Trump and Russia

“This particular act of national decisiveness was not the one the Beltway was banking on. Of course, if Clinton had prevailed as expected, we would never have heard tell of the collusion narrative. But unwilling to take defeat lying down, and aware that its anti-Trump machinations would be exposed once the new president took office, the fabled “deep state” responded by hyping an imaginary Trump–Russia espionage conspiracy.

I use the above scare quotes advisedly. Invocations of the “deep state” by Trump votaries are overkill. I first encountered the term, years before Trump entered electoral politics, while researching post-Ottoman Turkey. To have any chance of success, Kemal Ataturk’s experiment in secularizing an Islamic society required a notorious but surreptitious power center that prevented Muslim fundamentalists from undoing cultural and political Westernization. This “deep state” was an elite inner sanctum of top government, military, and judicial officials. Notwithstanding Turkey’s ostensibly democratic system, it stood ever ready to preserve the Kemalist establishment, whether by military coup or more subtle forms of intimidation.14

This book contends that the Obama administration, abetted by Washington’s politically progressive order, exploited its control of law-enforcement and intelligence agencies to help Clinton and undermine Trump. This was a scandalous abuse of power. That’s bad enough. There is no need to hyperbolize what happened into a deep state coup, or to trivialize what life in an authoritarian society with a real deep state is like. Let’s not forget: Trump is president. The officials who politicized their law-enforcement and intelligence duties have been removed, whether by dismissal or in the ordinary transition of power from one administration to the next. Trump’s political opponents would be delighted to remove him from office, but as a practical matter, that is a pipe dream. They will have to content themselves with a democratic election, and the result will stand regardless of how the political establishment feels about it.

Now that the special prosecutor has delivered his report, can we say the collusion narrative was a “hoax”? Many do, as does the president. There is a lot to be said for this assessment, particularly insofar as it relates to the essential allegation: a Trump–Russia cyberespionage conspiracy to “steal the election.” There has never been any real evidence of this, just the sometimes lurid, sometimes laughable innuendo known as the “Steele dossier,” a slapdash collection of “intelligence” reporting, crafted by a former British spy and his former journalist partners, the anti-Trump partisans Christopher Steele and Glenn Simpson, whose work was commissioned by the Clinton campaign.

The standard dictionary definition of hoax is “something accepted or established by fraud or fabrication.” A traitorous calumny largely based on fabricated intelligence fits that bill. Nevertheless, the word “hoax” is carrying a lot of freight in Trump World—a clean bill of health in which any hint that conduct was objectionable, that Russia ties were unsavory, is a ridiculed as a #NeverTrump hallucination. I think one should be able to see the president as exonerated on a libelous allegation that smacked of treason without sticking one’s head in the sand about his strange ingratiation of Putin; about the seamy dots connecting Kremlin cronies to Trump campaign officials and business partners; and about the fact that the Putin regime did offer, and the Trump campaign did eagerly hope to receive, campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton. The latter “collusion” did not rise to the level of a criminal agreement. But the facts that it was not consummated, and that Putin may very well have been playing Trump, do not erase the collaboration. That is why collusion is a weasel word that should not be confounded, or used interchangeably, with conspiracy.

Here’s what matters in our democratic republic: Trump’s blandishments toward Russia were not hidden from voters. Ties between the Trump and Putin orbits were not merely covered by the media; they were given a criminally corrupt spin, one that the evidence has not borne out. The problem for Clinton was that Russia was simply not a salient issue in the campaign. That is not easy for us to remember after two years of Democrat-media Russo-mania. In the event, however, Russia barely registered, not just because other issues were weightier but because raising it would have been counterproductive for Democrats.

Trump promoted his anticipation of a good relationship with the Russian strongman as a campaign asset. The candidate’s business dealings with Russian oligarchs were widely reported on. So was his skepticism about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the premier Western alliance formed to oppose the Soviet Union and the bane of Putin’s revanchist ambitions. That skepticism provoked stentorian opposition to his candidacy from both the globalist Left and elements of the Reaganite Right. Moreover, Paul Manafort was scandalously removed as Trump’s campaign chairman just three months before the election when the media exposed his lucrative lobbying work for Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed former president, whose ouster triggered the Russian aggression that continues to this day.

