On December 29th, 2016, President Obama made a statement on what he planned to do “in response to Russian malicious cyber-activity and harassment.” You can scroll through the press release below to see what he had in mind.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll make an itemized list of President Obama’s announced reprisals against Russia:
- Sanctions against the GRU (Russian Military Intelligence).
- Sanctions against the FSB (successor to the KGB).
- Sanctions against four individual officers of the GRU (Russian Military Intelligence).
- Sanctions against three companies that provided material support to the GRU’s cyber operations.
- Sanctions against two Russian individuals (Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev and Aleksey Alekseyevich Belan) designated by the Secretary of the Treasury as being responsible for using cyber-enabled means to cause misappropriation of funds and personal identifying information.
- The State Department will shut down two Russian compounds, in Maryland and New York, used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes.
- The State Department is declaring “persona non grata” 35 Russian intelligence operatives.
- The Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are releasing declassified technical information on Russian civilian and military intelligence service cyber activity, to help network defenders in the United States and abroad identify, detect, and disrupt Russia’s global campaign of malicious cyber activities.
- Additional unspecified actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized.
Four hours after Obama made this announcement, Donald Trump issued a written response stating that “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.”
At the time, he was still refusing to acknowledge that the Intelligence Community was correct in fingering the Russians as the source of cyberattacks on the Democrats. But he reluctantly announced he would at least meet with them to hear their case firsthand: “Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”
The meeting took place on Friday, January 6th, the same day that the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified report on Russia’s cyber-interference with our election. Trump got the classified version, but even it didn’t much impress him.
After the president-elect was briefed Friday by the heads of the NSA, FBI, CIA, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, he offered an oblique statement that neither confirmed nor denied his belief that Russia hacked Democratic targets…
…Until now, the president-elect has remained doggedly skeptical and even willfully ignorant of the evidence tying Russia’s government to the attacks. He’s blamed the intrusions on everyone from China to a 400-pound hacker in New Jersey to the Democratic party itself. Rather than call for investigations into the hacking, he’s said the country needs to “move on.” At times he has even refused to admit any hacks took place. He continued those assertions even after he began receiving classified briefings on the attacks as the Republican presidential candidate, and then after US intelligence agencies stated that the Kremlin was responsible in early October, and even after he was elected and gained full access to presidential briefings from the intelligence community. As late as Friday morning, ahead of his own personal briefing on the full report, he continued to refer to China as the possible source of the attack and called the investigation into Russia a “political witch hunt.”
It wasn’t until Wednesday, January 11th that Trump publicly admitted that Russia had been responsible. And he seemed happy with Russia’s efforts.
“As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” Trump said. “Hacking’s bad, and it shouldn’t be done. But look at the things that were hacked, look at what was learned from that hacking.”
After Obama’s announcement on December 29th, there was a response from the Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko. Here’s what he tweeted:
President Obama expels 35 🇷🇺 diplomats in Cold War deja vu. As everybody, incl 🇺🇸 people, will be glad to see the last of this hapless Adm. pic.twitter.com/mleqA16H8D
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) December 29, 2016
So, that’s an indication of how Russian diplomats stationed in the West were feeling at the time. Obama was a lame duck. He was trying to poison relations with Russia and tie Trump’s hands. Things would be fine once the “hapless” Obama administration was gone.
Coincidentally, that’s exactly what Michael Flynn was saying to the Russian ambassador to the United States. Flynn was urging the Russians not to reciprocate by expelling Americans and promising that his incoming administration would review everything that Obama had announced. The possibility of relaxing preexisting sanctions also appears to have been discussed.
Given Trump’s Pravda-like defenses of Russia, this must have seemed quite plausible to Vladimir Putin which is most likely why he followed Flynn’s advice to the letter and announced that Russia would have no response to Obama.
Donald Trump was so pleased with this that he couldn’t help responding enthusiastically to his Slavic friend’s restraint:
Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016
To review, while President Obama was kicking 35 spies out of the country and placing sanctions on the entities responsible for breaking and entering into the Democratic Party’s headquarters, Trump was denying that Russia was responsible and promising Putin that he need not take any of the announced reprisals seriously.
He was pleased as punch with the work Michael Flynn had done on the phone with the Russian ambassador, which couldn’t be clearer from his tweet. Even yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump “had no problem with the fact that [Flynn] acted in accord with what his job was supposed to be doing” and “part of his job” was to talk to “his counterparts.”
Moreover, even after reviewing the transcripts of the calls Flynn had with the Russian ambassador, Spicer insisted that Trump had no problem with the content of the calls and saw absolutely nothing illegal or improper about them.
“The issue isn’t whether or not– what he discussed,” Spicer continued. “There’s been a complete legal review of that and there’s no issue with that. The issue is whether or not he failed to properly inform the vice president or not be honest with him, or not remember it, but that’s the plain and simple issue.”
With the dizzying pace that everything seems to be moving, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Trump was acting like a crazy person all throughout this time period. His refusal to give any credence to the briefings provided by the NSA, FBI, CIA, and the Director of National Intelligence wasn’t seen as normal by anyone, and was obviously of grave concern to our intelligence community.
From their perspective, something was deeply amiss, and when they learned that while they were kicking 35 Russian spies out of the country, Trump’s National Security Adviser was spending all day on the phone with the Russian ambassador, it didn’t exactly sit right.
