Nine days ago Robert Mueller III, the decorated former Marine Corps officer, the former assistant attorney general who prosecuted Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and helped put crime boss John Gotti in jail, the former FBI director, the life-long Republican finally spoke.
“I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments,” Mueller said at the conclusion of his less than 10 minutes in front of the cameras, “that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”
During a Boise TV interview a few days later Idaho Sen. Jim Risch dismissed Mueller’s statement as – he actually said this – “a nothing burger.”
Near as I can tell Risch, or for that matter no other member of the Idaho congressional delegation, has said anything about the substance of Bob Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference or the efforts by the president to obstruct the investigation. They’re all like Sgt. Schultz in the old Hogan’s Heroes television show – they see nothing, nothing.
Yet, if you actually read Mueller’s report you’ll understand his detailed analysis of ten different and very specific instances when Trump sought to impede the Russia investigation. First by firing the FBI director and then ordering Mueller’s firing, a decision he lied about and told others to lie about.
Then, as the report says, “the President engaged in a second phase of conduct, involving public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation.”
And here is Mueller from his “nothing burger” statement: “As set forth in our report, after that investigation, if we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.”
Risch leads the thoroughly effete Idaho delegation in his unrelenting effort to minimize Russian electoral interference and Trump obstruction. In February, as reported by the Idaho Press, Risch said he was not worried about any threat from Russia, calling it “the most overrated country on the face of the planet.”
In March Risch dismissed the attorney general’s initial summary of Mueller’s report – we now know that summary was highly misleading and designed to confuse and minimize the findings – by saying: “For me, there was no news in Mueller’s report.” Later in his statement, Risch criticized Democrats and the media, calling claims against the president a “charade.”
When it was first disclosed that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had talked about sanctions with Russian officials prior to Trump’s inauguration Risch’s only comment: “I have thoughts, but I’m keeping them to myself.” Flynn, of course, later admitted to lying about his Russian contacts and still faces jail time. The former Ada County prosecutor has been silent as obstruction – denying subpoenas, resisting court orders, hiding documents – continues across the Trump Administration.
In his rare public statements addressing specific presidential acts, from North Korea to tariffs to Russia, Risch always toes the Trump line and dismisses any inconvenient truth. “I really don’t believe Trump acts in ways that help Russia,” he told the PBS NewsHour.
When questioning former FBI director James Comey, who was fired, by Trump’s own admission to “take the heat off” the Russian investigation, Risch dismissed the president’s statement that Comey just “let Flynn go” as nothing more than a “hope” by Trump.
For the record, the Mueller’s report lists Trump’s “let Flynn go” comment as its very first example of presidential obstruction.
Conservative columnist George Will compares the “supine behavior” of Republicans like Risch and the rest of the Idaho delegation to “fragrant memories” of pre-World War II American communists who performed amazing mental gymnastics to keep on the right side of Josef Stalin.
Or perhaps the more apt comparison is to the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who recently repeatedly refused to admit that Trump’s “birther” attacks on Barack Obama were racist. This is the awkward reality of Trump’s enablers, the partisan promoters like Sen. Risch: if you admit the truth you risk earning the president’s ire (or that of his all-accepting base) or you can, as the senator choses, find a way to repeatedly justify and dismiss any damaging evidence of Trump’s actions, even when that evidence is accumulated by a Republican former director of the FBI.
After all, who you gonna believe? A president who uses lies as a governing model or your own eyes?
Set aside, if you prefer, clear and compelling evidence that the president of the United States tried repeatedly to obstruct Mueller’s investigation, lied about it and influenced others to lie. One thousand former Justice Department officials are on the record saying he did.
Set aside, as Mueller’s report says that the Russian government’s interference was clearly designed to help “presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.”
Set aside that Trump’s campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” and it “welcomed” the help. Set aside that the Russian “social media campaign” and the Russian military’s computer hacking operations “coincided with a series of contacts between Trump Campaign officials and individuals with ties to the Russian government.”
And set aside one of the most politically intriguing details of this whole spectacularly un-American affair, that the Trump campaign shared with Russian operatives its own polling information before the election. Mueller’s investigation was unable to figure out what happened to this information because the special counsel “was not able to corroborate witness statements through comparison to contemporaneous communications or fully question witnesses about statements that appeared inconsistent with other known facts.”
Set all that aside and consider again what Mueller left us with: “There were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”
Then ask yourself: What has Jim Risch, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee (also a senior member of the Intelligence Committee) done about that? The only possible answer is nothing. Then ask yourself why?
(This piece first appeared in the June 7, 2019 edition of the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune.)
So, the Mueller report is released, but not really released. We have a four-page summary written by a guy who owes his job to the guy who the four-page letter exonerates. And the guy who wrote the four-page letter went into his job having established that the guy who appointed him couldn’t be guilty of obstruction of justice.
We’re told we may eventually see some of the real Mueller report, a document assembled over a two-year period during an investigation that established beyond a reasonable doubt that Russia interfered in an unprecedented way in the 2016 election. That investigation resulted in the indictment or guilty plea from 34 individuals and three companies. Not exactly a run of the mill definition of a “witch hunt,” but we must be very careful says the attorney general (seconded by the Senate Majority Leader) not to tell the public too much about such sensitive matters.
In the last few days we’ve witnessed merely the latest example of the American penchant for secrecy.
Idaho Senator Jim Risch quickly embraced the attorney general’s four-page summary as the definite word on all things Trump and Russia. “For me, there was no news in Mueller’s report,” Risch said in the statement, passing judgment without having seen the actual Mueller report.
“We have reviewed thousands of documents including dozens of witness statements throughout the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation, and I reached the same conclusion as Mueller,” Risch says with absolute certainty. “President Trump did not collude with the Russians.” Fair enough, but what about the rest of the report, a document the Justice Department has described as “comprehensive?” The Clift Notes are good for cramming for a test, but real understanding means reading the actual text.
By the way, a poll from Quinnipiac University found that 84% of voters they surveyed think Mueller’s report should be made public, while only 9% disagree.
Despite public support for much greater transparency across the board, Congress routinely joins the Executive branch and defaults to secrecy. Many if not most congressional hearings dealing with Russian involvement in the 2016 election – we are told that Putin-inspired activity remains ongoing – have been conducted behind closed doors. If Attorney General Robert Barr ever manages to get to Capitol Hill to answer questions from our representatives it’s a even bet the questions will be asked in secret and we’ll depend on second, third or fourth hand spinning of the answers from sources granted anonymity in order to, as the saying goes, “discuss sensitive matters.”
This kind of secrecy rarely happened in the past. The Teapot Dome scandal and the Watergate hearings were held in full public view. The penchant for congressional secrecy has increased in parallel to the penchant for extreme partisanship.
And Laura Rosenberger, who heads the Alliance for Securing Democracy, says transparency might force a bipartisan response that would address the next Russian influence operation. “Addressing Russia’s interference is a matter of national security,” Rosenberger told New York Magazine, “and will require partisanship to be put aside to take real steps to harden our defenses, deter Russia and other countries that might seek to follow suit, and build societal resilience.”
More secrecy, she says, “would play directly into Putin’s hands.”
The intelligence agencies are among the worst at overdoing secrecy and the congressional committees overseeing the agencies now routinely aid and abet the lack of transparency. We are assured that every thing is under control, while a senator bent on secrecy in service to partisanship can conveniently say – Risch does this all the time – that he has secret information that proves his partisan position.
The National Security Agency (NSA), one of the worst of the secret keepers, was, as Conor Friedersdorf has written, “maximally secretive from the start: President Truman created the NSA with the stroke of a pen at the bottom of a classified 7-page memorandum. Even the name was initially classified. Decades later, the memorandum that acted as the agency’s charter remained secret. Reflect on that for a moment. In a representative democracy, the executive branch secretly created a new federal agency and vested it with extraordinary powers. Even the document setting forth those powers was suppressed.”
Some things are so secret we can’t even admit they exist. NSA, it’s often been said, really stands for “No Such Agency.”
The Idaho Legislature is hardly immune from this epidemic of government by secrecy. Lawmakers have been debating legislation that would essentially do away with the ability of citizens to place an issue on the ballot and the origins of the awful idea to gut the initiative process has in no way seen the light of day. Increasingly what happens in public view during the lawmaking process is pro forma, developed and rehearsed in a back room and sanctified in public procedures that appear to include citizens, but really only involves the public as a prop in the process.
How else to explain the legislature’s headlong rush to destroy the initiative in the face of overwhelming public opposition? This whole smarmy mess was birthed in secret, hatched by lobbyists over lunch. It brings to mind Art Buchwald’s observation about where real political power resides. “Lunch is the power meal in Washington, D.C.,” Buchwald wrote, “it’s over lunch that the taxpayer gets screwed.”
Government secrecy is endemic, but even more it’s dangerous. As Frederick A.O. Schwartz has written – he was the chief counsel for the Senate Committee that investigated the intelligence agencies, the Church Committee – we need to understand the cost of all this secrecy.
“Too much is kept secret,” Schwartz wrote in his book Democracy in the Dark, “not to protect America but to keep embarrassing or illegal conduct from Americans.”
And while we’re thinking about secrecy, ask yourself what the last two years might have been had a certain political figure accepted the tradition that has existed since Richard Nixon, a tradition now shattered, of a president being transparent about his tax returns?
(This piece originally appeared on March 29, 2019 in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune.)
In the wake of the latest revelations about the president of the United States the extent of the intellectual and moral rot of the modern Republican Party has – again – come into sharp focus. A party that once built a brand around “family values” has decided that Donald Trump’s involvement in a scheme that paid off a porn star and a Playboy model to hide affairs shouldn’t be treated as criminal.
The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, no squishy liberal, says the party – leadership and followers – is guilty of “outsourcing our moral, our political judgment to legalisms.”
The new GOP brand: moral relativism.
South Dakota Senator John Thune, the third ranking Republican in the Senate, dismisses Trump’s involvement in felony campaign finance violations, crimes that Trump’s one-time lawyer Michael Cohen will serve jail time for, as essentially a paperwork mistake. “These guys were all new to this at the time,” the senator says and besides what’s a little hush money to quiet a scandal during a presidential campaign. “Most of us have made mistakes when it comes to campaign finance issues,” Thune says.
Or this from Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, a pillar of propriety on everything but presidential misconduct: “President Trump before he became president that’s another world. Since he’s become president, this economy has charged ahead … And I think we ought to judge him on that basis other than trying to drum up things from the past that may or may not be true.”
