After Trump’s well-publicized meeting on Friday with the head of the CIA, John Brennan, and of the FBI, James Comey, and the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, his staff released the following statement on his behalf:
“I had a constructive meeting and conversation with the leaders of the Intelligence Community this afternoon. I have tremendous respect for the work and service done by the men and women of this community to our great nation.
“While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines. There were attempts to hack the Republican National Committee, but the RNC had strong hacking defenses and the hackers were unsuccessful.
There were two positive aspects to the statement. First, it showed that when Trump issues a message drafted by his staff, rather than composing a pre-dawn tweet, he is capable of producing a relatively calm and coherent message. Second, it indicated that someone on Trump’s staff had been able to convince him of the obvious fact that continuing to disparage agencies soon to be his own was a really bad idea. As numerous observers had pointed out, there will almost certainly come a time when Trump will announce a plan of action and seek to justify it, at least in part, by findings and conclusions of those very agencies. On the negative side, Trump’s statement was, without explanation or apology, at odds with his previous comments and, as an assessment of the situation described by the intelligence community, it was quite pathetic.
Trump v. Trump
In his statement, Trump asserted that he had “tremendous respect for the work and service done by the men and women of [the intelligence] community to our great nation.” That expression of respect was welcome, but it marked a conspicuous change from his snarky comments in the preceding days. In those comments, Trump had disparaged the American intelligence agencies and attempted to dismiss their findings, even stooping to cite the notorious Julian Assange. For example:
— These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again’.” Transition Team, December 9.
— The “Intelligence” briefing on so-called “Russian hacking” was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange! Tweet, 5:14 PM 3 Jan 2017
— Julian Assange said “a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta” – why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info! Tweet, 4:22 AM 4 Jan 2017
— Investigation of Russian hacking a “political witch hunt.” New York Times interview, 9 Jan 2017
Trump v. The Intelligence Community
Despite Trump’s profession of new-found respect for the intelligence community, he stubbornly refused to acknowledge their most significant findings. As set forth in the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) released later that day:
We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.
We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.
The publicly released ICA was declassified, and was therefore a shorter version of the report provided to the President and the President-elect. Although totaling only 25 pages, it nevertheless has considerable detail and is a compelling document. We urge readers to peruse it in full and it is available here.
The quoted findings are toxic to Trump because in his mind they raise the specter of his election being “delegitimized.” His statement attempted to address that problem by claiming that “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.” It is correct that there was no evidence of tampering with voting machines, but that does not address the other activities in which the Russians did engage. Indeed, the ICA made it clear that the leaking of hacked material from the DNC and John Podesta was only one part of a multifaceted campaign which could have had some effect on the election:
Moscow’s use of disclosures during the US election was unprecedented, but its influence campaign otherwise followed a longstanding Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, statefunded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.”
It is unknown and unknowable whether the Russian campaign had an effect on the result of the election or, if so, how much.. What is clear is that the intelligence committee did not say that they had “no effect” as Trump claimed. On the contrary, what the ICA stated was:
We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.
It is ironic, and perhaps fitting, for Trump to be so worried about his election being delegitimized, given the time and effort he spent attempting to delegitimize the Obama presidency by promoting the scurrilous canard that Obama was not born in the United States.
In attempting to deflect attention from the Russian efforts to exert influence on his behalf, Trump referred to cyber attacks by China and “other countries.” Such attacks have, of course occurred and are matters of serious concern, but none of them involved an attempt to influence an American election. It is that aspect of the Russian activities that raised them to an entirely new and disturbing level.
Even after meeting with the intelligence officials and receiving the classified ICA, Trump has continued to assert that the whole problem was caused by the failure of the DNC to protect their computer systems more effectively. That argument, however, is no more than a red herring. Even if the DNC had been more diligent, it is doubtful that they could have prevented a determined hacker. As Trump himself has pointed out, several government agencies have been hacked. In any case, the important issue here is not the hacking itself but the use to which the hacked materials were put.
That point is underscored by the disparate treatment given the RNC. Trump’s statement claimed that the RNC was just better at self-protection, but that again misstates the findings of the intelligence agencies:
Russia collected on some Republican-affiliated targets but did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign.
What now? Despite Trump’s obvious anxiety there is no risk of his election being delegitimized to any significant degree. As previously noted, there is simply no way of determining the effect of the Russian campaign of interference. And, even if it had significant influence, our system does not provide for do-overs or motions for reconsideration. As a political matter, the soundest thing Trump could have done would have been to acceptthe findings of the intelligence agencies, take a firm stand against the Russian interference and maintain, or even increase, the sanctions imposed by President Obama. But no, that is not the way of our President-elect.
Indeed, the day after meeting with the U.S. intelligence officials, Trump doubled-down on his Russophiliac charm offensive:
Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only “stupid” people, or fools would think that it is bad! We have enough problems around the world without yet another one. When I am President, Russia will respect us far more than they do now and both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the WORLD!
While only a fool would not want to have a good relationship with Russia when and where that is possible, only a far bigger fool would fail to recognize the dangers of Vladimir Putin’s adventurism or fail to see Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe” (Mitt Romney) and “the greatest threat to our national security” (General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.) Our country can probably survive a knave in the White House, brandishing conflicts of interest as far as the eye can see and beyond, but surviving a fool is less certain.
Given the constitutional prerogatives of the President to conduct foreign affairs and to serve as Commander in Chief, restraining Trump’s more reckless instincts will not be easy. But Congress, and Congressional Republicans in particular, must not shrink from the task. To begin with, Russia’s interference in the election, as well as the global threats it poses, should be a cornerstone for the hearings on Trump’s nominees for Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Homeland Security, Attorney General and Director of National Intelligence. Each should be subjected to rigorous examination as to whether he fully accepts the findings of the intelligence agencies and how he views the implications of those findings for his responsibilities in the government and for the country as a whole. Any nominee who cannot provide satisfactory answers should be denied confirmation. Perhaps along the way, Senate Republicans will experience a much-needed spinal transplant. If they do. they will write into law and strengthen, the sanctions on Russia and Russian officials imposed by President Obama.