On Mental Health and Politics

Terry H. Schwadron

Sept. 4, 2020

The news seemed a striking example of White House political concerns trying to model U.S. intelligence reports to its vision.

The first of twin announcements came from John Ratcliffe, Donald Trump’s most comfortable if inexperienced Director of National Intelligence, who told Congress to pound sand, that he was not going to brief them in person about foreign election influence efforts. Then ABC News disclosed that the Department of Homeland Security had withheld its monthly intelligence bulletin calling out Russian attacks on Democrat Joe Biden’s mental and physical health.

That Donald Trump would quash public discussion about Russian influence in our elections once was shocking both for the effort to affect U.S. elections and for Trump administration efforts to keep it quiet. That had prompted the multiple all-things-Russia probes and the Mueller Report.

No, what was remarkable this time is the exact overlay of Donald Trump’s own attacks on Biden’s health as the oldest candidate for president and the reports from Russia. Are we supposed to see this as mere coincidence?

What was reported was that the July intelligence bullet warned law enforcement agencies of Russian scheming to promote “allegations about the poor mental health” of Biden, according to internal emails and a draft of the document not meant for public consumption. It also noted that Iran and China were making efforts to foment bad opinions about Trump.

But the DHS leadership intervened and killed it, and it has not been formally shared since.

Exactly the Same Criticisms

But on any random hour, Donald Trump is making the exact allegations against Biden, calling his mental capabilities into question. Of course, that is rich coming from Trump, who is only a couple of years younger and who has been showing lots of slippage in his remarks, giving rise to his own mental health.

According to the draft bulletin, analysts determined with “high confidence” that “Russian malign influence actors are likely to continue denigrating presidential candidates through allegations of poor mental or physical health to influence the outcome of the 2020 election.” But Chad Wolf, now DHS nominee as Secretary, said he had questions about the report and ordered it held.

Well, yeah, we conclude sarcastically: The assessment makes Trump look like he is a puppet mouthing words provided by Russian intelligence operatives looking to introduce chaos into American politics. We can’t have that, certainly. Intelligence, like pandemics, are supposed to follow the schedules and strategies that help Trump re-election, of course.

Plus, since when does it take U.S. intelligence listening in on Russian spies to tell Trump that Joe Biden is an older guy who often sticks his foot in his mouth? Don’t we all know that?

If we’re going to make mental health the fulcrum for this election, the Trump people had best look hard in the mirror. Aside from couch-sitting television pundit would-be diagnoses, Trump himself now regularly brings up his recent cognitive test as if it were an intelligence report, and has showed physical and speech characteristics associated with dementia-related illnesses.

Who Benefits?

The point is, sitting on intelligence reports meant to alert enforcement agencies and the public about problems from abroad serves no one — other than Donald Trump, who insists on projecting the nation as a pretty wonderful place even in time of pandemic, economic mess and racial discord.

Every tell-all report and book coming out of this administration reflects the fact that no one wants to bell the cat, to tell Trump uncomfortable truths that do not comport with his reelection dreams. Clearly withholding this report simply makes it more difficult to identify foreign actors in a timely way, for example.

Can’t we just agree that holding back briefings and reports from our own intelligence agencies about foreign influence campaigns is bad government — and bad politics?

In 2016, the related line of attack was that Hillary Clinton was physically ailing, and might not be able to serve if elected. Clearly, that wasn’t the case, and not the reason she lost narrowly in the Electoral College.

In August, the office of the Director of National Intelligence publicly reported “that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate” Biden, adding that “some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.” That’s what makes both the DHS move and the Ratcliffe resistance to Congress so nutty.

Meanwhile, Politico reports that Trump is cherry-picking intelligence statements to conclude, incorrectly as it turns out, that China is working overtime to elect Biden. That conclusion overstates the findings by the office, according to Bill Evanina, who official wrote the quoted report. Efforts by China and Iran to aid Biden are dwarfed by the Russian effort for Trump, he told Congress and multiple interviewers.

Bring on November, please.