You can search high and low for any Republican concern that Rex Tillerson, the former Secretary of State and CEO of Exxon, said recently, “So often the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do, and here’s how I want to do it’ and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”
Few Republicans have bought more heavily into the party’s moral and intellectual rot than the Idaho delegation. After a brief flurry of indignation when Trump was caught on videotape bragging about assaulting women the get-along-go-along Idahoans have been pretty much lock step with Trump and they generally decline to say anything even remotely critical regarding his behavior.
Senator Jim Risch is the worst offender.
Risch, soon to be carrying Trump’s water as the high profile chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, couldn’t even bring himself to condemn the administration’s handling of the brutal murder of a Saudi national who was also a columnist for the Washington Post. The CIA has concluded that the Saudi crown prince ordered the murder, a position Trump refuses to accept presumably because it would cause him to have to do something that might upset oil prices or more likely his own business interests.
In an interview with the editorial board of the Idaho Falls Post Register last week, Risch said that he had reached a conclusion about who was responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but that he couldn’t discuss it without revealing classified information. That is simply an absurd statement. Other senators in both parties have laid the responsibility directly at feet of Mohammed bin Salman, but as the Post Registernoted “on all questions having to do with bin Salman’s direct responsibility, [Risch] deflected,” obviously in deference to Trump.
Meanwhile, as the New York Times has reported, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been counseling his Saudi pal, the crown prince, “about how to weather the storm, urging him to resolve his conflicts around the region and avoid further embarrassments.” Or as one wag put it “the president’s son-in-law is giving the Saudi prince some tips on how to get away with murder.”
Trump deference – or better yet servile submissiveness – is a pattern with Risch. In the face of much evidence that North Korea’s dictator snookered Trump during talks in Singapore in June Risch has helped maintain the fiction that Trump knows what he is doing. Risch has backed administration policy in Yemen where the Saudi’s, with U.S. help, have bombed the country back to the Stone Age. By some estimates 85,000 children may have already died in Yemen, with as many as 12 million more people on the brink of starvation.
Risch, with a seat on the Intelligence Committee, has been almost completely silent on Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign, speaking only to dismiss its importance. “Hacking is ubiquitous,” Risch said in 2017 before adding, “Russia is not, in my judgment, the most aggressive actor in this business.”
We now know that at least 14 individuals with direct or close ties to Russia, from the Russian ambassador to the lawyer who set up the infamous Trump Tower meeting during the campaign, made contact with Trump’s closest advisors, his family and friends over an 18-month period and during the campaign. We also know, while Trump’s story continues to shift, that special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted a busload of Russian agents and gained convictions of Trump’s campaign chairman, former national security advisor and many others. The investigation goes on, more indictments loom and Risch seems to care not at all.
When the senator made his Faustian bargain to support Trump after the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape emerged he said he had no choice but to support the con man his party had embraced. “Without any options other than to abandon America to the left or vote for the Republican nominee, as distasteful as that may be, I will not abandon my country,” Risch said. In reality, by ignoring and excusing the inexcusable, he has put party loyalty above both his country and our Constitution.
Paul Waldman in the Washington Post put a fine point on this kind of moral rot when he wrote recently of Trump, “Once he’s no longer president — perhaps in 2021, or perhaps even sooner — everyone who worked for him, supported him, or stood by him is going to be in an extremely uncomfortable position.”
“[Putin] became convinced that the Western strategy was a regime change vis-à-vis Russia. That’s his distorted version of history. He believes that even Gorbachev may have been an unwitting dupe of the West, but he certainly sees Yeltsin, and the whole experience of Russia in the ’90s, as a period in which the West took advantage of Russia and tried to marginalize it as a global power.”
Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow from 2001-2005 under President George W. Bush
We now know – again – that agents of Russian military intelligence hacked emails of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign, her staff, the Democratic National Committee and the party’s congressional campaign committee. Special Counsel Robert Mueller acting, we should remember as a result of a “true bill” approved by a grand jury made up of everyday ordinary Americans, indicted twelve Russian military operatives for those crimes last week.
The indictment alleges “a detailed and wide-ranging conspiracy to hack into the computers” of the aforementioned political people and organizations “and to reveal information in order to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
The latest Mueller indictment also indicates that Wikileaks conspired with the Russians to inject the stolen material into the American political bloodstream and that more than one American citizen communicated with the foreign agents during the 2016 campaign.
As they say just before the commercial break: stay tuned we will be back with more.
“I would call it the rigged witch hunt, after watching some of the little clips. … I think that really hurts our country, and it really hurts our relationship with Russia.”
Despite the president’s many and fervent denials, I have always believed that someone in the Trump campaign orbit “colluded” with these Russians in order to maximize the timing and impact of the release of the stolen Democratic documents. The Trump campaign motive is pretty obvious. They wanted to win. They wanted to win so badly they were willing to countenance widespread foreign interference in an American presidential election. We don’t know this for sure, yet, but the Mueller indictment last week is clearly beginning to connect a lot of dots.
There are, of course, other plausible explanations for why a campaign would get caught up in this kind of sleazy, illegal, borderline treasonous activity. Maybe the Russians really do have some incriminating information on Donald Trump. Maybe he and his family are in hock up to their eyeballs to Russian banks and oligarchs close to Putin. Maybe a naïve Donald Trump, Jr. just got played when he took the now infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian operatives during the campaign. Any one of these explanations has the ring of truth. Perhaps they all ring in unison.
People still wonder why the smart guys around Richard Nixon, not to mention Nixon himself, thought they needed to break in to the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee in 1972. Nixon was going to win re-election against any conceivable Democratic opponent that year, but still he (perhaps) authorized the break in and certainly sanctioned the subsequent cover up. People have long done stupid things in pursuit of political power.
But, while Mueller continues his careful, even scholarly pursuit of the truth in the Trump-Russia matter, it would be wise for Americans – those appalled by what we already know as well as those Trump fans who are still unbelieving that this is as serious as it is – to ponder another question. What did Vladimir Putin want from this Russian meddling with American democracy? What is his game? Why did he authorize this? The Mueller indictment makes clear the Russians, perhaps with American assistance, committed a crime. They clearly had the means and opportunity, but what was the motive?
What Putin Wants….
Here are some educated guesses as to the “why” on the Russian side.
First, Putin, like all dictators, has one overriding objective: he wants to stay in power. One can imagine that he has loved the international attention lavished on the latest news of Russian cyber espionage designed to stir discord in the American body politic. The image provided by the revelations is one of power and that image fits like a glove with Putin’s overarching objective: be seen as powerful to stay in power.
In a particularly perceptive piece in The Atlantic earlier this year, journalist Julia Ioffe recounted a fascinating story of how Putin has created the illusion of success – the U.S. hacking operation helps with this – out of the shambles that is the Russian economy and culture.
Ioffe wrote that, “A businessman who is high up in Putin’s United Russia party said over an espresso at a Moscow café: ‘You’re telling me that everything in Russia works as poorly as it does, except our hackers? Rosneft’—the state-owned oil giant—‘doesn’t work well. Our health-care system doesn’t work well. Our education system doesn’t work well. And here, all of a sudden, are our hackers, and they’re amazing?’”
Ioffe writes that many Russians think the political hacking effort was, at least initially, less a strategic operation than a spontaneous reaction to the release of the Panama Papers, the trove of secret banking information that detailed, among other things, how Putin and his cronies have become very rich while looting the Russian economy. And remember Putin is, if he’s anything, an opportunistic, improvisational former KGB spy.
It doesn’t take the imagination of John Le Carre to see that once Russian military intelligence hacked all that political information and the release of the information deepened divides in the Democratic Party, divides that Trump skillfully capitalized on, and the opportunistic improviser doubled down. Why not implicate the Trump campaign, his son and campaign manager, in the scheme?
After all, if the Kremlin really does have something incriminating on an American political candidate, that leverage is only useful if the compromised candidate actually wins. Therefore they had to do all they could to make sure he won.
Putin’s second objective – remember he is a Soviet era KGB operative – is the age old Russian goal of being taken seriously, to be a world power, to influence events. To him the glory days of his country were when Russia had an empire, a sphere of influence in eastern and southern Europe which insured any Russian leader was a man of worldwide importance and, above all, power.
How best to recreate the old Soviet Empire with its Marxist ideology replaced by oligarchy? How to do what Stalin and every successive Soviet and Russian leader failed to do – divide and conquer the democratic West? Annex Crimea. Destabilize Ukraine. Threaten the Baltic republics. All were once part of the empire and they can be again.
Putin’s tactics aimed at the western alliance were transparently obvious. Sow discord in Britain and weaken the European Union by messing with the Brexit referendum. The same types of anti-immigrant, pro-nationalist agenda that powered Trump to the White House works for the fringe of the political right in the UK, in France, in Austria, in Italy. Putin, often funding such movements, has fanned those flames.
He must be surprised at how completely this strategy has prevailed in the United States. A recent Pew study found that 25 percent of Republican voters now have a favorable opinion of Putin, up from just 11 percent in 2015. A political party that once defined itself by its full-throated support for NATO and its embrace of world trade, a party that would have relegated to the dustbin of history a preening, ignorant con man like its current leader now cheers his every move, including a private meeting with Putin.
Pause for a moment to consider the events of the past week. The president of the United States, having already imposed punitive tariffs on most of our most faithful allies, publicly insults the German chancellor, ironically for being a captive of Russia, a charge on its face that is ludicrous. That performance roils the NATO summit. Then he verbally assaults the British prime minister, rattling the oldest, most enduring American foreign policy relationship. Then on the domestic front twelve Russian spies are indicted for interference with an American election – the president says nothing at all about this development in his Twitter account and dismisses the seriousness in other comments. Meanwhile, he heads to Helsinki to meet with the man who benefits most by this chaos, this assault on the western alliance.
And what does Putin get? Precisely the optics he wants back home.
“The mere fact of the meeting, followed by a joint press conference with the American President, will be a demonstration of power for Putin,” writes Masha Gessen in The New Yorker. “He needs to deliver nothing else. If, however, he is also able to nudge Trump toward a verbal acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Russia’s interests in its old sphere of influence—something that Putin will almost certainly bring up in conversation, making Trump likely to parrot an attitude he instinctively understands—Russians will perceive it as Putin restoring Russia’s superpower status. Putin may also suggest a deal whereby the United States pulls out of Syria. Being able to make such an announcement would make Trump feel like the dealmaker he longs to be. To Russians, it would look like they had won the war. If any deal happens, though, it will be merely an accidental substantive bonus attached to a performance designed to be empty.”
