The bizarre exchange unfolding between president-elect Donald J. Trump and the United States intelligence community is nothing short of Orwellian.
The president-elect emerges to leadership over a divided nation. With the recent revelations of Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Hillary Clinton’s campaign members, Trump is provided a unique opportunity to unite and galvanize the country towards one common, patriotic cause—anger and retribution for a hostile foreign government’s attempt to undermine our political process and ultimately our most sacred national treasure, our democracy. He could rally support from both sides against the attack, but Trump has yet to seize this mantle.
What could be more important than uniting his country against an enemy that would seek to disrupt our election, even if it was with the intent for him to win?
After weeks of incredulous tweets dismissing both the findings of the US intelligence community and the competency of its agents, Trump finally received a classified briefing last Friday. Though there is consensus among all of the investigating agencies and largely the Senate and Congress on the nature, perpetrator, and motivation for the influence campaign that helped Trump’s win, he still appears to not accept Russia's role.
There are two potential reasons that could explain his behavior.
One: Trump’s thin-skinned ego cannot tolerate any scenario that questions the legitimacy of his win. That’s possible.
However, if Trump is so concerned about the legitimacy of his victory being tainted by Russian involvement, nothing is compromising his presidential legitimacy now more than his denial of the facts. A foreign actor has attacked our nation with the goal of weakening both our electoral process and democracy. Though the assault may not have the carnage or death toll of Pearl Harbor or 911, it is no less belligerent and should outrage all Americans, Democrats and Republicans.
Two: Trump was a complicit and knowledgeable participant in Putin’s influence campaign. The longer Trump continues to not only deny the facts but maintain a protective posture towards Russia, the more likely this scenario seems.
Whether unwittingly or not, Trump was complicit in the Russian influence campaign. His complicity manifested in a number of ways:
- The Russian’s hacking of the DNC was first announced in July. At his last press conference on July 27th, though questioning the premise that it was Russian hacking, Trump boldly challenged the Russians to find “the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Referring to emails deleted by Clinton’s ISP.
- Trump advisor Roger Stone was made aware of WikiLeaks’ impending email dumps of Clinton’s Campaign Chairman, John Podesta, ahead of time through “backchannels” to Julian Assange—founder of WikiLeaks and international cyber-pariah.
- Trump routinely relished in the daily deliveries of embarrassing, private communications exposing the inner workings of the Clinton campaign, and all the petty squabbling and scheming in the works to win the election. At a rally in Wilkes-Barre, PA, Trump exclaimed, "I love WikiLeaks!" According to ThinkProgress, Trump referenced Clinton's WikiLeaks emails 164 times in the last month of the election. He was practically an evangelist!
- Trump has even quoted Russian propaganda at his rallies in reference to the leaked emails. Sputnik International, a Russian propaganda site, altered a Benghazi-related email from Sidney Blumenthal, Clinton advisor, to implicate Clinton in the tragedy. The content from the actual email was an article in Newsweek by Kurt Eichenwald speculating on a Benghazi theory and not an admission by a Clinton confident of wrongdoing. That didn’t bother Trump.
It’s not clear if Trump was knowledgeable of the Russian’s agenda. But there are certain details that call his awareness into question:
- As noted, Stone was in contact with WikiLeaks. This suggests knowledge post-hacks.
- The Russian government also announced the day after the election that Moscow had contact with the Trump team during the campaign. The Trump Team has denied this claim. But it wouldn’t be the first time he was less than honest.
- Trump has demonstrated very little consistency in his campaign, apart from his allegiance to Russia and affinity for Putin. He has wavered on immigration, abortion punishment, treatment of Muslims, healthcare, but never on his pro-Putin position—odd for a man with little focus and a complete lack of ideology (beyond his own self-aggrandizement).
- Consider the Republican National Convention. The only language altered by Team Trump to the Republican National Committee (RNC) platform was to disarm anti-Russian Ukrainian forces. Trump brushed this off with little explanation when asked by the media. Though an oddity at the time, it now could appear to be an agenda item on a larger list of moves designed to change US diplomacy towards Russia.
Entanglements and Russophilia
Trump’s known ties to Russia and desire to surround himself—both pre- and post-election—with Russophiles are also alarming.
For example, Trump says he has no investments in Russia, but his own son belies this claim.
“In terms of high-end product influx into the U.S., Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump, Jr., said at a conference in 2008, according to coverage at the time. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
Why lie about this particular aspect of his business? He hasn’t claimed to not be doing business in other major countries that could pose a conflict of interest, and there are many. He is indebted to the Chinese, for example, to the tune of $950M with the Bank of China being one of the largest lenders for that loan against a building on the Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan, according to the New York Times. Many speculated last year that Russia might be one of the few places willing to loan money to Trump, given his many business failures. However, without his complete tax return no one can know. Boy is that audit sure taking a long time!
Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, is believed to have close ties to the pro-Russian Ukraine and is suspected of being paid by them while working for Trump.
Trump has named pro-Russian cabinet members for key posts—retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor, and Exxon Mobile CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. Flynn was paid to give a speech at the 10th anniversary event for RT—the Russian government propaganda TV station—where was photographed sitting with Putin. In 2013 Tillerson received the Order of Friendship from Putin—Russia’s highest honor.
Does this mean Trump is in Putin’s pocket? Not with any certainty. But these facts might not be alarming if Trump were acting in a more predictable and patriotic manner about the country he will soon lead having been attacked by an enemy.
There are many leaders in Congress who share outrage over this attack and are working in a bipartisan manner to determine appropriate next steps—John McCain and Lindsey Graham have shown particular leadership. Despite this united front, Republicans insist that this attempt to influence the election was unsuccessful and Trump won legitimately. I would agree with this if it were clear that people were not influenced by the campaign and Trump was not a knowledgeable participant in these acts—but neither is clear.
"Russia clearly tried to meddle in our political system. No two ways about it," Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House told reporters. He then argued that the hacking did not change the outcome of the election. "He won the election fair and square.”
Though voting machines were not tampered with, noted by the security experts’ Report, the suggestion that the “influence campaign” was not successful—as in it did not influence—is disingenuous.
Remember, Trump referenced the WikiLeaks emails 164 times in the last month of the election. That’s nearly six times a day if he were campaigning every day. That’s likely more times a day than he told the truth. Why would he so often refer to the leaked emails if he felt they weren’t helping sway popular opinion away from Clinton and towards him? He’s nothing if not self-serving.
It’s not only Trump’s love for the leaked emails that validates their effectiveness. There were several attempted Faithless Electors in the Electoral College, who represented the Democratic Party but wanted to cast protest votes against Clinton. They were motivated by the leaked DNC emails revealing biased behavior towards Clinton over Bernie Sanders by then DNC Chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. These protest Electoral College voters, attempting to vote for Sanders, literally represent angry members of a party divided by information exposed through the Russian hacking—these are Electoral College voters. It would be interesting to know just how many Sanders’ voters stayed home on November 8th. I’m sure some ardent political science student will one day do an analysis of this impact of Russia’s influence campaign for some future opus thesis. But for now, common sense tells us there was influence and intellectual honesty—as well as decency—should discourage anyone from drawing a different conclusion.
"What's the big deal?" Trump voters told the New York Times over the weekend when asked about the Russian hacking and Trump’s reaction to it. However, this indifference was qualified with an understanding that Trump wasn’t involved in it.
“Our president being in cahoots with the Russian government?” Mr. Willis said. “Yes, I’m very concerned about that.” Others shared this view in the piece.
If Trump were involved in the orchestration, it would be treason. As defined in the US Constitution, “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”
The briefing by intelligence leaders to the Armed Services Committee raised several important points last week.
“Do you think we are communicating clearly to our adversaries in a language that they’ll understand that the cost will out weigh any gains that they get if they try this again…?” Senator Joe Donnelly, democrat from Indiana, asked James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, during the Senate hearings on the recent cyber attacks on the US, largely focused on Russian hacks during the election.
If you consider that the “gains” in this case could be that Russia was able to get elected its choice of candidate, it’s hard to imagine a big enough deterrent, particularly if Trump’s consistent Russian pandering is directly the result of a sphere of influence. A sphere of influence under Russia would mean the US would be in a position in which Russia has power to affect our national agenda. At this point, Trump’s obstinacy has been so strong against the facts, it’s hard to believe it could be based in anything but an indebtedness. His legitimacy with his detractors has never been a priority—just smearing them seems to suffice. But in this case it doesn’t seem that that approach will, or should, work. Again, Trump could possibly mitigate these concerns by doing what every presidential candidate has done in the last fifty years and disclose his taxes.
We’ve seen a glimpse of them, exposing his near billion-dollar loss. It’s hard to believe there could be something bigger than that to hide—something more sensitive to his ego or motivations. Being indebted to Russia would explain his odd Putin protectionism.
Trump has never shown himself to be a patriot. On the contrary, he’s a proud draft dodger, he avoids paying income tax, he’s attacked a Gold Star family, POWs, veterans, and those with PTSD, and he waged a multiyear campaign, with no basis in fact, to delegitimize our current president. Placing America under a sphere of influence to Russia would just be another grotesque example of his lack of patriotism. And considering other qualities we learned about Trump during the campaign—not the best business man, not respectful of women, minorities, or immigrants, not really for the little guy, not very philanthropic, and not in any way honest—such an extreme lack of patriotism isn’t that surprising. It would appear his whole life is a Potemkin village, so why should his presidency be any different?