But, to be honest, the intelligence community had already red-flagged Michael Flynn and several other close associates of Trump because they’d noticed constant communication during the campaign between them and known Russian intelligence officers.
I’ve seen some people diminish the importance of Flynn’s communications with the Russian ambassador on December 29th because it isn’t obviously unreasonable for an incoming administration to have policy differences with the outgoing one. And, after all, Flynn merely asked for the Russians to be patient and not to overreact so that they could begin their relationship on a less acrimonious footing. If he dangled some enticing rewards, perhaps that wasn’t the greatest sin in the world.
It’s easy to fall for that or to rely on a contentious analysis that there wasn’t anything illegal about it. But that ignores the context in which it happened. This wasn’t a difference of opinion about how to react to Russian interference in our election. The Trump team was vehemently denying that there was any proof against Russia at all. And it wasn’t just that Michael Flynn was actively undermining the administration. He was a prime suspect in possible collusion with the Russian hacks. From the intelligence community’s point of view, it was an open question whether Flynn was a Russian agent. And here he was giving comfort to the Russians at the very moment that we were expelling their spies.
Meanwhile, they were contending with a president-elect who refused to believe them and who took Putin’s side at every turn, almost as if he was his defense attorney. When Trump did, at long last, relent and admit Russian culpability on January 11th, he also took perhaps his harshest shot at the intelligence community.
Allowing his hostility and contempt toward the U.S. intelligence community to again burst into public view, Trump also reaffirmed his belief — first expressed in a tweet earlier Wednesday morning — that intelligence officials were behaving as though they were in “Nazi Germany” with what he termed “disgraceful” leaks to the media. The Anti-Defamation League asked Trump to apologize for trivializing the Holocaust.
Seen in this light, it was no accident that the next day Washington Post columnist David Ignatius was the first to publicly disclose the Flynn-Kislyak phone calls that occurred on December 29th. Ignatius has long been close to the intelligence community and he sent a strong message to Trump and his transition team.
Being disregarded and disrespected was bad enough, but to get called Nazis by an outfit they suspected of divided loyalties was too much.
From that point on, Trump and Flynn were on notice. Their little game with Kislyak hadn’t gone unnoticed.
Untangling what happened after that point is something that hopefully Congress or an independent investigator can figure out. For some reason, the Trump team didn’t really get the severity of the threat Ignatius was conveying. They appear to have believed that the intelligence community only had the metadata indicating the calls had taken place and not the actual recordings. Why a former Director of Military Intelligence like Michael Flynn would make such a stupid assumption is hard to discern. Maybe he was just going on hope. But then it’s hard to understand why he would make the calls in the first place, given what he should have known about communications with Russian ambassadors.
I watched yesterday as the initially disorganized Trump administration struggled to erect a coherent defense. They’ve largely succeeded by this morning in framing this as a simple matter of Flynn mischaracterizing his conversations and misleading (in particular) Vice-President Mike Pence about them. Supposedly, no one shared the fact that Flynn’s calls were intercepted until after the inauguration and after the FBI had questioned Flynn about them. No one had a clue until the acting attorney general alerted them that Flynn was lying and that the Russians knew he was lying and could conceivably blackmail him if he didn’t come clean.
Of course, I looked at that blackmail story yesterday and found it wanting. If there was a brief period when Flynn might have been blackmailed, it would have been based on the faulty assumption that the Americans didn’t know everything about the calls that the Russians knew. And, once the DOJ told Trump’s counsel about the intercepts, there was no longer any threat that Flynn could be exposed to Trump or Pence as a liar.
The public, on the other hand, was another matter. And since the Trump administration had been too dense to understand the warning sent through Ignatius on the 12th, the intelligence community delivered the blackmail letter to force their hands.
Astonishingly, even this didn’t cause the administration to come clean, so the next step was to leak to the Washington Post about the existence of this blackmail letter.
There’s a whole narrative available now about how the administration deliberated for weeks about what to do about Flynn, all while keeping Pence in the dark. Maybe parts of it are true or partly true. But the overall effort is a giant tapestry of deception.
At the root of it was that the Trump administration didn’t just disagree about what Obama announced on December 29th. They didn’t even accept the premise or justification for what Obama did. They actively worked behind the scenes to reassure the Russians that it could all be unraveled. And they did this all while under suspicion for colluding with the Russians in the robbery and strategic leaking of Democrats’ electronic communications. They refused to accept the conclusions of our intelligence community and called them Nazis. Trump even went to CIA headquarters in the midst of all this and brazenly disrespected their dead.
What they did or did not tell Mike Pence could not be more of a sideshow. The only truly curious thing is why they felt the need to lie about what Flynn discussed. In every other way, they were completely unembarrassed about their opposition to the idea that Russia had hacked the election or that they should be held accountable for it. Why was this one example such an important exception?
What Flynn actually did was completely consistent with Trump’s position at the time. They say that Trump has no problem with what Flynn said and that it wasn’t a crime. So, what’s the real problem?
Well, I’ll tell you.
The problem is that the intelligence community struck back. They caught Flynn in a lie and they used it to get rid of a guy they suspect of being a Russian mole who was, for twenty-five days, our National Security Adviser.