Putin’s game is to preserve his power at home and extend it abroad. He controls, with the firmness of a secret police thug, all the Russian levers of power – the courts, the press, the economy. He is the master manipulator of Russian opinion. For most Russians the economy is a shambles and daily life a constant struggle, but Russian nationalism is a powerful thing. Putin is the symbol of that nationalism and he is poised, with the help of a profoundly flawed American president, to stand astride the globe as the powerful man of history he longs to be.
How did we get here? Why have so many once wise Republican politicians, foreign policy experts and Russian skeptics allowed Donald Trump to let Vladimir Putin win? The mere fact that a Republican president and the party that now slavishly follows him have so warmly embraced such a thuggish dictator is Trump’s greatest con and Putin’s greatest win.
Russian strongmen once based foreign policy on the acquisition of “warm water ports” – the last Czar thought his spoils of the Great War would be control of Istanbul – but Putin has something even better now. He is enjoying the spectacle an increasing divided western alliance, relishing an American sponsored trade war that holds the potential to destabilize the western economy; he delights in the rise right wing populism in Europe and U.S., particularly including its racist, nationalist, press hating authoritarian antecedents. And Putin has, perhaps most importantly, the luxury of having helped put in place a compliant, ignorant American president who revels in the kind of democracy busting behavior that Putin himself has mastered.
In 1954, Republican Dwight Eisenhower struggled mightily to dissuade British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from meeting with Russian leaders in the wake of Stalin’s death. Ike fearing a “propaganda feast” for the Russians at the expense of the western alliance. “[We must] throw back the Russian threat and allow civilization, as we have known it, to continue its progress,” Eisenhower wrote Churchill. “Unless [we] are successful . . . there will be no history of any kind, as we know it. There will be only a concocted story made up by the Communist conquerors of the world.”
The Communists are gone, as are the Eisenhower Republicans. But the motives of Stalin and a succession of Russian dictators, the motives of Vladimir Putin, remain very much with us. It is a truly amazing turn in American politics that a Republican president and the Republican Party are enabling this history-bending occurrence.
“Not everything done by Lenin was carefully conceived. In particular, he had little foresight about what he was doing when he set up the centralized one-party state. One of the great malignancies of the twentieth century was created more by off-the-cuff measures than by grandiose planning…Lenin eliminated concern for ethics. Lenin justified dictatorship and terror. Lenin applauded the political vanguard and the need for firm leadership. Lenin convinced his party that his Marxism was pure and that it embodied the only correct policies.”
In many ways the “revolution” that toppled the Russian Czar and ultimately led to the formation of what we used to call the Soviet Union was an unthinkable event in both Russia and in the rest of the world. Across the political spectrum, American politicians, with a few exceptions, recoiled at the thought of a Lenin, a Stalin or a Trotsky establishing the first communist state and not incidentally a bridgehead from which to export revolutionary political thought and action. The coming to power of the Bolsheviks was, in many ways, just as unthinkable in Mother Russia.
As Anne Applebaum, an insightful historian of all things Russian, pointed out in a recent Washington Post essay: “At the beginning of 1917, on the eve of the Russian revolution, most of the men who would become known to the world as the Bolsheviks had very little to show for their lives. They had been in and out of prison, constantly under police surveillance, rarely employed. Vladimir Lenin spent most of the decade preceding the revolution drifting between Krakow, Zurich and London. Joseph Stalin spent those years in the Caucasus, running protection rackets and robbing banks. Leon Trotsky had escaped from Siberian exile was to be found in Viennese coffee shops; when the revolution broke out, he was showing off his glittering brilliance at socialist meeting halls in New York.”
A few months later these losers of distinction were in power exercising a ruthless stranglehold on the population and eliminating every visage of what had been for a few months a fledgling democracy. Oh, and of course, they brutally eliminated their opponents.
At the heart of the “revolution” of one hundred years ago – Applebaum says it was more correctly a coup d’état – was, for sure, violence, but also audacious and persistent lying.
“All through the spring and summer of 1917,” Applebaum writes, “Trotsky and Lenin repeatedly made promises that would never be kept. ‘Peace, Land, and Bread’?” The Bolshevik leaders lied about their own past and they lied about the scandalous deal Lenin struck with the Kaiser’s Germany that allowed him to return from exile to be in Petrograd when his moment came.
Putin and the Politics of Lying…
It was the birth moment of decades of lies, misdirection and tragedy that finally seemed to end with the dramatic break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. But, that conclusion may well have proven to be premature – or fatally incorrect – given the state of the Russian experience since Mikhail Gorbachev gave the world fleeting hope that the old Soviet empire might indeed enjoy a new birth of freedom. Vladimir Putin took care of that hope.
The former KGB goon now stands astride a government as corrupt and venal as most anything Lenin could have dreamed up. Putin has also succeeded where so many of Lenin’s successors failed. He has gotten the United States and much of the West to question its own democratic exceptionalism, while helping advance a new narrative based on old Soviet tactics of constant misrepresentation, doing away with opponents, press manipulation and – that word again – steady, unremitting lying.
As a special counsel and several Congressional committees probe the level of Russian influence in the last election and quite potentially the active collaboration with Russian actors by a host of individuals in Donald J. Trump’s political orbit, we should remember some recent and not-so-recent history.
How far we have come, or better yet how far we have fallen.
During decades of Communist rule in the old Soviet Union, skepticism or outright hostility to the leaders in the Kremlin became an article of political faith for American political leaders. Presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan were always wary and occasionally warlike in denouncing the dangers emanating from a non-democratic state ruled by greedy men consumed by their own lies. Stalin pioneered the Russian practice of simply erasing his opponents from history. Putin, his modern day successor, now controls a vast international propaganda network – it operates openly and brashly in the United States – that embeds the modern Kremlin line in your daily social media feed.
In the not too distant past most Americans who argued for some type of accommodation with the Soviet Union – think of Henry Wallace, a one-time vice president who saw his political career crumble under allegations of being “soft on the Reds” – were relegated to the political margins, their reputations tainted.
Skepticism of Russia Was Once Just Good Politics…
Entire political careers – Nixon, Joe McCarthy, Reagan, even JFK – were built around the belief that Soviet Russia presented an existential threat to the west and, in particular, to the United States. Few elections were lost from 1920 to 1990 by candidates who adroitly played this Russia card. The last real Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, was mocked for his prescient observation that Putin’s Russia continued to present the gravest kind of threat to American interests.
My how things have changed. With Trump in the White House his Republican Party appears to work every way from Sunday to cozy up to Putin, the new Russian Czar. On this level alone Putin’s classic disinformation campaign directed at western democracy has succeeded beyond Lenin’s wildest dreams.
As conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin observed recently, the Trump Administration is up to its neck in Russians. “We have never seen such a multiplicity of connections,” Rubin wrote, “to a hostile foreign power and lack of transparency in a presidential campaign or administration — nor have we ever had a campaign in which Russians interfered in such a widespread and deliberate manner.”
Up to Its Neck in Russians…
Consider just some of the news of the last several days:
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was found to have his own Russian connections – with members of Putin’s own family no less – thanks to the leak of a trove of offshore banking and corporate documents. It was reported earlier in the year that Ross had helped engineer deals with Russian oligarchs while the vice chairman of that interesting little Cypriot bank.
The comically inept Carter Page, another Trump campaign operative, appears destined to become the G. Gordon Liddy of the current Russian caper. (Liddy, for the post-Watergate generation, helped plan and carry out the break in of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex in 1972. He was a conspiracy theorist and more than a bit odd. Liddy served nearly a year in prison for his Watergate role before becoming a rightwing radio talk show host.) Page’s recent testimony to a House committee marks this nutty Trump campaign character as either a fool or as a deeply implicated collaborator with the Russians, or perhaps both.
Facebook, Twitter and Google have recently testified about the extent – as far they know or are willing to admit – of Russian propaganda contaminating their technology platforms. It is now beyond any reasonable doubt that Russian agents accomplished a massive disinformation campaign designed to influence the 2016 presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor, while generally creating havoc in the American body politic.
The conservative Drudge Report website, the second most visited Internet site in the United States, has also repeatedly linked to stories that originated within the Russian propaganda universe. One headline posted at Drudge on November 7, 2016 – Election Day – simply said “Obama Encourages Illegals to Vote.” The story was total B.S. and totally manufactured by Putin’s RT.com lie factory.
Meanwhile the president of the United States continues to side with Vladimir Putin against the unanimous conclusion of the nation’s intelligence services on whether Russia meddled in his election.
“He says that very strongly,” Trump said in describing his conversations with Putin during a summit meeting in Vietnam, “he really seems to be insulted by it, and he says he didn’t do it. He is very, very strong in the fact that he didn’t do it. You have President Putin very strongly, vehemently, says he has nothing to do with that. Now, you are not going to get into an argument, you are going to start talking about Syria and the Ukraine.”
For good measure Trump described the former directors of National Intelligence and the CIA, men who have testified under oath about Russian interference, as “political hacks.” As The Atlantic’sDavid Frum notes, “These are not the actions of an innocent man, however vain, stubborn, or uniformed.”
Back to Anne Applebaum, the Russian scholar. “Remember: At the beginning of 1917, on the eve of the Russian revolution, most of the men who later became known to the world as the Bolsheviks were conspirators and fantasists on the margins of society,” she wrote recently. “By the end of the year, they ran Russia. Fringe figures and eccentric movements cannot be counted out. If a system becomes weak enough and the opposition divided enough, if the ruling order is corrupt enough and people are angry enough, extremists can suddenly step into the center, where no one expects them. And after that it can take decades to undo the damage. We have been shocked too many times. Our imaginations need to expand to include the possibilities of such monsters and monstrosities. We were not adequately prepared.”
Who You Gonna Believe…
And, of course, we wait with trepidation to discover if the president of the United States, a man woefully ignorant of history and consumed by ego was himself an active Russian collaborator, an ignorant dupe, a greedy businessman or, as seems increasingly likely, all of the above.
As Chico Marx – no relation to Karl, but Groucho’s brother – once said, “who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes.”
