National Security Adviser John Bolton’s top aide hire said last year that U.S. intelligence reports on Russia’s election meddling were “rigged.”
That’s just one of the conspiracies Fred Fleitz espoused before he was hired last week as Bolton’s chief of staff. Fleitz has also said it’s “impossible” to know if Russia was responsible for election-related hacks, and speculated that the Obama administration manipulated intelligence about Russia and that it schemed to “trap” Trump officials by sanctioning Moscow.
Fleitz even said that President Trump should “pardon everyone” under investigation in the Russia matter.
Fleitz’s views on Russia may place him in good company when it comes to the president and Bolton, who has harbored similar theories about Russia’s actions in 2016. But it places him squarely at odds with the intelligence community’s 2017 report that said Russia meddled in the presidential election—and did so to help Trump win.
Faced with the FBI, NSA, and CIA assessment that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” Fleitz argued that the findings weren’t based in intelligence but were pure politics.
“I [...] suspect the entire purpose of this report and its timing was to provide President Obama with a supposedly objective intelligence report on Russian interference in the 2016 election that the president could release before he left office to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s election,” Fleitz wrote at FoxNews.com on Jan. 7, 2017.
Intelligence agencies were “led astray by the Obama administration’s partisanship and national security incompetence,” he added.
As Fleitz put it later, “I don’t use this word lightly, but I think this assessment was rigged.”
Fleitz then said it was “impossible” to know if Russia was responsible because of the “extremely weak internet security” of the Democrats who were hacked.
Having such a high-ranking national security official harboring views diametrically at odds with the conclusions of the intelligence community comes on top of Trump embracing conspiracy theories about the intelligence community’s motives. Fleitz seems likely to amplify those base instincts, having previewed the “deep state” conspiracy later taken up by Trump himself.
“I believe President Trump’s reluctance to accept the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies on Russian election meddling is understandable, given the major flaws in the January 2017 ICA [intelligence community assessment] as well as the incredible hostility that intelligence officers expressed against him before and after the election.”
Eleven months after this op-ed, Fleitz wrote again for Fox News that U.S. sanctions placed on Russia in December 2016 to punish election meddling were part of an Obama administration plot to entrap incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn to violate an anachronistic law prohibiting people not in the U.S. government from negotiating with foreign governments.
“President Obama’s 11th hour Russia sanctions were not just an attempt to sabotage the Trump administration’s Russia policy. They also were a trap to catch Trump officials in a supposed Logan Act violation by discussing these sanctions with Russian officials before Trump was sworn in,” Fleitz wrote for Fox News in December 2017. “It is no accident that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn reportedly fell into the Logan Act trap when he discussed the Russia sanctions with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak.”
Fleitz previewed his entrapment theory—which has since been parroted by right-wing media outlets—on Fox News on Dec. 5, 2017, speculating that Flynn may not have actually lied to the FBI about talking sanctions with Kislyak, but said he lied to avoid a costly legal battle.
“I think it was bait,” Fleitz said of the sanctions in an interview on Fox News. “And because I think this was a trap by the Democrats—if this could be established—I think President Trump should pardon everyone, and I think that’s what Republicans on the Hill should be calling for.”
Flietz believes that dissenting voices within the intelligence community were not allowed to provide input to the report, released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Jan. 6, 2017. He bases this on the fact that the authors of the report were limited to the FBI, CIA, and NSA.
“I am concerned that the exclusion of key intelligence players and the lack of dissenting views give the appearance that the conclusions of this report were pre-cooked,” Fleitz wrote in January 2017.
The National Security Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power, expressed concern about Fleitz’s views.
“Periodically, the intelligence community or parts of it have been at odds with or not on the best of terms with folks in the NSC—some dissent and disagreement is fine,” Rothkopf told The Daily Beast. “But to have the entire intelligence community at odds with the NSC... senior management is a problem. It suggests the president will either miss out on important perspectives or multiple, competing views will seek his attention and confuse matters.”
Bolton and Fleitz have known each other since at least the Bush administration, when Flietz served as his chief of staff while he was undersecretary of arms control at the State Department. Flietz previously spent decades in the intelligence community, first at the CIA then the Defense Intelligence Agency. Since leaving government, Fleitz has largely been associated with Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, a right-wing think tank accused of bigotry against Muslims.
While Bolton acknowledged Russia’s interference after first doubting it, he has said he does not believe the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment Moscow sought to help Trump win.
In December 2016, Bolton told Fox News that hacks of Democrats could have been a “false flag,” when a government stages an attack in someone else’s name. When pressed, Bolton insinuated it could have been the U.S. government. “We just don’t know. But I believe that the intelligence community has been politicized in the Obama administration to a very significant degree.” The next day, he blamed the media for supposedly twisting his words.
“There are reports out that I said on Fox yesterday that I thought that the Obama administration had conducted the hack into the RNC and the DNC,” he said. “It’s typical bad reporting. I’ve never believed that.”
Months later, in July 2017, Bolton wrote an op-ed in the U.K.’s Telegraph where he seemed to acknowledge Russian meddling in the election, calling it a “true act of war.” But in February 2018, the month before he was hired by Trump, Bolton wrote in The Hill that it wasn’t clear that Russia sought to help Trump—in direct contrast to the findings of the U.S. intelligence community.
“The safest conclusion based on currently available public information is that Russia did not intend to advantage or disadvantage any particular candidate and that Russia was not ‘supporting’ anyone for president,” Bolton wrote.
While Bolton’s views regarding Russian interference are unclear, Fleitz’s don’t appear to be—and Rothkopf called them “deeply disturbing.”
“Fleitz has accepted a discredited view, one that is at odds with massive amounts of evidence and is highly political,” Rothkopf said. “It suggests a lack of judgment, an openness to the conspiracy theories of extremists, and a willingness to politicize processes that should be fact-based to serve the interests of the American people.”
—with additional reporting by Adam Rawnsley.