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The Balloon Blindness of Team Trump

They won’t listen to evidence that they missed Chinese spy balloons.
February 9, 2023
The Balloon Blindness of Team Trump
Chinese spy balloon flies above in Charlotte NC, United States on February 04, 2023. The Pentagon announced earlier that it is tracking a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon above the continental US. A Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said the balloon was a âcivilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes." (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Donald Trump has a well-known aversion to reality. Tens of thousands of Americans, if not hundreds of thousands, died unnecessarily of COVID because he denied and downplayed the emerging pandemic. Thousands of people stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, causing several deaths and threatening to topple American democracy, because he wouldn’t accept that he had lost the 2020 election.

In foreign policy, Trump refused to believe that Vladimir Putin was an incorrigible menace. He rejected U.S. intelligence assessments that Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. He pretended that “love letters” could pacify Kim Jong-un.

But the Trump administration’s defiance of unwelcome evidence went beyond Trump himself. We’re now seeing the extent of this denialism in the wake of revelations about China’s spy balloons. After a Chinese surveillance balloon crossed the United States last week, U.S. military and intelligence officials reported that during Trump’s tenure, at least three other such balloons had passed over the continental United States.

Many Republicans, including several top national security officials from Trump’s administration, are rejecting these reports. They’re exposing a vulnerability in our political system: a party so warped by arrogance, dogmatism, polarization, and spite that it can’t acknowledge a threat to the United States.

The balloon revelations have unfolded in a series of press briefings:

Brigadier Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, Feb. 2: “Instances of this activity [Chinese balloons] have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration.”

Senior defense official, same briefing: “It is not the first time that you had a balloon of this nature cross over the continental United States. It has happened a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration.”

Senior defense official, Feb. 4: “PRC government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration.”

Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), Feb. 6: “We did not detect those threats. . . . The intel community, after the fact . . . assess[ed] those threats . . . and made us aware of those balloons.”

Ryder, Feb. 8: “in the last couple of years . . . subsequent analysis determined that objects that had traversed over the United States . . . [were] PRC surveillance balloons.”

In virtually every briefing and every press report, military and administration officials have added two important stipulations: first, that the prior balloons crossed our territory far more briefly than the one we saw last week; and second, that Trump’s officials didn’t know about them because at the time, they were classified as unidentified objects. Only after Trump left office did intelligence analysts figure out, from electronic signals and other data, that they were balloons.

In response to these reports, many prominent Republicans, including several who supervised the intelligence community in Trump’s administration, haven’t just denied knowing about the balloons. They’ve denied that the balloon flights happened at all. And the reasons they’ve offered paint an alarming portrait of willful blindness.

1. It couldn’t have happened, because China was too afraid of Trump.

On Friday evening, a day after the Department of Defense (DOD) disclosed the Trump-era balloon flights, Rep. Matt Gaetz said of the latest balloon: “This would not be happening if Donald Trump were president, because there was an unpredictability to President Trump that ensured that we were not messed with.”

Gaetz’s statement left open the possibility that when Trump was president, China had conducted less conspicuous balloon flights over U.S. territory. But on Saturday, Ric Grenell, Trump’s former acting director of national intelligence, ruled out that possibility. “President Trump put forward a very aggressive America First policy,” Grenell declared. “And that’s why China wouldn’t fly balloons over America.”

2. It couldn’t have happened, because Trump says it didn’t happen.

On Sunday, Trump dismissed DOD’s reports of the prior balloons. He denied that any such flights had happened or could have happened while he was president. “They are putting out that a Balloon was put up by China during the Trump Administration,” Trump wrote. “China had too much respect for ‘TRUMP’ for this to have happened, and it NEVER did. JUST FAKE DISINFORMATION!”

Trump’s denial was good enough for Rep. Brian Mast, a Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. On Monday, Mast told Fox & Friends, “If President Trump says that this didn’t take place, then I’m going to believe the president.”

3. It couldn’t have happened, because the public didn’t see it.

On Sunday, Fox News host Maria Bartiromo interviewed John Ratcliffe, another former Trump director of national intelligence. (Ratcliffe succeeded Grenell in the job.) She told Ratcliffe: “The Department of Defense is claiming that there were three balloons, Chinese spy balloons, that entered the United States airspace during the Trump administration, and that they were not shot down, and they were not disclosed. Can you please tell us the truth, and if that’s true?”