Putin has already won a great victory in the West by using disinformation to fuel deep doubts about American institutions and the fundamentals of a democracy, particularly a free press. His victory has advanced the interests a perverted and dangerous 21st Century version of the kind of tyrannical state that Lenin set out to create a century ago, a place were truth and reason are turned upside down.
The questions for us a year into the Trump presidency is whether Putin will continue to get away with sabotaging American democracy or whether American institutions, including what remains of the political party Trump has hijacked, can end the corruption and begin to roll back the damage already done.
Jared Kushner [the president’s son-in-law] and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports.
“I have a sense that Americans are only now beginning to realize what has happened. Even leading Republicans are demanding to know what is going on. But unless something even more extraordinary occurs in the next few weeks, Russia’s American coup has already succeeded. No matter what happens next, the United States, its institutions, its place in the world, all have been left dangerously weakened, fractured, diminished.
“European leaders are openly questioning America’s role in NATO. Beijing is flying nuclear bombers over the South China Sea. Russian and Syrian troops are retaking Aleppo from the rebels. That’s the sound of thunder in the distance; the world has changed.”
How do we explain the reality of the president of the United States?
At his core he is a reality television host with a string of real estate bankruptcies and a host of conflicts of interest. He’s had three wives. He settled hundreds of claims for operating a fraudulent “university.” His long, long record of mendacity about everything from the number of floors in his Manhattan high rise to the size of his inaugural crowds has now carried over to his presidency where he continues to change positions like the rest of us change socks. The man clearly suffers from a severe personality disorder that requires constant affirmation of all that he does, but simultaneously seems to prevent him from exhibiting even a sliver of empathy, self-reflection or sense of remorse.
That he is a deeply flawed individual is obvious even to many who voted for him and yet millions continue to pretend there is nothing to see here. On one level you can understand that Trump voters made a commitment last year and, unlike their hero, they find it difficult – even impossible – to shed a commitment.
Yet, how to explain the political loyalty on the part of elected Republicans to a man who hijacked their party and by all accounts has never exhibited any loyalty to anyone? Most elected Republicans came only reluctantly to Donald J. Trump after trying out other alternatives. Meanwhile Trump stormed his way through the GOP field with an outrageous helping of bombast, hyperbole and insult, while his chief competitors largely attacked one another hoping to be the last man standing against a huckster. The last campaign may go down in political history as the first where virtually everyone abandoned the classic strategy of attacking the front-runner, while the frontrunner attacked everyone. Republican failure to see Trump for what he is and campaign accordingly was a fatal mistake compounded by even more fatal mistakes from Democrats.
And, now again we confront an astoundingly chaotic and dispiriting few days that only accumulate the sins of the president against American democracy.
Bear with me while I recount and know that this accounting leaves for another day the president’s trip to the Middle East and Europe and the new revelations about his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Russians in the Oval…
The director of the FBI, leading a national security investigation into possible collusion between the president’s election campaign and the Russian government, was fired. The handling of the firing and its aftermath compromised the integrity of the deputy attorney general and many of the White House staff, not to mention the president himself.
Then the day after James Comey’s dismissal the president invited the Russian foreign minister – described by one foreign policy official as “a complete asshole” – into the Oval Office in the company of the Russian ambassador, a man implicated in Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election. The optics alone were awful, including the fact that U.S. journalists were barred from photographing the meeting, but Russian cameras recorded the event and the Russians released the pictures for the world to digest.
During the meeting the president shared some of the deepest secrets from within the United States government with Vladimir Putin’s principle deputy in his mission to discredit western style democracy and weaken the NATO alliance. No wonder the photos show a smiling Sergei Lavrov.
The president’s defense of the indefensible was simple and simply incredible: I can do it and I did, he said. It is true that a president can declassify information whenever he wants, but that crazy and ludicrous justification came only after the administration’s national security advisor attempted to mislead the country about the substance of what his boss had done.
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, a three-star Army general who you may remember authored a splendid book called Dereliction of Duty about why people who knew better failed stand up to another flawed president in an earlier generation. General McMaster is now an object lesson in what duty actually requires. Hint: duty is not covering for a nitwit.
It was also widely reported in the midst of all this chaos, and without contradiction, that the president of the United States leaned on the director of National Intelligence and the head of the National Security Agency to support his contention that the Trump campaign has not colluded with Russia. Both men refused and apparently considered the request completely inappropriate.
Remember all of this happened in the space of a few days, hours really.
Next a senior American official shared with the New York Times the specific words Donald J. Trump shared with those crafty Russians. Trump said he fired the “nut job” FBI director in order to take the heat off the investigation into his own campaign’s conduct. Think about that for a moment.
A senior staffer to the president of the United States is sharing the most damning information possible about his boss with newspaper reporters. You have to wonder why. There is only one plausible explanation: some on the White House staff have concluded what the vast majority of Republicans in Congress have not tumbled to – the president is reckless and ignorant about national security matters or even more seriously a genuine danger to the country and the world.
Just for good measure add this context: amid the wringing of hands about what was said in the Oval Office and how damaging it might be, Vladimir Putin smilingly offered to provide a Russian account of the meeting. That could only have been a threat to expose what some on the White House staff immediately rushed to expose themselves. Slap your forehead in disbelief. This is not fake news. This is the Republic of Trump.
The many and constantly shifting explanations of why we have Donald J. Trump in the White House are mostly inadequate to explain why a manifestly unfit individual has his finger on the nuclear button. Disdain for “elites” doesn’t explain it, nor does the economic condition of too many white working class Americans. The strange attraction of Americans to the simple and often wrong answers of a “strong man” who acts “decisively” remains inadequate to explain this weird moment in our history. The only real explanation is the simple one on display daily in the Republican controlled Congress. Twenty-plus years of Republican intellectual rot and ultra-partisanship have combined to give us Donald Trump.
I’m a member of the old school. I learned my journalism and politics generations ago in the school of, if not perfect objectivity, then at least rigorous fairness. In those days there was a rough equivalence between the major political parties. No one group or faction had a lock on wisdom or truth. You could report the position of a Republican and a Democrat with a sense that each point of view had a large measure of value and intellectual honesty. But something changed.
The change in politics we are now living with came at first gradually. It was a trickle in the beginning, but then a dam gave way. And we all find ourselves engaged in a running and increasingly destructive national argument that is about little more than tribal partisanship where facts disappear and lying multiplies.
The explanation for “why Trump” is actually quite simple and political scientists Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann have described it with great precision in their important book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. “However awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge,” Mann and Ornstein note,“one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
That explanation was written in 2012, long before we could envision the Age of Trump.
Here is a more current assessment from Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s top strategist in 2008, who says the “rotten, fetid and corrupt culture that has metastasized around an intellectually bankrupt GOP” is horrible for the country and will take years to correct.
Or put yet another way: national Republicans have now for some years advanced an often internally incoherent and essentially dishonest set of policy ideas that have debased the intellectual rationale of a once genuine conservative – and responsible – party. Tax cuts trump deficit reduction under GOP presidents, but are ruining the country when the other party is in power. A “feckless” foreign policy is to be condemned under Barack Obama, but Trump trashing NATO, cooing with dictators and praising Putin is now somehow just fine under a Republican.
Republican leaders are now facing the consequence of such a craven and opportunistic approach to politics. The consequences of misleading, misinforming and misusing their followers now sits in the White House, which brings me to the junior Senator from Idaho, James E. Risch.
Idaho’s Dubious Claims to Political Fame…
Idaho, a state I called home for nearly 40 years and where I worked in and around the state’s politics for all of that period, has a decidedly mixed political history. The state has produced a small collection of truly impressive political leaders, including William E. Borah, an old-style progressive Republican, and Frank Church, an old-style western liberal. Borah chaired the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920s and was a major power in Washington. Church chaired the same committee in the 1970s and investigated the excesses of the nation’s intelligence agencies, probed foreign corruption by American businesses, passed important conservation legislation and stood up to a president of his own party on the issue of a disastrous war. Jim McClure, a Reagan conservative who served in both the House and Senate, could be a tough partisan, but was also known as a serious legislative workhorse. After those three Idahoans of national prominence the state’s Congressional gruel gets pretty thin.
Take George V. Hansen for example. A lumbering six foot, six inch 300 pound ultra-conservative, Hansen in a way symbolizes Idaho on the national stage. As a congressman Big George made a showboating trip to Iran in 1979 to negotiate the release of the American embassy hostages. The move failed, of course, but it generated a lot of news coverage that Hansen milked for all its worth. He was anti-IRS, anti-OSHA and anti-EPA. He voted against civil rights and never passed a piece of legislation even remotely important to his constituents. Twice convicted of various financial shenanigans, a judge actually said Hansen wasn’t really an evil man just a stupid one. Look it up.
The first line of Hansen’s 2014 New York Times obituary captured the essence of his wacky career. Hansen was, the Times noted, “a Republican politician whose open disdain for federal authority made him a popular figure in Idaho, where he was elected to Congress seven times, and who twice landed in federal prison.”
More recently one-time Senator Larry Craig became a laugh line for every late night comedian when his “wide stance” in a men’s restroom in the Minneapolis airport resulted in an arrest by an undercover cop who charged the senator with lewd conduct. Craig plead guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct, quickly said he would resign from the Senate, then reneged and spent months fighting his own admission of wrongdoing using campaign funds to finance his legal action. The Federal Election Commission sued Craig for misusing campaign funds. He lost on appeal.
When a sex scandal involving House members and pages erupted in the early 1980s, Craig denied any involvement even though no one had accused him of wrongdoing. Many Idahoans just shrugged and elected Craig to the Senate where he warmed a seat and engineered earmarks from his perch on the Appropriations Committee. Beyond the sex scandals Larry Craig’s main claim to Senate fame was to champion a balanced budget Constitutional amendment that his own party never supported and to carry reservoirs of water for the National Rifle Association. Although he served in the Senate for 18 years and six years in the House you can search long and hard to find a significant legislative accomplishment with Craig’s name attached.
The Junior Senator from Idaho…
Although never touched by the kind of personal scandal that came to define the careers of Hansen and Craig, current Senator Risch, a wealthy trial lawyer who prides himself on being the most conservative senator, is every bit as much a non-entity. Risch, a senior member of both the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees, has been among the most outspoken defenders of Donald Trump. Risch wears his extreme partisanship and the GOP’s moral bankruptcy on his sleeve.
