Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday played down explosive allegations that Russia has compromising information on President-elect Donald Trump, saying such claims are “unsubstantiated,” but he also warned that Trump’s constant statements casting doubt on U.S. intelligence “play into the Russian narrative” of a weakened America that allies can’t rely on.
Speaking to several reporters in his West Wing office, Biden said several world leaders have already asked him for assurance that Trump’s comments about the intelligence community aren’t serious.
He also said he sees a sharp divergence on these issues within the incoming administration based on conversations he’s had with Vice President-elect Mike Pence: “Mike is significantly more informed about Russian conduct, potential intentions and [Vladimir] Putin’s behavior than the president-elect is, based on what the president-elect says.”
On the specific allegations that the Kremlin has compromising personal information on Trump, Biden confirmed that top intelligence officials briefed him and President Barack Obama on the claims, but he called them “totally ancillary” and “had nothing to do with what the president asked for.”
The vice president said he had read the entire document that includes the claims, some of which were included in the larger intelligence report on evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin called for cyberattacks on Democratic targets to tilt the election Trump’s way.
He said he and Obama largely dismissed the unverified information themselves as anything but awareness of documents and discussions that were making the rounds.
“The president was like, ‘What does this have to do with anything?’” Biden said, adding that there was no order from the current White House to the intelligence agencies to check the claims. “Neither of us asked for any detail.”
Biden also argued that secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson shouldn’t be confirmed unless and until he provides proof that he’s totally divested from interests that could enrich him on the job.
In the wide-ranging discussion on Thursday, Biden said he believes that despite the problems that the Democratic Party faces after its many 2016 losses, the Republican Party is in deeper trouble, both legislatively—“watch them undo Obamacare, this is going to be worth the price of admission,” he said, marveling at how the GOP will try to change people’s sense of health care back from being a right—to a larger social shift that conservatives are behind on.
“If you’re a Republican, this new Republican Party, you’re going to be tilting against windmills,” he said.
And he again bemoaned the Democratic Party’s embrace of “yielding to pedigree” instead of being the voice of the common person, fighting for dignity and embracing government as a shield against abuse of power. The world and the economy are changing, he said, but his party has been failing to explain real solutions to people—of all races, not just the white working class—who look at the struggles they’re facing and “they don’t know what to do.”
What’s going on, he said, is a churn not unlike other moments of massive technological advancement, where the answers haven’t caught up to the changes.
“Remember when you were in school and you studied the Luddites? That’s kind of where we are,” Biden said. “This is just a new version of ‘Smash the machinery.’”
Regarding Trump’s campaign against the intelligence community, Biden said, “it’s very damaging to our standing in the world for a president to take one of the crown jewels of our national defense and denigrate it,” Biden said, describing disconcerted leaders telling him, “basically, ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe.’”
Biden also took aim at Trump’s repeated comments Wednesday drawing some unclear comparison between leaks of intelligence briefings he’s gotten to Nazi Germany.
“The one thing you never want to invoke is Nazi Germany, no matter what the circumstance is, even if you’re trying to make a point that may—and I’m not suggesting it did—that may be relevant,” Biden said. “It is an overwhelming diversion from the point you’re trying to make.”
Biden called “correct” the conduct of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who oversaw the intelligence report last week and briefed Trump—and which appears to have included the unverified memos alleging a range of salacious behavior and contact between the president-elect’s team and Russia.
Biden said that after over 40 years in government, hearing rumors about illegal conduct or encounters with women didn’t surprise him, but “it surprised me that it made it to the point where the FBI thought they had to pursue it.”
Trump has vigorously pushed back against the allegations, calling them “fake news” and has repeatedly blasted leaks of U.S. intelligence assessments about Russia. He has also cast doubt on the intelligence community, questioning the motivations behind the conclusion that Putin tried to help elect Trump. That conclusion has further fueled the conspiracy theory that Trump did not legitimately beat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.
Trump’s reaction to the intelligence reports, Biden argued, is perhaps understandable from someone who has never been in government and never been exposed to the kind of work produced. Reaching into his briefcase, he held up an iPad with the seal of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on its black case, explaining that the code word-protected device gives him a full daily read-out of intelligence from throughout the world, with a feature that allows him to ask questions that are answered within hours.
“I have been impressed with the quality of the intelligence we have gotten. Disappointed a couple times when—and it’s totally understandable—it would have been nice if the intelligence community could have seen around the corner and thought how quick ISIL had metastasized and been able to move on Mosul,” Biden said, adding, “He may point to things where the intelligence community didn’t get it right. Most of the time, it’s that they didn’t get it in advance, as opposed to getting it wrong.”
Biden said he’s been pleased that Pence has been “very receptive” to hearing his advice, though he said that as the head of the transition team, the vice president-elect appears to have been overtaken with those responsibilities in a way that has limited their conversations. The lack of senior staff appointments in the vice president’s office has been an impediment as well, he argued, noting that there hasn’t been a national security adviser for the new vice president’s office for his own national security adviser to brief.
But Biden said he’s personally written a collection of memos for Pence, detailing what to say and what not to say in hotspots like Ukraine and Iraq, who to trust and not to trust, and “my perspective on the things that could explode most easily.”
The sensitivity to even what may seem like small issues and knowing when to intervene just to quash misunderstandings is part of what the world needs from America, Biden said, and depends on a functional relationship between the president and his intelligence agencies.
“If you don’t end up on the phone and say, ‘Whoa guys, let me tell you what’s going on,’ then you may have a shooting war. You may end up having things unravel,” Biden said.
In this, Biden said that he hopes Trump’s experienced advisers speak up, and have the access to shape the new president’s thinking, citing Defense Secretary-nominee James Mattis (whom he approves of) and incoming national security adviser Mike Flynn (whom he disagrees with but respects) as examples.
“It really matters that you have really smart people around you who understand context—context is all important—and can translate, particularly to a president who has no exposure whatsoever. That’s not a criticism. It’s reality,” he said. “Instincts are great—they’re even better if you have information.”
Biden started the interview by saying, sarcastically, “everything’s good and rosy.” His worries were evident in nearly every sentence.
“It’s hard to know what the president-elect’s position is, because his style is so different than any president or president-elect that I’ve been associated with,” he said. “You don’t know what he means. Start off it’s going to be a 1,000 foot wall and 80 feet thick and they’re going to pay for it, now we’re down to, ‘Well, it’ll be a wall part of the way, there’ll be overheard imagery, and maybe we’ll have a tariff and such and such.’ I never know what he means.”
As Democrats prepare to take Trump and the Republicans on, Biden dismissed the suggestion of a crisis in the party, but insisted that there has to be a real embrace of identifying problems and then explaining solutions in a way Hillary Clinton never managed, all while remembering the constant waves of titillating news that Trump surfed and the truly narrow margin he won.
“This idea that this was a great, overwhelming win—for Christ’s sake, three million fewer people voted for him, not withstanding the Electoral College, and what was it, 170,000 votes in three states?” Biden said. “Come on, man.”