“It’s not true. I can refute it,” Ratcliffe replied. As evidence, he pointed out that ordinary citizens hadn’t seen such balloons. “Do you remember during the Trump administration when photographers on the ground and commercial airline pilots were talking about a spy balloon over the United States that people could look up and see even with the naked eye?” he asked. “I don’t remember that either. Because it didn’t happen.”

4. It couldn’t have happened, because I didn’t hear about it.

On Monday night, more than eight hours after NORAD confirmed the Trump-era balloon flights, Fox News host Laura Ingraham showed a video clip that referred to “three previous balloons that flew over the U.S. under the previous administration, but Trump officials didn’t know it was happening.” She asked her guest, former Trump national security advisor Robert O’Brien, “Is there any chance that this happened, and you all weren’t told?”

“No, I think that’s highly unlikely,” O’Brien replied. “The idea that this could have happened without us knowing is—it’s not very plausible.”

5. It couldn’t have happened, because our intelligence team was too sharp to miss it.

On Monday, speaking to Sean Hannity, Ratcliffe ridiculed the idea that “the best intelligence enterprise in the world somehow missed this for years—but miraculously, in the past week, they [the Biden administration] pieced it together to find three incidents.” Ratcliffe was wrong about how quickly intelligence analysts had pieced it together—according to Ryder, that work had been going on for “the last couple of years”—and he was dangerously deluded about the perfection of U.S. intelligence under Trump.

6. It couldn’t have happened, because the people who say it happened work for Biden.

On Monday, a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre: “How is it possible that this administration discovered at least three previous balloons that flew over the U.S. under the previous administration, but Trump officials didn’t know it was happening?” When the video circulated on Twitter, along with Jean-Pierre’s stumbling response, Republicans derided it. “What a load of crap,” tweeted Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor and onetime Republican presidential frontrunner. Right-wing pundit Katie Pavlich chimed in: “They’re making this up to somehow make Biden’s disastrous and embarrassing response better.”

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor (his daughter, who now holds that job, delivered the GOP’s response to the State of the Union on Tuesday), framed the question of Trump-era balloons as a partisan dispute. “Not a single person in the Trump administration at the highest levels of authority ever heard of it,” Huckabee scoffed on Monday. He challenged “the Biden administration” to “bring a named source to the table, rather than these anonymous people claiming that it happened.” This was days after DOD had reported the Trump-era balloons and hours after spokesmen for NORAD and the National Security Council had confirmed them.

7. Denials from Trump officials are more reliable than intelligence under Biden.

On Tuesday, One America News aired an interview with Trump’s former NSC spokesman, John Elliott, about reports from “the Biden Pentagon” about Trump-era balloons. Elliott dismissed the reports, claiming there was “no actual evidence” of the balloons, just “historical forensics.”

“Three of [Trump’s] top officials, including the director of national intelligence at the time, have said on the record that this never happened,” Elliott noted. “By them coming out here and saying, ‘Look, this never happened’—and that it would have been brought to their attention if it had—that’s very strong, almost independent authority saying that this never could have happened.”

The interviewer, Chanel Rion, noted that Biden’s national security team was offering to brief former Trump officials on the evidence. But Elliott spurned that idea. “The Trump people who were actually there” should be briefing Biden’s team, not the other way around, he scoffed. They could “tell the Biden administration about what happened and what did not happen on their watch.”

On Wednesday night, hours after yet another on-camera DOD briefing—this time laying out more information about the previous balloon flights and the review process that led intelligence analysts to identify them—Grenell went on TV and mocked the idea that the Biden administration could have learned anything worthy of briefing him or other former Trump officials. “It never happened,” Grenell said of the Trump-era balloon flights. “Not a single national security official in the Trump administration will say that this happened.”

These denials—and the bizarre rationales that have been mustered to support them—reflect a dangerous psychopathology. A party that has increasingly rejected evidence about viruses, vaccines, and elections is also rejecting evidence of Chinese surveillance. The rejection is driven by delusions of invincibility, worship of Trump, and refusal to believe anything associated with Biden. And it’s not just coming from marginal crackpots. It’s coming from the highest reaches of the Republican national security establishment.

Republicans still pretend they’re the party of national security. They think they’re tough because they post pictures of themselves aiming rifles, absurdly, at a balloon 60,000 feet above. But a party that won’t listen to evidence of foreign threats, just because it might make the party look bad, can’t be trusted to protect the country.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.