Without knowing the full extent of Trump’s remarkable sharing of super-sensitive intelligence with the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office, Risch hurriedly regurgitated White House talking points on three different news programs – CNN, Fox and the PBS NewsHour – declaring that the bumbling president did nothing wrong when he shared state secrets. The real offense, Risch insisted, came from “the weasels” within the White House and the administration that leaked the details of Trump’s crazy actions.
“The real story here is there’s a weasel here,” Risch told The NewsHours John Yang. “They betrayed their own country, they betrayed their families and their neighbors, and when you disclose classified information … it is an act of treason. It’s unfortunate we can’t get that person identified, but he or she should be identified and treated as any treasonous person would be.” In another interview Risch said it was time to question the Washington Post about the sources of the leaks.
As a senior member on the two most important committees assessing the extent of Russian interference in the last election, and with extensive access to information and sources in the intelligence community Risch might have chosen to play the role of truth seeker or even wise skeptic. Instead he’s gone full partisan calling Trump’s disclosure “a good act.” You can’t find a person in the intelligence community who agrees with such sophistry. No serious person thinks Trump acted out of anything other than ignorance or arrogance.
“It’s part of this anti-Trump fervor that the national media has to try to make him look bad every time he turns around. This was a good act that he did, not a bad act that he did,” Risch said on PBS.
Risch has found no words to express even mild concern that a president under investigation has fired his investigator. When asked a few months back about Russian interference in the election Risch brushed off any concern. “I don’t think they interfered. I think they attempted to interfere,” Risch told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
The CNN host felt it necessary to remind Risch that 17 U.S. intelligence agencies came to a different conclusion.
These are simply astounding statements by a U.S. Senator with broad access to intelligence and foreign policy knowledge. So astounding in fact that former Idaho attorney general and state Supreme Court justice Jim Jones, a Republican who once harbored his own Senate aspirations, observed in a recent newspaper column that he was “having a hard time understanding the Republican Party that I joined back in the early 1960s.”
With Risch no doubt in mind, Jones, now retired, asked “Has the Republican Party turned into such a hyper-partisan entity that it is not willing to get to the bottom of this alarming mess? Seems so.”
The glaring reality of the “intellectually bankrupt GOP” is clearly on display with politicians like Jim Risch. His knee jerk defense of Trump stands in stark contrast to his knee jerk denunciations of the previous president. He excuses behavior today that he would have condemned as treasonous a year ago. It is the behavior of a political hack, not a serious senator.
Risch’s behavior and hyper-partisanship conjure up memories of another Idaho Republican senator from the 1950s. Herman Welker was another political non-entity with no legislative accomplishments who nonetheless drove fear of Communism into a single, forgettable Senate term. To the extent Welker is remembered at all today relates to his slavish devotion to Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, an earlier demagogue not infrequently compared to our current American demagogue. Welker defended McCarthy to the bitter, bitter end, condemned McCarthy’s “unfair” treatment by the press, berated McCarthy’s critics and voted against McCarthy’s censure. History has treated Welker harshly – there are no monuments to the man in Idaho – and will, I suspect, treat Republicans like Risch just as roughly.
The party that once made it an article of faith to abhor almost any coziness with a dictator in the Kremlin now regularly apologizes for a president who acts more and more in the interest of Putin and at the expense of America’s standing around the world. It is simply a remarkable transformation and unlike anything we have witnessed in politics of our lifetimes.
Pause and review for a moment the developments of the last two weeks, including former CIA director John Brennan’s recent testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, a portion of which is quoted above. Then ask yourself what being a United States senator really entails?
Is independence part of the job? Maybe embracing a penchant for facts over rank partisan obfuscation is what the founders had in mind when they gave the Senate power to check the excesses of a reckless chief executive. Maybe the guts to stand up to a clown is part of the job even if it puts a senator in the uncomfortable position of bucking the prevailing sentiment of his party. Perhaps country really should come before partisanship.
The unprecedented leaking from the White House and the intelligence community might well be a reason for concern if the president of the United States were even remotely capable of exercising his responsibilities. But that is not the state of play in American politics. Jim Risch would shut down the “weasels” that are helping all of us understand the dangers of a president both intellectually unprepared for the job and too ignorant to know what he doesn’t know.
At a moment when history demands political leaders who stand for something bigger than their own party and who believe in something more important than the next election, the junior senator from Idaho is playing a role that has become all too common. It may be politically safe, at least for a while longer, to cozy up to Trump, but excusing his behavior has absolutely nothing to do with duty, honor and country.
There will be a day of reckoning with all the nonsense and incompetence and possibly worse that Republicans have embraced in their subservience to Trump. Some in safe seats will survive the ultimate blowback, while others will be shown the door. All will live and die with the taint – or the stink – of a kind of immoral collaboration that already has them being labeled “Vichy Republicans.”
Meanwhile, looking at the conduct of craven politicians like Jim Risch I almost find myself longing for a politician who was just a stupid crook. Ol’ George Hansen suddenly doesn’t look so bad.
“The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
Donald J. Trump, shortly after his election, dismissing concerns about conflicts of interest.
Prior to January 20, 2017 the United States had endured two periods of political malfeasance that have served to define presidential corruption. Donald J. Trump, in fewer than 100 days in office, has given us a third era of presidential sleaze. In fact, in terms of personal and administration corruption and conflict of interest Trump may well have entered a zone that Ulysses S. Grant and Warren Harding never came close to inhabiting. (The Washington Post’sJennifer Rubin, a conservative opinion columnist, made the same point recently.)
Grant and Harding have long been the presidential poster boys for corruption in high places. Grant’s two terms right after the Civil War were plagued with a cast of sleazy characters motivated by personal gain. Grant’s corrupt administration included his Secretary of War William Belknap who ran a scam that involved channeling huge kick backs to the secretary from a crook Belknap had appointed to operate a lucrative Indian trading post in Oklahoma. Belknap resigned hoping to avoid impeachment, but the Senate tried him anyway with a majority of members concluding he had accepted bribes.
Harding populated his administration in the early 1920s with a cast of his oddball political friends – the Ohio Gang – who fleeced government agencies, peddled influence and secretly sold federal oil concessions. Harding’s Secretary of the Interior went to jail. Harding famously remarked, “I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!”
While both president’s were politically naïve – some might say stupid – about the vast trouble some of their closest associates caused, neither was man was truly a grifter. Grant’s and Harding’s encounters with corruption were more like accidentally brushing against a patch of poison ivy and coming away with a rash. Neither man purposely decided to get naked and wallow around in the poison.
Donald J. Trump, on the other hand, has willfully waded into a swamp of poisonous corruption during his first three months in office. Among all the norms and traditions Trump has trashed, making corruption great again may be the most serious offense of his startlingly disastrous presidency.
The potential and actual conflicts in Trumpland are so vast as to defy list making, but let’s give it a try. A brief survey of recent news coverage reveals a long list and these are just the issues we know about:
China: Trump is being “informally” advised on economic policy by Steve Schwartzman, the CEO of the Blackstone Group, a giant private equity firm with extensive holdings in China.
China is no longer “a currency manipulator,” Trump says, after repeatedly making that claim during the campaign. What has changed? He’s now being coached by Schwartzman who stands, by his own admission, to win or lose big depending on what policies Trump applies to China.
“Even if Schwarzman was acting in the capacity of an economic expert, those policy changes directly help Schwarzman’s bottom line as CEO of Blackstone, the private equity giant,” Politico reports. “And Blackstone has gone so far as to warn its investors about the stakes of Trump’s China policy. In a recent regulatory filing, Blackstone explicitly warned its investors that Trump’s tough talk on China threatened to hurt Blackstone’s portfolio.”
Is Trump making economic policy for the American people or a billionaire buddy?
And there is this: Ivanka Trump, the president’s “unpaid” White House advisor, recently received lucrative Chinese trademark licenses valuable to her clothing line. The First Daughter received the Chinese approval the same day she and her husband, Jared Kushner, sat next to the Chinese president at a dinner at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Were Ivanka Trump’s extensive business interests in China “a factor leading Donald Trump to change his previously tough approach to Beijing,” asks columnist Walter Shapiro. Make an educated guess.
Speaking of Mar-a-Lago, every time the president visits his resort – and in the first 100 days Trump trips to Florida have been numerous – American taxpayers are in effect paying him for food and other services to support the White House entourage and foreign guests. Trump’s resort has charged the Secret Service thousands of dollars for the rental of golf carts apparently needed to protect the guy who owns the place and he pockets the rental fees. This arrangement is the very definition of a conflict.
Turkey: “Are President Trump’s business ties to Istanbul stopping him from reprimanding the Turkish president for his authoritarian power grab,” asks the right leaning website Conservative Review.
“I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Trump said last year. “It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers—two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.” It is also a textbook example of a conflict of interest that apparently in his own less than self aware way even Trump recognizes.
Russia: Where to begin. The whole ball of wax is beginning to melt, but it will take time before the level of corruption by Trump associates, and likely the president himself, is fully exposed. I still think the corruption is mostly about money and one hopes the Republican controlled Congress is not slow rolling a serious investigation. But if the GOP stonewalls on a serious review of what has gone on and this house of cards begins to tumble, the post-Watergate era for the GOP will look like a mild setback in comparison.
The most recent Russian outrage involves, predictably, the former CEO of Exxon/Mobil Rex Tillerson, now serving as Secretary of Russian Oil Deals, but confirmed by a sleeping U.S. Senate as Secretary of State.
As the Wall Street Journal reported recently Exxon/Mobil has long sought U.S. permission to drill with the Russian state-owned oil company, Rosneft, in areas banned by the sanctions imposed against Vladimir Putin’s brutal regime. The oil company, the Journal notes, “renewed a push for approval in March, shortly after its most recent chief executive, Rex Tillerson, became secretary of state.”
Approving the waiver – at least at the moment – was apparently too big a leap even for the Trumpers since the administration quickly declined the Exxon request. But stay tuned. It will be back.
Greasy palms: It has now been reported that Dow Chemical has been lobbying the Trump administration to discard pesticide rules the company doesn’t like. The big push to thwart the rules began after Dow’s CEO was installed as a top outside advisor to the president. Oh, yes, and after the company wrote a $1 million check to the Trump Inaugural committee.
Stories are only now emerging that detail the massive level of corporate giving to the Trump inaugural. The total haul, a record, is about $107 million – for an inaugural.
