You might have seen the newscast of Donald Trump talking briefly to reporters on New Year’s Eve as he entered a black-tie party at his Florida mansion. He was discussing computer hacking, intelligence gathering and nuclear weapons. If you haven’t been petrified up until now at the prospect of a Trump presidency, this would be a good time to start worrying.
Trump was answering reporters’ questions about the Obama administration’s decision to expel 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the hacking of the American presidential election. The president-elect indicated that he still doesn’t believe the unanimous assessment of America’s intelligence agencies, namely that Russia directed the hacking of the Democratic National Committee last year in order to disrupt our presidential election.
“It’s a pretty serious charge, and I want them to be sure,” Trump said, suggesting that the diplomatic retaliation was based on shaky evidence. “And if you look at the weapons of mass destruction, that was a disaster, and they were wrong. And so I want them to be sure.”
The weapons of mass destruction he mentions were the ones that the CIA falsely told President George W. Bush were present in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in December 2002. The CIA misinformation provided Bush with the pretext for the 2003 Iraq invasion.
This brief New Year’s Eve exchange reveals a great deal about Trump and the sort of president he will be, so it’s worth parsing it carefully.
“I think it’s unfair if they don’t know,” Trump said of the hacking and retaliation. “And I know a lot about hacking. And hacking is a very hard thing to prove. So it could be somebody else. And I also know things that other people don’t know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation.”
Trump has been saying for months that “nobody knows” who broke into the DNC’s computers. During a debate last September he suggested that it could even “be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, okay?”
So when the CIA and its sister agencies say it’s Russia, and Trump says that “nobody” actually knows who it was, and that he happens to “know things that other people don’t know,” we have to wonder where he gets his exclusive information. It couldn’t be from his post-election intelligence briefings, because he hasn’t been attending them.
Happily, Trump addressed that question directly during the debate last September. “I have a son,” Trump said. “He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it’s hardly doable.”
If he’d said that sort of thing and then slyly grinned, we might guess that he knows how silly he’s acting. Unfortunately, we know enough about him by now that we’re forced to reach the opposite conclusion: Trump thinks he’s speaking truth, perhaps even wisdom.
He can’t imagine how one might identify a hacker, so he assumes nobody else can either. He can’t tell the difference between his son and the cyber-warfare teams at the CIA. And, at the bottom of it all, he doesn’t know what “knowledge” is. He honestly believes he has essential information that’s beyond the reach of the CIA, FBI and so on.
This last point is so outrageous that it’s tempting to think he’s kidding. But no: He’s trod this path before. In November 2015 he told a campaign rally in Iowa, “I know more about ISIS [the Islamic State group] than the generals do, believe me.”
Trump’s critics like to say that he’s a serial liar, citing his extensive record of false statements since the presidential race began. The evidence suggests, though, that he’s not lying. “Lying” is saying things you know to be false. Trump plainly believes the things he’s saying, at least at the moment he’s saying them.
It’s not just the self-assurance, nor the silly cases he builds to back up his misinformation. It’s also the fact that he makes no attempt, as liars normally do, to maintain some sort of consistent storyline. He contradicts known fact, dismisses hard evidence and even switches stories in mid-sentence without breaking a sweat. Most astonishing, he denies ever having said things that he was publicly recorded saying and then, of all things, calls the accuser a liar, as he did repeatedly on the campaign trail.
Tracing a hacker is not that hard, if you understand the processes and technology involved. Trump doesn’t. Nor could he possibly “know more about ISIS than the generals do.” There’s no possible source for the information. Nor could we think that he knows “things that other people don’t know” about computers. Not after he’s just marveled at his 10-year-old son’s keyboard skills. What all this tells us is that he’s not clear what “knowing” means.
In an ordinary person, having visions or passing fancies and believing them to be true can prove dangerous to the individual and those around him or her. It can even lead to multiple deaths, as it’s done in hundreds of incidents in schools and shopping malls across the country.
But when it’s the leader of a nation who suffers from this inability to tell truth from fiction, the result can be disaster for the nation and even beyond. Nowhere is that truer than in the United States, the most powerful nation on earth. If — or when — America is led by a man who doesn’t understand the meaning of information, fact or knowledge, fateful decisions will be made based on his passing whims or his boundless suspicions and resentments.
Nothing and nobody can tell him otherwise unless the other branches of government — the Republican Congress and the soon-to-be conservative-led Supreme Court — decide to put the nation’s needs ahead of partisan interest. They haven’t shown much taste for such sacrifice in recent years. We can only hope that when the crisis comes, as it will, their response will be different.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).