James Clapper Refocuses the Russia Investigation

There has been—and still is—a lot of controversy over the documents that former MI6 Russian Desk officer Christopher Steele put together as part of his opposition research effort on Donald Trump for Fusion GPS. We have to keep in mind that Steele’s work wasn’t strictly an intelligence gathering operation. He had a customer, at least indirectly, in the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Yet, it’s still important to note that if you look up Steele’s product on Wikipedia, this is the first thing you see:

The 35-page dossier claims that Russia is in possession of damaging information about Trump which could be used for purposes of blackmail to get Trump to cooperate with the Russian government.

This isn’t without justification. The very first dispatch Steele produced led with the following bullet points:

Let me rephrase that for you. Since at least 2011, the Russian government has been cultivating, supporting and assisting Donald Trump is an effort to encourage splits in the western alliance. As part of this, they’ve been stringing him along with offers of real estate business deals. In addition to this, he and some of his inner circle have been receiving intelligence on American politicians who might be potential rivals should Trump decide to pursue a political career. Most importantly, the Russians have the ability to blackmail Trump, including, but not necessarily exclusively, due to his perverted sexual acts.

Even today, these claims seem outlandish, and far outside what you’d normally expect to receive from an opposition researcher. How, other than his aggressive Birtherism, for example, was Trump serving to sow discord in the western alliance in the years between 2011 and when he began his political campaign in 2015?

Still, with these allegations in mind, it makes a lot more sense that James Clapper went on CNN’s The Lead this weekend and made the following statement about the president of the United States:

“I think this past weekend is illustrative of what a great case officer Vladimir Putin is. He knows how to handle an asset, and that’s what he’s doing with the president … You have to remember Putin’s background. He’s a KGB officer. That’s what they do. They recruit assets. And I think some of that experience and instincts of Putin has come into play here in his managing of a pretty important account for him, if I could use that term, with our president.”

James Clapper spent over a half a century working in the American intelligence community, capping his career with a six-year stint as the Director of National Intelligence. It’s true that he lied to Congress in 2013 about what kinds of information the NSA collects on U.S. citizens, a crime exposed by Edward Snowden and for which Clapper paid no price whatsoever. You shouldn’t forget that when assessing his credibility, nor should you ignore the fact that career intelligence professionals aren’t necessarily or generally known for being forthright and honest in their public statements. You can look for hidden motives, too, if you’re inclined to believe that a Deep State controls our foreign policy and that it is currently engaged in shutting down what it considers a dangerous and unacceptable friendliness to Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Yet, even a skeptic has to note the highly unusual spectacle of a customarily taciturn and circumspect intelligence officer of Clapper’s rank accusing the president of being a witting agent and pawn of the Russian state.

While his comments struck like a thunderbolt, they didn’t come without some warning.

Clapper began showing his hand in September, with a comment that the IC assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election raised questions about why Trump was in the White House: it “cast doubt on the legitimacy of his victory in the election,” he stated.

At the end of October, in an interview with Politico, Clapper added more about Kremlin interference in the 2016 election: “The Russians have succeeded, I believe, beyond their wildest expectations.” Clapper dismissed President Trump’s repeated attacks on the investigation of his Moscow links as “fake news” with a warning that the Russians “have been emboldened and they will continue to do this.”

I think even skeptics need to acknowledge that this isn’t just an example of Clapper freelancing or doing his small part to bring the president down. His opinion is shared widely in the intelligence community, which is precisely why Clapper felt free to express it without any concern that he’d be seen as a kook or somehow shunned by his peers. He was speaking for them, or at least a large plurality of them.

And that makes the question of bias in the intelligence community, including the team assembled by Robert Mueller to investigate Russian interference in the election, something of a conundrum. They serve and answer to a president whom they highly suspect of being compromised at best and a witting agent of a hostile foreign power at worst. Supposing they are correct, how much can such a president rightfully expect to be treated with the deference the office usually commands?

This is the real nub. People get bogged down on the questions of collusion, cooperation, conspiracy, of which Trump officials surreptitiously met with which Russian agents or spies. Can this be proven? Is that actually a crime? Is there a statute that covers this other thing? Can’t a president pretty much do as he likes and set whatever foreign policy he desires? Can’t he fire investigators, pardon his family members, even pardon himself?

The real question was laid out right in the first bullet points of the Steele Dossier, and Clapper did us a service by refocusing the argument where it belongs. What we want to know is if the president of the United States is a Russian asset and Vladimir Putin’s most important account.

That’s not an easy thing to prove, but with enough circumstantial evidence I think it’s a clear impeachable offense. In fact, I can’t think of any thing else that would be more impeachable.

The intelligence community is obviously suspicious, and they’re going to give us their verdict.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.