As the Washington Post reports, “In all, more than 45 individuals and companies donated at least $1 million each to the effort as Trump broke with the practice of most recent inaugural committees and placed no limits on corporate or individual donors.” The Trump inaugural committee has reported contributions, but not how the money was spent or whether, as had been promised, any money has gone to charity.
Trump Inauguration committee. This whole episode is vaguely reminiscent of the U.S. dairy industry illegally funneling Richard Nixon’s campaign $2 million in exchange for a pledge that the Nixon Administration would increase federal milk price supports. That scandal eventually resulted in several plea bargain agreements that were struck by the Watergate special prosecutor. History does have a way of rhyming.
Hiding in plain sight here is that unlimited contributions to the Trump festivities is really thinly disguised “pay-to-play” money that curries favor with the new administration – read “Dow Chemical” – while avoiding any level of accountability. It is essentially legalized bribery of a type that every new administration has engaged in, but now the Trump crowd has taken the practice to an entirely new level of sleaze. Even to the point of accepting money from foreign sources.
Foreign government money to the American president: As has been widely reported various lawsuits are moving forward based on the “emolument clause” of the U.S. Constitution that seems to provide – its never really been litigated – that the president cannot enrich himself through payments from foreign governments. But, of course, that is exactly what is happening when a foreign ambassador decamps to Trump’s Washington, DC hotel or one of Trump’s foreign properties benefits – and the president benefits, too – from an exchange of money. All of this could have been avoided had Trump done what every respected ethics expert says he must do and divested his foreign and domestic interests and created a true blind trust for his investments. His smoke and mirrors steps to date are woefully inadequate to the task of avoiding conflicts of interest.
A new USA Today investigation finds that Trump owns “at least $250 million of individual properties in the USA alone. Property records show Trump’s trust and his companies own at least 422 luxury condos and penthouses from New York City to Las Vegas, 12 mansion lots on bluffs overlooking his golf course on the Pacific Ocean and dozens more smaller pieces of real estate. The properties range in value from about $200,000 to $35 million each.
The USA Today report says since his election Trump has sold millions of dollars worth of real estate often to shell companies that make it impossible to track the real buyer. “Anyone seeking to influence the president could set up an anonymous company and purchase his property,” Heather Lowe, director of government affairs at Global Financial Integrity, a D.C.-based group aimed at curbing illicit financial transactions told the newspaper. “It’s a big black box, and the system is failing as a check for conflicts of interest.”
And, of course, “Unlike developments where Trump licenses his name to a separate developer for a flat fee,” USA Today reports, “profits from selling individual properties directly owned by his companies ultimately enrich him personally.”
Trump Tax returns: Certainly the greatest potential conflicts lurk in thousands of pages of Trump’s tax returns, the returns he once blithely promised to release and now vows will never see the disinfecting power of sunlight. The conflicts here are both staggering and unprecedented. The president of the United States may soon be pushing a tax reform proposal that will personally enrich his bottom line. His coziness with Russia may be due to existing or previous business loans with Russian banks or the Putin aligned Russian billionaires who operate like a Mafia enterprise. The tax returns would explain much about Trump’s conflicts of interest which is precisely why he will never, short of legal or Congressional command, release them.
I’m certain I left out a few other examples of actual or perceived corruption or conflicts of interest off this list, but you get the drift. Trump has succeeded in record time in trashing the ethical norms of American political behavior across the board, but no where has it been more striking than in his wonton disregard for basic ethical standards.
It is striking how quickly and completely it has happened and how little push back has ensued from political people who once would have found any one of the examples I’ve listed as a scandal of significant consequence. Or as the Post’s Jennifer Rubin puts it, “What is striking is the degree to which the Trump clan publicly flaunts its ethical laxity and disinterest in complying with norms that every other president and his family have managed to follow.”
Die-hard Trumpanista’s will continue to ignore the ethical swamp that their man has expanded rather than drained, so it will be up to the courts and few bipartisan voices of reason to try to hold this willful man to something approaching normal standards. Technically and narrowly the conflict law is on Trump’s side since, unbelievably, Congress has never made a president subject to the ethics statutes that apply to everyone else in government from a clerk at the Interior Department to a cabinet secretary. Morality and decency, however, are not on his side and the flaunting of long established ethical norms only makes the egregious list of conflicts more disgusting. Trump and his cronies, way more than a Grant or a Harding or a Nixon, have taken political ethics into as a place that increasingly resembles a third world dictatorship, or a kleptocracy more in keeping with Putin’s Russia or the weird blend of Communism and billionaires that rule China. What Trumpism is not is anything resembling American democracy.
The evidence of corruption – personal, family and by associates – threatens to become so widespread and persistent as to be considered, well, normal. And it is not normal.
And it has all happened so quickly. The ethical norms of American government and politics have been trashed by a man who ironically accused his opponent of being crooked and then pledged to drain the sleaze from our politics. It took the Watergate scandal and the resignation of a president to establish the broadly bipartisan standards that have applied to every president since.
It is hard to believe a real sense of ethics at the highest levels of government can be restored as quickly as the conman-in-chief has torn it all apart. In fact with this president it is increasingly difficult to believe that ethics as we once defined the term can be restored at all.
“Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”
WASHINGTON — The chiefs of America’s intelligence agencies last week presented President Obama and President-elect Donald J. Trump with a summary of unsubstantiated reports that Russia had collected compromising and salacious personal information about Mr. Trump, two officials with knowledge of the briefing said.
One of the dangers to American democracy inherent in a Donald Trump presidency is the sheer magnitude of the disruption to political norms that he has and will touch off. It’s frankly almost impossible to keep track of chaos he has sparked. I’ve taken to reducing his soon-to-be presidency to “the outrage of the day.”
The upsetting of what is normal is, of course, precisely what many of his supporters like most about Trump and his approach. As long as he’s able to keep his core supporters stirred up with his brand of political chaos – many of those supporters long ago abandoned any desire or ability to think critically about the man-child – he will believe that he is riding high and being successful. And given the stunningly short national attention span that afflicts us, as well as our desire to be entertained, he may just have discovered a new rule of political effectiveness – keep them guessing and above all keep them distracted.
Trump will almost certainly and eventually crash and burn (I hope before bringing on a war; trade or shooting), and he will eventually need to confront the age-old problem of over exposure. Every reality TV show has a shelf life after all and his expire by date looms even before he takes office. A 37 percent approval rating is not the raw material of long-term political credibility. He has no where to go but down.
But man-oh-man what damage in the meantime, which brings me to my outrage of this day: the amazing political gymnastics on the part of some on the American right who are joining Trump is his embrace of Vladimir Putin, the one-time KGB agent intent on destabilizing western democracies, including our own. This has been clear for months and long before the most recent salacious material surfaced publicly, yet the Putin embrace grows stronger.
From before Franklin Roosevelt’s trip to Yalta in February of 1945, the American political right has held as a cardinal principle of conservative orthodoxy a deep and abiding distrust of all things Russian. From Robert Taft to Ronald Reagan no Republican strayed from that gospel. Richard Nixon’s remarkable opening to an arms control agreement with the Russians and diplomatic relations with China were possible, in no small part, because of Nixon’s life-long hard line stand on both countries. It really did take an anti-Communist Republican like Nixon to go to China since any Democrat, with the possible exception of Senator Henry Jackson, would have been immediately characterized as “soft” on Communism.
Most American’s old enough to remember Reagan remember his 1983 labeling of the then–Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” The larger context of that famous line was Reagan’s warning that the country must not “ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”
In order to understand the full scope of Reagan’s speech, one his most famous, delivered by the way to the National Association of Evangelicals, a group ironically now totally in thrall to Trump, I went back and read the speech. Several lines resonate all these years later and in the context of the vast rightwing acceptance of Putin, election meddling and all, none rings more true than this:
“Some would have us accept them at their word and accommodate ourselves to their aggressive impulses,” Reagan said of the Russians in 1983. “But if history teaches anything, it teaches that simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.”
It remains the single most stunning reversal of 75 years of conservative thought that so many on the political right have strayed so far from the warnings of Reagan – until Trump, the secular saint of the GOP – that they they can actually embrace Vladimir Putin as some kind of legitimate global partner in a new Trumpian world.
And while I suppose it is possible to question the unanimous conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Putin ordered interference in the recent election in order to destabilize our democracy and help Trump, it is really not possible to ignore the record of the man John McCain correctly calls “a thug, a murderer, a killer and a KGB agent.”
Putin has annexed Crimea, invaded the Ukraine, fought a war with Georgia, threatens the Baltic states, backs the Syrian regime at the expense of fighting ISIS, finances rightwing nationalist movements in western Europe and has created both a cult of personality and a kleptocracy that rules Russia in ways that Lenin or Stalin might envy. Reagan is rolling over.
“Russia’s record of destabilizing actions against the Soviet Union’s former dominions is established beyond doubt,” Porter wrote late last month. “In 2007, the Baltic state of Estonia, which Russia basically regards as being on loan to western liberal democracy, experienced a full-blown cyber-attack on its banking and media networks after the Estonian government relocated the Soviet-era ‘Bronze Soldier’ memorial. Russia launched a cyber-war against Georgia prior to the Russian-Georgian conflict. Ukraine became the target of sustained attack exactly a year ago this week. Hackers took control of the power grid through a denial-of-service attack and caused outages across one region. During the last 12 months, the Germans have sent repeated warnings about attacks on their political system and perceived operations to stir up hatred with false news stories. In May, Germany’s domestic security agency said there had been attempts, reportedly sourced to Russia, to compromise the computer system of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. Reports of a previous attack on the Bundestag, which disabled the lower house’s network, was also tied to Russian actors.”
There are clear signs that the Russian meddling in the American election – the cyber crimes, the planting of “fake news” that more correctly should be labeled propaganda and the empowerment of various alt-right actors – was merely a tune up for coming elections in France and Germany. We’ve had a major warning. Will it be heeded? Apparently not by many Trumpers.
As James Kirchick, a never Trump conservative, wrote recently in the Washington Post, “Pro-Russian converts on the American right appear to take two forms. The opportunists simply want power and are willing to sacrifice principles in pursuit of it. The ideologues, meanwhile, see Russia as nothing worse than an occasional nuisance, if not a potential ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.”
Among the pro-Putin opportunists, those who cravenly seek power or access, Kirchick lists Newt Gingrich, various Fox personalities including Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs, all of whom have praised Russia, Putin and the creepy Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the conduit for John Podesta’s hacked email’s. Even Sarah Palin has gone from keeping an eye on Russia – remember she once said she could see it from her porch in Alaska – to apologizing for once thinking ill of Assange.