In addition, just weeks before the election, a Clinton campaign media blitz claimed that Russia’s hacking of Democratic National Committee email accounts could be part of a coordinated Trump-Putin strategy: Kremlin help for the Republican nominee in exchange for his lifting of economic sanctions against Russia if he won. The blitz was goosed along by Obama’s Central Intelligence Agency: The CIA’s then-Director John Brennan spun up then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) with allegations that Trump’s campaign was tied to the Russian government, while Michael Morell, a Clinton booster who had been the Agency’s Acting Director, publicly described Trump as an “unwitting agent” of the Kremlin.15

Political campaigns and elections are how we sort through such claims and policy disputes. We decide who is fit for office at the ballot box. The Justice Department, the FBI, and U.S. intelligence agencies are servants of the public, not a check on the public—much less a check on the public to be wielded by a presidential candidate’s political opposition. Personally, I found Donald Trump’s indulgence toward Putin, an anti-American dictator who runs his country like a mafia don, to be contemptible. That is one of several reasons why, out of seventeen potential Republican presidential nominees, Trump was much closer to the bottom than the top of my preference list. But nobody elected the federal government and its sprawling administrative state to decide whom to place at the top of the federal government and its sprawling administrative state. That is a decision for the sovereign, the American people exercising the franchise, not the administrators of the government they elect.

It is not that Trump’s take on Russia was popular. It is that 2016 voters decided that Russia was a low priority in the greater scheme of things. That should not surprise us because Democrats, too, regarded Russia as a trifling concern … right up until Mrs. Clinton lost and they unexpectedly found themselves in need of a scapegoat.

The investigation was thus “trumped up,” as it were. As president, Donald Trump has been refreshingly tough on Moscow—considerably tougher than his predecessors over the past quarter century. Yes, candidate Trump’s Russophilic commentary disturbed national-security conservatives, yours truly among them. Still, it is simply a fact that, in recent American history, a longing for conciliation with Moscow’s rogue regime has been standard fare. To be sure, Trump’s rhetoric—unabashedly solipsistic, off-the-cuff, and sometimes inattentive, uninformed, or flatly untrue—is more jarring than that of conventional politicians. Not content merely to hope aloud for better relations, he has gone so far as to defend Putin by drawing a moral equivalence between the Kremlin’s political assassinations of dissenters and our government’s covert national-defense operations.16 But while Trump’s logorrhea is often hair-raising, his policy positions (with a few exceptions not relevant here) tend to be quotidian. That should not surprise us either, the Democrats’ Chicken Little routine notwithstanding. President Trump spent most of his politically active life prior to running for office as a non-ideological centrist who thought “Bill Clinton was a great president,” and who donated mostly to Democrats (such as Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer) and moderate Republicans (such as the late John McCain).17 His “Let’s try to get along” approach to Putin during the campaign was utterly conventional.

Ever since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, it has been bipartisan Beltway wisdom that Russia is an essentially normal country with which we can do business—a “strategic partner,” as President George W. Bush’s administration delusionally put it in May 2008 upon submitting to Congress its U.S.–Russian Civilian Nuclear Power Agreement, four months before withdrawing the pact in humiliation when Russia, being Russia, seized territory in neighboring Georgia. But not to worry: President Obama revived the agreement 2010—if you’re keeping score, that’s in between Russia’s annexations in Georgia and its annexations in Ukraine.18

From Perestroika through Putin, our government’s perception transformed from Red Menace to La Vie en Rose. From George H. W. Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech through Barack Obama’s hot-mic promise of “more flexibility” on the Kremlin’s agenda of hamstringing America, Washington has regarded the regime in Moscow as a democratically-reforming, capitalism-friendly potential ally. For a fleeting moment in the 2012 campaign, GOP nominee Mitt Romney had the temerity to limn Russia as “without question, our number-one geopolitical foe”; who could forget President Obama’s censorious retort: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War has been over for 20 years.”19

On Russia, as on many things, Trump can be his own worst enemy and it is hard to feel sorry for him. To paraphrase Lenin, his opponents are trying to hang him with rope that he supplied. But his blandishments were not criminal. Given the Beltway establishment’s canoodling with the Kremlin right up until his election, Trump was like the guy left without a chair when the music stopped.

