I want to talk to both of you about. Because basically Cofer Black in the last segment said things that have really stuck with me.

One is that he sees almost every administration is coming into office with a bunch, like a basketful of old biases. And when they’re presented with new information, oftentimes they lean into their own expertise versus what the experts are bringing them this new information tell them. And I mean with the effect of 20/20 hindsight in history, we could see that that was happening, a version of that was happening, the Bush administration and their focus on WMD.

So here’s my question. It makes me wonder, President Trump, may be an extreme example of what happens when you can’t break through that presidential focus. Are we just set up to perhaps make that same mistake or versions of that same mistake, no matter who’s occupying the White House? I mean, even if Joe Biden wins, he’s got 47 years of old biases he’s going to be bringing into the Oval Office. Like, is the system set up to make it difficult to really break through? Olivia, what do you think?

TROYE: I think those are fair and very valid points, but I do believe that in this situation with this president, this is a situation that we’ve not encountered, in my opinion, or at least in my lifetime. To this magnitude of an individual who is, quite frankly, just a narcissist. And when I look at Joe Biden and I think about his experience in the background, he may have his political, I mean, he obviously has a political agenda, but I don’t see that narcissism that overshadows everything he does, and the lack of empathy, and the lack of caring for anyone else but himself in terms of Donald Trump and how he exhibits that every single day.

And what I’ve witnessed in meetings on how he speaks about people and how he behaves, that is fundamentally who this individual is. And I think that going forward, I mean, I certainly hope not. I hope that we will never be in this situation again. But I can see what you’re saying about the set up. And maybe this is who we are as a country, and this is what happens in the Oval Office. But I think this is a moment in time. I hope it is.

WHIPPLE: Yeah, let me add to that. To some extent, we’ve seen something like this before, LBJ, you know, certainly brought his own biases into the job. He did not want to hear from Richard Helms that the bombing of North Vietnam was stiffening the enemy’s resolve. George W. Bush did not want to hear about the imminent attacks of 9/11, and didn’t really believe them. But Trump is in a category all by himself. I mean, this is the first president we’ve ever had who was so delusional that he thought there was a DNC server in the Ukraine. This is far more egregious.

And I think that when it comes to Joe Biden, a couple of things. I think it’s really critical that Biden remember, that the director of Central Intelligence or the director of the CIA has got to be the honest broker of intelligence whose job is to tell him what he does not want to hear. The same thing goes with the White House chief of staff. He has to have someone who can walk into the Oval Office, close the door and tell Joe Biden hard truths. I thought it was fascinating when Biden said about a month ago or so that Kamala Harris would be the last person in the room when he made big decisions. I think he got that wrong. I think it needs to be the chief of staff. Someone with no political ax to grind, who can just tell the president what he doesn’t want to hear.

CHAKRABARTI: I just want to make one thing clear. Just to remind folks, we’re not drawing an equivalence here between the pandemic and 9/11. Searching, though, more deeply sort of for those internal waves, those patterns that help us understand sort of how do we get here as a nation? So with that in mind … what would you tell the American people about leadership in a time of crisis right now? And do you have confidence that the systems of government that we have can bring us the right kind of leadership when inevitably this nation faces its next crisis?

TROYE: … I certainly believe in the U.S. government and the systems that have been created, but I think that that is critical. That these agency working groups in this kind of set up in the National Security Council be followed in times of crisis. That’s where this went wrong.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “The Spymasters” by Chris Whipple

An excerpt from “The Spymasters” By Chris Whipple. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be republished without permission from the publisher, Scribner.

Washington Post: “Donald Trump, the unbriefable president” — “In the wake of reports that Russia offered the Taliban cash bounties to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the question arises: What was President Trump told by his intelligence briefers, and when was he told it?”

CNN: ‘Play it down’: Trump admits to concealing the true threat of coronavirus in new Woodward book” — “President Donald Trump admitted he knew weeks before the first confirmed US coronavirus death that the virus was dangerous, airborne, highly contagious and ‘more deadly than even your strenuous flus,’ and that he repeatedly played it down publicly, according to legendary journalist Bob Woodward in his new book ‘Rage.’ ‘This is deadly stuff,’ Trump told Woodward on February 7.”

NPR: “Trump Often Gives ‘Complete Opposite’ Of Health Experts’ Advice, Former Staffer Says” — “President Trump has consistently told Americans ‘the complete opposite’ of what his health experts have been telling him in private meetings about COVID-19, according to Olivia Troye, who until recently worked on the the White House coronavirus task force.”

CNN: CDC was pushed to play down the risks of Covid-19 in reopening schools, former Pence staffer says” — “The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was pushed to play down the risks of the coronavirus pandemic in reopening schools for in-person classes, Olivia Troye, a former top adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, confirmed to CNN Monday. She called a New York Times story about the pressure campaign accurate.”

Politico: “‘The Attacks Will Be Spectacular’” — “An exclusive look at how the Bush administration ignored this warning from the CIA months before 9/11, along with others that were far more detailed than previously revealed.”

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