Elected Republicans have gotten into the praise Putin act. Arizona Congressman Trent Franks bizarrely reasons that the Russian email hacks – if they happened and he’s not sure they did – “succeeded in giving the American people information that was accurate, then they merely did what the media should have done.” One wonders how the Congressman would feel if Putin had his emails. It’s likely he does.
And what would any modern political controversy be without a conspiracy theory angle. Enter Oliver Stone. You can generally assess where the truth lies by seeing where Stone comes down and then take the opposite point of view. Stone essentially passes off the entire Putin-Trump phenomenon as an invention of the New York Times and Washington Post and actually suggests any further investigation focus on a supposed leaker from within the Clinton campaign rather than Russian hackers. This from the guy who has peddled more conspiracy theories than, well, Donald Trump. You can’t make this stuff up, or if you are Oliver Stone maybe you can.
As for me, as I think about the bizarre Putin-Trump relationship, I keep coming back to the old Watergate adage – “follow the money.”
Back in October and before the election, The Financial Times, hardly any kind of apologist for left of center politics, published a remarkable if little noticed analysis of the vast web of connections between Trump, his children and various advisors and the Russia of Vladimir Putin.
One of the experts consulted by the FT was David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist who has written, among other things, a biography of Trump entitled The Making of Donald Trump. Johnson – no relation – says he’s convinced the real Putin-Trump story has yet to emerge and observes that “Every time Vladimir Putin is mentioned, Trump goes out of his way to express deep respect for him, which suggests there’s something very important which we simply don’t know.”
It has got to be either money or sex. Since the Billy Bush “grab ’em by the…” tape didn’t sink the faux billionaire last fall, I’m betting it all about money. Trump’s empire is surely highly leveraged. He has big, big debt, which many observers have long suspected is at the heart of his refusal to release his tax returns or undertake real divestiture of his assets. I would bet my inaugural tickets that the money trail leads back to Putin and his Russian billionaire oligarch pals.
Imagine the possibilities and then remember that Putin is a former KGB agent: Perhaps Trump was caught on some Russian videotape secretly recorded during one of his trips to Russia, as some of the new allegations suggest. Or perhaps there are intercepts of Trump telephone calls. Or maybe the Kremlin has access to what we mere American citizens don’t, the Trump tax returns, bank statements, off shore accounts and debts. Perhaps Trump advisors like one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has well-established ties to Russian businesses and political leaders, actually colluded with Putin’s intelligence agencies. It’s a plot line too bizarre for a John Le Carre novel, but considering where we are and who is headed to the White House can you really rule any of it out?
The most significant paragraph in the intelligence community’s report on Russian efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the presidential election and assist Trump is quoted at the top of this piece: “Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests (emphasis added) made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”
Trump’s resistance to further investigation of the Russian role in the election – we should just get on with our lives he says – and his continuing stance that the matter is no big deal looks very much like the leading edge of a cover-up. Real digging by reporters and U.S. senators will undoubtedly expose what cannot be seen above the surface of this murky pond. The future integrity of American elections is at stake, not to mention the idea that an American president really is putting the nation’s interests above his own.
In his path breaking 2005 book Postwar, a history of Europe since 1945, the late and supremely talented historian Tony Judt, a man who understood the postwar world as well as anyone, has only two references to the then still new Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Both reference Putin’s authoritarian instincts and his drive to recover Russia’s international “respect” after the break up of the Soviet Union.
Judt astutely points out a reality about Russia that many are ignoring – the old Soviet approach to governing never really changed after the official fall of Communism. “High-ranking officials from the old regime were quietly recycled back into power under Vladimir Putin,” Judt wrote, “Communist-era silviki (prosecutors, police, and military or security personnel) constituted over half of the President’s informal cabinet.”
Putin is a thug, he dispatches his enemies in brutal and effective ways and he is an increasingly desperate dictator who presides over a crumbling economy. He is also smarter and much more disciplined than Donald Trump and he has the goods on the “useful idiot” who will soon be occupying the Oval Office. Above all Putin is hell bent on destabilizing and weakening western democracies. The soon-to-be president of the United States, either through ignorance or corruption or both seems determined to help him. This cannot stand.
“Hillary Clinton’s admission that she has pneumonia after allegedly becoming ‘overheated’ at a 9/11 event has even some in MSM acknowledging that the issue of the Democratic candidate’s health can no longer be ignored, as her tour has been put on hold.”
A few days ago Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, a noted writer on Russian and European history and politics, outlined what seems to me a highly likely scenario regarding the American presidential election.
Vladimir Putin, Applebaum wrote, is not so secretly attempting to undermine the U.S. electoral system, indeed his aim may well be to destabilize American democracy. It may sound farfetched, but then again the evidence may be hiding in plan sight.
We should believe that Putin, the creepy Kremlin leader and a former KGB apparatchik, is meddling in the election because he has done it before and, in fact, he does it all the time.
What Americans might be waking up to – we can hope – is that in Putin’s attempt to interfere with a U.S. election he has for the first time, as an earlier generation of Moscow leaders might have said, “a useful idiot” to help him in the person of Donald J. Trump.
Here’s Anne Applebaum’s informed speculation in a nutshell:
Trump continues to say, as he already repeatedly has, that if he loses the election to Hillary Clinton the whole system must be “rigged,” the polls are “wrong” and “real voters” have been ignored. He constantly complains that the “dishonest” and “corrupt” media is out to get him.
Meanwhile, Russian Internet hackers will continue to use a third party – Wikileaks – to disseminate emails pilfered from Clinton or George Soros or some nameless bureaucrat somewhere in order to, as Applebaum says, “discredit not just Hillary Clinton but also the U.S. democratic process and, again, the ‘elite’ who supposedly run it.”
Before Election Day or even on Election Day hackers will try to create havoc with one of more state election systems. They don’t need to succeed; just trying will be enough to confirm the suspicion, already firmly planted by Trump and others, that the election is “fixed.” The FBI, we already know, has warned election officials in Arizona that the election machinery may have been compromised. Imagine waking up on November 9th with Clinton having narrowly won Arizona – polls show her within striking distance there – and then imagine what Trump does and says.
I’ll quote Applebaum directly regarding the next step: “The Russians attempt to throw the election. They might try to get Trump elected. Alternatively — and this would, of course, be even more devastating — they might try to rig the election for Clinton, perhaps leaving a trail of evidence designed to connect the rigging operation to Clinton’s campaign.”
What a perfect KGB-like operation: Plant a trail of evidence “proving” that Clinton “stole the election.” It all reads like a John Le Carre thriller, but somehow doesn’t seem all that farfetched. “Once revealed,” Anne Applebaum writes, “the result will be media hysteria, hearings, legal challenges, mass rallies, a constitutional crisis — followed by confusion, chaos and an undermining of the office of the presidency.”
No Matter What – Putin Wins…
Here is the particularly pernicious aspect of the Russian meddling: there is no downside for Putin or his objectives. Putin wins no matter the outcome in November.
Suppose Trump wins the election in which case Putin gets his useful idiot in the White House and ends 75 years of Republican skepticism about all things Russian.
Or suppose Clinton wins amid allegations that the election was rigged or stolen. Putin still wins with a weakened American president who is immediately discredited as “illegitimate” by a sizable chunk of the electorate.
Under any scenario the Kremlin gains in its real aim, which is to destabilize western democracy, weaken NATO and diminish U.S. standing around the world. These aims also help explain Putin’s objectives in supporting Brexit, the United Kingdom’s pending exit from the European Union, his encouragement of hard right elements in France and elsewhere in Europe and his embrace of Syria and Iran.
But the critical element in the Kremlin strategy is the utility of the fake billionaire from Trump Tower. Without a major party presidential candidate like Trump, a guy who surrounds himself with advisers with ties to Putin, who praises the Russian dictator as a better leader than the American president and then grants interviews to Putin’s international disinformation network, the election meddling and propaganda campaign would be a good deal more difficult to pull off.
As the Washington Post pointed out Trump’s recent interview with Larry King on the Putin financed propaganda channel RT was all about dissing news coverage of his own campaign. That message fits perfectly with Putin’s larger aims. Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist and translator who runs a blog dedicated to exposing misinformation in Russian media, put it this way: RT’s “mission now is not to report on Russia but to tell everyone how bad America is. There’s a huge audience for that, not just internationally but in the United States as well.”
Republicans who continue to lionize Ronald Reagan must wince just a little that the new face of their party now echoes the Kremlin line. “Reagan never gave interviews to Pravda while campaigning to be our president,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, wrote on Twitter, referring to the official newspaper of the Soviet Union. “Who advised Trump to appear on RT?” Who indeed?
Nothing motivates the GOP presidential candidate more than money, so that fact may offer the simplest, if a no less comforting explanation of the Trump-Putin alliance.“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference in 2008 and it has been widely reported that his old man has been trying to cut a fat hog in Moscow for years.
Even if you don’t buy the full extent of Anne Applebaum’s conspiracy, just consider this: Is there anyone who knows anything about American politics who would have predicted two years ago that the Republican candidate for president would have at the center of his candidacy a bromance with a Russian hatchet man? Four years ago Mitt Romney, you remember him, was condemning Russia and Putin as our nation’s greatest strategic threat. In fairness to Romney, many allegedly smart people in both parties disagreed with his assessment. Now Mitt looks like a genuine prophet.
Not only has Trump embraced Putin and essentially offered cover to Russian outrages in Ukraine he has neutered GOP hawks like John McCain who are left to mumble, as House Speaker Paul Ryan did last week, that Vladimir Putin really isn’t a nice guy. The former KGB agent really isn’t a nice guy, but he may understand U.S. politics better than many American voters.
Nothing Like This Before…
So, has anything like this ever happened before, has a foreign power ever attempted in such a comprehensive way to mess with a presidential election and influence American policy? The answer is both kind of and no.
One somewhat analogous historical precedent is the presidential election of 1940 and the tumultuous foreign policy debate immediately preceding U.S. entry into World War II. While far less obvious than the Russian effort in the current election, Britain clearly tried to influence U.S. politics, policy and public opinion – with willing help from Franklin Roosevelt – in 1940 and 1941.
During the 1930s, as Cull has written, British policy “explicitly forbid any such endeavor in the United States,” but that policy changed as the war situation darkened after the fall of France in 1940. British policy makers began to believe “through judicious use of propaganda and publicity” that they might “undermine U.S. neutrality and somehow sell Britain and a second world war to a skeptical American public.”
