In #TrumpRussia Dispute, Post-Christmas Battle Lines Are Drawn

According to the Moscow Times, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov wasn’t too impressed or intimidated when he learned that he’d become the target of U.S. sanctions authorized under the Global Magnitsky Act, the law that punishes authorities who abuse human rights. Stating that the U.S. need not worry because he hadn’t been “ordered” onto American soil “yet,” he accused the U.S. of spilling blood all over the world while his home region enjoys peace and stability.

The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal had a different take, basically taking the sanctions as a counterexample to the common wisdom that Trump is soft on Putin and his allies. After all, in June 2016, one of the things the Russians wanted Donald Trump Jr. to promise when they met with him, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner in Trump Tower is that a Trump administration would take the name “Magnitsky” off the global human rights legislation.

This is one way in which the right is fighting back against the Mueller investigation. Another way is to attack the Steele Dossier.

But the intelligence community hasn’t been idling away their Christmas holiday. They’re sporting a massive feature in today’s Washington Post on how the Russians deployed trolls and composite personalities to place propaganda in leftist online publications like Counterpunch and to overwhelm social media feeds. In addition to that, they’re also pleased to see a second Post article on how the Russians presaged their assault on America with their campaign during the seizing of the Crimea. One of their top pieces of information is a Russian intelligence report from 2014:

An intercepted Russian military intelligence report dated February 2014 documented how Moscow created fake personas to spread disinformation on social media to buttress its broader military campaign.

The classified Russian intelligence report, obtained by The Washington Post, offered examples of the messages the fake personas spread. “Brigades of westerners are now on their way to rob and kill us,” wrote one operative posing as a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. “Morals have been replaced by thirst for blood and hatred toward anything Russian.”

It’s not always clear if the intelligence community considers the Russian interference in our election as having been a successful attack because Trump is ridiculous and is destroying our credibility and straining our alliances, or if they think it is because Trump is pro-Russian and parrots Russian propaganda nearly as effectively as their composite trolls. What does come through though is that there is a basic premise that the thing that was unthinkable and that caught us almost completely by surprise was the fact that foreign intervention could achieve an election result as catastrophic as the one we suffered last year. For example, what ambitions and dangers are being referred to here?

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies saw some warning signs of Russian meddling in Europe and later in the United States but never fully grasped the breadth of the Kremlin’s ambitions. Top U.S. policymakers didn’t appreciate the dangers…

Or, in this case, what exactly is the threat?

This account of the United States’ piecemeal response to the Russian disinformation threat is based on interviews with dozens of current and former senior U.S. officials at the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and U.S. and European intelligence services, as well as NATO representatives and top European diplomats.

Is it that simply that the Russians would introduce information into the public discourse that wasn’t true? I don’t think so. The threat was that they’d use that false information to create divisions on both the left and the right, to undermine trust in American institutions, and to make it possible for a pro-Russian demagogue to take power in Washington. In this sense, it couldn’t be clearer that Trump is not seen as a legitimate president.

I think that’s why the typical administration pushback is so ineffective:

“If it changed one electoral vote, you tell me,” said a senior Trump administration official, who, like others, requested anonymity to speak frankly. “The Russians didn’t tell Hillary Clinton not to campaign in Wisconsin. Tell me how many votes the Russians changed in Macomb County [in Michigan]. The president is right. The Democrats are using the report to delegitimize the presidency.”

One thing should be kept in mind here, however, and this is that the intelligence community and the foreign policy establishment are in no way synonymous with the Democratic Party. It’s not that the Democrats are trying to delegitimize the presidency. The much broader Washington superstructure is what’s at work in this, and they’re not so much trying to convince others that Trump is illegitimate as they’re convinced of it themselves. It’s not really controversial in their circles, which is why they discuss the election the way they do, as an attack on the U.S. that they were not prepared for, that they didn’t fight back against strongly enough when there was still time.

This is also the way Trump views this dispute, which is why he immediately regretted publicly admitting that the Russians were responsible for the hacks: “It’s not me,” [Trump] reportedly told aides about his attribution of the hacking to Russia in that January news conference. “It wasn’t right.”

Trump understands that there is a distinction between legal questions and standards of proof in determining whether his campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy and a more general question of whether he’s the beneficiary of an anti-American influence campaign. If he’s basically the prize Putin received for his interference, that’s even more delegitimizing than if he savvily utilized the Russians for his own purposes. In the former case, he might be just as big of a dope and a dupe as the foreign policy establishment and the American people.

However you come down on these issues, we can see the field of battle taking form today by the competing story lines. One is emphasizing that the intelligence against Trump is fake, his investigators are biased and that he isn’t really so soft on Russia after all. The other is adding more factual pieces to their construction of a case for massive Russian interference on Trump’s behalf, reminding us that we were assaulted and that the president is not our own but essentially a puppet imposed on us by a foreign power.

These maximalist strategies are both distorting. The American people elected Trump and even if a majority voted for his opponent, the blame for the election result cannot all be placed on Russia. Trump also has a degree of legitimacy just by virtue of being duly elected, even if certain criminal acts during the election may destroy that legitimacy. In truth, Trump knows and acts like he’s not an innocent party or a legitimate president, and that’s the best evidence against him. It’s never been just sour grapes by the Democratic Party. This is a dispute between Russia and the United States establishment, and in a way Trump is almost a spectator.

“Putin has to believe this was the most successful intelligence operation in the history of Russian or Soviet intelligence. It has driven the American political system into a crisis that will last years.” — Andrew Weiss, a former adviser on Russia in the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations

“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, former Director of National Intelligence

“President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was a career intelligence officer, trained to identify vulnerabilities in an individual and to exploit them. That is exactly what he did early in the primaries. Mr. Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him. He responded just as Mr. Putin had calculated.

“Mr. Putin is a great leader, Mr. Trump says, ignoring that he has killed and jailed journalists and political opponents, has invaded two of his neighbors and is driving his economy to ruin. Mr. Trump has also taken policy positions consistent with Russian, not American, interests — endorsing Russian espionage against the United States, supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and giving a green light to a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States.

“In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.”- Michael J. Morell, the acting director and deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2010 to 2013.

Given the basic attitude of the intelligence community, I can see why Trump’s supporters would doubt the objectivity of the FBI and Robert Mueller, but it was the director of the FBI James Comey who delivered the strongest wound to Hillary Clinton in the waning days of the campaign when he announced he was reopening a case against her. What Mueller is trying to do is to see if the intelligence community can prove their theory of the case. If they can, then Trump will be removed from power with just cause. If they can’t, then he’ll stay in power but with the ever-present suspicion from his own government that he isn’t loyal or trustworthy.

Trump should be comforted that a Republican Congress won’t impeach and convict him for minor offenses or based on contentious evidence. They probably won’t even remove him even when most Americans think the case is proven. Trump has a jury that is far more biased than the intelligence community ever could be, so he isn’t as disadvantaged as he’d like us all to believe.

Martin Longman

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