(CNN)The new Russia drama is a shady tale of secret briefings, compromised trust, mysterious intelligence, improbable characters with hidden agendas and purges of American spy chiefs. But most importantly, this dark new revival of a saga that has ravaged US politics for four years is making it impossible to know what’s true anymore.
Washington has been pitched back into a disorienting world of ungraspable truths, confusion and recrimination. And attempts by President Donald Trump and his opponents to weaponize new reports of Moscow’s interference for political gain not only risk deepening the sense of national disorientation.
They could leave voters unable to process a controversy about intelligence few have seen in a way that will only undermine confidence that November’s election will be legitimate. All of which will advance Russia’s goal of tarnishing US democracy.
The aim of any disinformation campaign is to foment bewilderment by trashing publicly agreed facts. The state of politics in the current polarized era provides fertile openings for Russian social media trolls, bots and hackers. Mounting contradictory evidence over what exactly Russia is doing right now is only adding more uncertainty.
First, it seemed that there was fresh evidence of Moscow putting its finger on the scale for the President, reviving speculation about his bizarre deference for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the warped logic of this spy tale, Trump has convinced himself that such perceptions make other people doubt his legitimacy, a belief that causes him to act in self destructive ways that also undermine the US political system itself.
But now, some intelligence officials tell CNN that the briefer who warned Congress about the operation may have overstated the intelligence and Moscow’s perceived preference for the President.
One intelligence official said that Shelby Pierson’s characterization of the intelligence was “misleading” and a national security official said Pierson failed to provide the “nuance” needed to accurately convey the US intelligence conclusions.
It was not clear whether Pierson’s interpretation of the analysis was overly dramatic or whether her approach was appropriate and there was political pressure to tone down the intelligence community’s conclusions.
Democrats were quick to seize on the original reports to warn that Moscow is again in the game to help Trump win in November.
The President and his aides hit back by claiming that the old KGB men in the Kremlin would much prefer a socialist, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, in the Oval Office.
And now both sides are thickening the fog by suggesting each leaked information about alleged meddling for political advantage.
In a sense, it doesn’t matter which version of these events is correct, since the effect is the same — a further eroding of trust in the democratic process.
The uproar underscores that four years after the initial election interference by Russia, US society is ever more susceptible to outside manipulation.
Torn national unity, distrust in institutions and a shattered concept of a mutual national reality — much of which can be put down to Trump and reactions to his tumultuous presidency — mean Washington is ripe for interference by foreign powers.
All of which suggests Russia’s efforts in 2016, updated for 2020, must rank as one of the most successful intelligence ops of all time.
The President reacted to reports that Russia was again meddling — to help him win — with fury last week in a way that again underscored how he’s often more interested in protecting himself than the democracy that he’s sworn to shield.
He accused intelligence community briefers of giving Democrats an important electoral advantage by informing the House Intelligence Committee about the new Russian meddling, and a supposed preference for Trump.
He replaced acting director of national intelligence Joseph Macguire with a political acolyte with no top-level intelligence expertise, Richard Grenell — the controversial US ambassador to Germany. Another loyalist, Kashyap Patel, who worked to undermine original accounts of Russian election meddling, is also now at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).
Patel, who once worked for former Republican House Intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes who maintains a backchannel to Trump and has fanned the President’s paranoia about a “Deep State” plot to undermine him in the intelligence establishment. Patel previously took direct aim at intelligence agencies with which he now works by helping to write the Nunes memo, a controversial document that alleged the FBI and the Justice Department abused Foreign Intelligence Surveillance law by obtaining a warrant on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The new arrivals at DNI are only multiplying the disconnect between the President and his intelligence agencies. They raise the possibility that only information helpful to Trump will emerge from the community. Such a scenario would infect the US clandestine services