A key tactic was to plant “subversive propaganda” through a network of middlemen – “cut outs” they were called – who were charged with distributing up to “twenty rumors each day with the ‘leading home reporters of the New York and Chicago papers.’”
Given the sensitivity at the time to the notion that Britain was trying to maneuver the United States into the war, public disclosure of a propaganda campaign or covert lobbying of Congress would have been politically explosive. The British, however, deemed feeding useful information to popular reporters, both low risk and effective. They used a well-connected political operative with relationships inside the government and with columnists and radio personalities like Walter Winchell and Dorothy Thompson to shape public and political opinion. Over time the effort was quite successful.
However, what Winston Churchill’s government did not do, unlike Vladimir Putin’s, was attempt to hijack an election or destabilize American democracy. There is no obvious historical precedent for what has been quietly happening in plain sight with Trump’s campaign.
Now with media obsession focused on Hillary Clinton’s health, an issue sure to dominate news coverage for days, and with the Kremlin’s candidate climbing in the polls we may learn just how sinister a former KBG henchman can become when at last he has a useful idiot in the Oval Office.
“The final and most worrying similarity between Putin and Trump is that so many are unwilling to believe that someone like Trump could ever become the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed to great jubilation, we never would have believed that a former KGB agent would become the president of Russia just nine years later. The moral: Be careful whom you vote for, it could be the last election you ever have.”
Russian dissident Garry Kasparov on the similarities between Putin and Trump.
Hang around politics long enough and you will ultimately come to embrace an ironclad rule. There is no such thing as a coincidence.
None of these (seemingly) unrelated facts/events/developments that I unspool below are matters of chance. Together they do not constitute a wildly improbable “coincidence.” Arrange the bullet-points anyway you want and then conclude the whole thing is amazing…or shocking…or worse.
Praise for Putin – Authoritarians as Stablemates…
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump astounds many Americans with praise – not once but time and again – for autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of the first widely acknowledged incidents of Trump evoking his relationship with the former KBG operative occurred during one of the many Republican primary debates. Of course Trump lied about what happened when he said, “I got to know him [Putin] very well because we were both on 60 Minutes, we were stablemates.” And then referring to the television show’s ratings, Trump said, “We did well that night.”
Trump and Putin had been featured in separate segments on the same night on 60 Minutes, but the rest of Trump’s claim was a fabrication. He – and we – shrugged it off as another whopper from the Orange Haired Wonder.
A couple of months later Trump went even farther when he discounted allegations that Putin has had journalists murdered. “Our country does plenty of killing also,” Trump maintained and then added that at least Putin is “running his country, and at least he’s a leader, you know unlike what we have in this country.”
Putin has returned the compliments. As Trump noted: “A guy calls me a genius, and I’m going to renounce?” I’m not going to renounce him.” Putin didn’t use those exact words, but never mind, this is Trump. The very next day Putin did call Trump a “colorful person” and said he welcomed Trump’s proposal for a “full-scale resumption” of U.S.-Russia ties.
Trump’s bromance with Putin is not a recent phenomenon. In 2013, long before he was considered a serious political candidate, Trumped Tweeted: “I just got back from Russia-learned lots & lots. Moscow is a very interesting and amazing place. U.S. MUST BE VERY SMART AND STRATEGIC.”
Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia until 2014, said Trump’s position toward Russia “makes everyone I talk to around the world nervous — and it makes me nervous.” And David J. Kramer, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state dealing with Russia during the George W. Bush administration, said simply he is “appalled” by Trump’s approach to Putin.
Trump has never – big surprise – backed away from any of his praise for Putin or vice versa.
Remember Brexit, NATO and Support for Nationalist Movements…
Among the relatively few in the world to celebrate the United Kingdom’s recent vote to leave the European Union were Trump and Putin. The French rightwing, nationalist political leader Marine Le Pen was another who praised the UK move. Most close observers believe Brexit serves Putin’s aim to fracture European unity and complicate western economies, while also encouraging nationalism everywhere. It has been well documented that Russian money has propped up rightwing, nationalist movements in Hungry and, of all places, France.
Trump’s recent astounding and completely unprecedented assertion that he would not automatically honor the 70 year old commitment to the NATO alliance is of a piece with his embrace of Brexit and, of course, is precisely the same position held by Vladimir Putin.
Putin, meanwhile, lavishes attention on separatist, anti-globalization movements from Northern Ireland to Texas – really. As NBC reported, “Northern Irish, Scottish, Basque, Catalan and Italian secessionists have been invited to Moscow for a conference, partly funded by Russia, planned for August. They will mingle with Texan, Californian, Puerto-Rican and Hawaiian wannabe-separatists from all over the world, the conference organizer says.”
It is no overstatement to say that never before in American history has one party candidate been so completely in sync with the world views of a Russian leader. In order to align with Putin, Trump has had to dump generations of foreign policy consensus. All by itself that is simply an amazing development in American politics.
Paul Manafort: Political Fixer Here and Abroad…
As Trump’s campaign both powered forward earlier this year winning one Republican primary after another, his campaign organization was widely seen as a mess. Enter long-time Republican operative Paul Manafort who was installed as the campaign chairman. Before long Manafort, a long-time lobbyist and GOP operative, consolidated his role when Trump’s campaign manager was forced out.
One of the great unreported stories of the current political cycle is how and why Manafort came to the Trump orbit. He is reportedly “volunteering” his services.
In 2014, Politico published a profile of Manafort referring to the one-time Reagan and Bush aide as “an invisible man” and “a notorious political fixer.” At the time of the 2014 piece, Manafort was emerging as the top advisor to the pro-Putin Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych. You may recall your recent world history and the fact that Putin has been working hard for years to destabilize Ukraine and prevent NATO membership even to the point of invading and occupying the eastern part of the country.
‘What’s already certain is this,” Politico wrote two and a half years ago, “Even among the many American strategists who test their fortunes abroad, Manafort’s journey from the front lines of the Reagan revolution to the right hand of a Moscow-backed Eastern bloc pol straight out of central casting ranks as one of the more unusual escapades of the Washington consulting class.” Little surprise: lots of money has been involved.
Additionally, a Trump “energy advisor,” Carter Page, has extensive ties to Putin and the Russian energy giant Gazprom and a retired three star general, Michael Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who recently spoke to the Republican National Convention has been cozy with Putin. Flynn sat with Putin at a dinner recently in Moscow celebrating the founding of Russia Today, the ‘news organization’ that is a key element in Putin’s international propaganda apparatus. Flynn has frequently appeared on RT and may be a paid contributor to the network. He refuses to confirm or deny.
In a fascinating piece of reporting in June, the Washington Post noted this: “The overwhelming consensus among American political and national security leaders has held that Putin is a pariah who disregards human rights and has violated international norms in seeking to regain influence and territory in the former Soviet bloc. In 2012, one year before Trump brought his beauty pageant to Moscow, then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney called Russia the United States’ top geopolitical threat — an assessment that has only gained currency since then.”
The Post story went on to recount how a Trump-organized beauty pageant in Moscow garnered several million for Trump, that various Trump family members have made numerous trips to Russia seeking financing and development projects and then offered this fascinating quote from Donald Trump, Jr. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
Anyone paying attention knows that Trump’s financial empire is as messy as his campaign organization. Most U.S. banks long ago refused to deal with Trump and his ties to Russian banks have covered his mounting debt.
In a brilliant piece on the Trump-Russia connection blogger Josh Marshall, he edits the Talking Points Memo website, said of the Republican candidate, “He has steadied and rebuilt his financial empire with a heavy reliance on capital from Russia. At a minimum the Trump organization is receiving lots of investment capital from people close to Vladimir Putin.” Trump seemed to confirm that suggestion when he bragged to a real estate publication that “Almost all of the oligarchs were in the room,” when he traveled to Russia for his beauty pageant.
The release of Trump’s tax returns – the fact that he refuses is unprecedented in modern American politics – would go a long way to illuminate the extent of his indebtedness to Russian banks and billionaires. That Trump won’t release those documents, which if they contain exculpatory information would be helpful to his cause, speaks volumes.
The Platform Fight That Wasn’t…
You needed to be paying really close attention last week to catch this story. During deliberations over the content of the Republican Party platform, Trump representatives killed a resolution that would have placed the party on record supporting “lethal” military aide to Ukraine. That is a position backed by virtually every Republican with any type of foreign policy experience, Senators John McCain and Bob Corker, for example, but hotly opposed by the Kremlin. So Trump forces killed the resolution, apparently one of the few times Trump or his minions paid any real attention to the party platform.
Coincidence? You have to wonder why it happened.
The Leaked Emails…
Here’s what The Atlantic says: “Close your eyes and imagine that a hacking group backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin broke into the email system of a major U.S. political party. The group stole thousands of sensitive messages and then published them through an obliging third party in a way that was strategically timed to influence the United States presidential election. Now open your eyes, because it looks like that’s what just happened.”
American security and intelligence officials have confirmed that Russian hackers, likely Russian intelligence agencies, were responsible for the cyber theft of 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee’s servers. The FBI is now investigating. The Russian hackers apparently turned the email trove over to Wikileaks, which dumped the material at precisely the moment it would have maximum impact on the Democratic National Convention that began Monday in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, state sponsored Russian media outlets have played the story big, focusing particularly on the forced resignation of the chairwoman of the DNC, Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The email dump, of course, implicates the DNC in a “conspiracy” to thwart the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders and help Hillary Clinton. Not incidentally, the Tweeter-in-Chief, Donald Trump, spent all weekend highlighting the email issue.
In 1962 United Artists, a big Hollywood film studio, released a film with a crazy, convoluted and politically explosive plot. In the film a foreign government sends a brainwashed ex-American serviceman to assassinate a U.S. politician. The film was something of a box office flop and many critics concluded that the plot of The Manchurian Candidate was just too farfetched, too implausible.
But Pauline Kael, the great film critic of The New Yorker, saw something else and she called the movie, “A daring, funny, and far-out political thriller about political extremists. … This picture plays some wonderful, crazy games about the Right and the Left; although it’s a thriller, it may be the most sophisticated political satire ever made in Hollywood.”
Today John Frankenheimer’s film is considered a classic. Maybe it is just a coincidence that I think about this old film when I think about Putin, Trump, Russian email hackers and the presidential election campaign.