Voters, however, were not fooled. Those who cared about Russia as an election issue knew that the incumbent Democratic administration had regularly kowtowed to the Kremlin, including in the cause of kowtowing to Iran. Secretary Clinton had been that administration’s point-person on relations with Moscow for four years. Among her “accomplishments” was the promotion of Skolkovo, a suburb of Moscow slated to evolve into Russia’ Silicon Valley. With the State Department’s guidance, American technology companies (most of them Clinton Foundation donors and Bill Clinton speech sponsors) joined with Russian backers (some of them also Clinton Foundation donors) to develop state-of-the-art tech for the venture. The result? The Defense Department and the FBI assess Skolkovo as a boon for Russia’s military and cyber capabilities.20 (Did I mention that our intelligence agencies attribute Moscow’s interference in political campaigns throughout the West to its military and cyber capabilities?)

Candidate Clinton and her husband had disturbing Russia ties, too. In an episode that oozed self-dealing, Secretary Clinton helped greenlight Russia’s acquisition of a fifth of U.S. uranium stock, through its state-controlled energy giant, Rosatom—even though the Justice Department had an active racketeering investigation against Rosatom’s American subsidiary, and even though the United States does not produce nearly enough uranium to meet our own energy needs.21 While approval was pending, a Russian bank that promotes Rosatom paid Bill Clinton $500,000 for a short speech in Moscow. The former president met with Putin and his factotum, Dmitry Medvedev, during the trip—which may have mooted a planned get-together with a Rosatom board member. The uranium stock sold to Rosatom had been held by Uranium One, a company controlled by Clinton backers. Their acquisition of the valuable uranium assets eventually sold to Russia was due to Bill Clinton’s intercession with Kazakhstan’s Kremlin-allied dictator in 2005, after which an eye-popping $145 million flowed into the Clinton Foundation.22

The public’s indifference to Russia as a 2016 campaign issue can be summed up in one word: Clinton. Again, it is the word that explains virtually every Democratic failure to exploit Trump’s vulnerabilities.

Until Trump was elected, indifference to Russia and the possibility of foreign interference in our political campaign was the standard government position, too. President Obama and his intelligence agencies were thoroughly informed about Russia’s cyber operations, which mostly—but not exclusively—targeted Democratic campaigns. Yet the administration took no meaningful action. Obama publicly scoffed at the notion that the Kremlin could affect the outcome of a presidential election. Clinton took great umbrage, during the final debate between the candidates, at Trump’s refusal to concede that the election could be anything but fair and legitimate—a message echoed by Obama. With Hillary a shoo-in to win, Democrats were not going to permit any intimation that the process was rigged.

Republicans knew all about Trump’s wheedling of Putin. It was not a secret. Indeed, many Republicans were chagrined over the nomination precisely because they detected in Trump’s Russia rhetoric traces of an isolationist streak, antithetical to GOP doctrine that America’s prosperity hinges on our standing as the fully engaged leader of the free world. That most of these Republicans “came home” on Election Day was not due to a sudden comfort level found with Trump, but to disdain for Clinton—particularly after eight years of a foreign policy marked by American retreat and decline, a policy she’d helped steer.

The Trump–Russia tale was no secret. Voters, however, were far more animated by the question of which candidate should be trusted to fill the Supreme Court seat left open by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February 2016. Should it be the avowedly progressive Democrat, or the Republican who’d committed to appoint conservative jurists in the Scalia mold? The vacancy concentrated the electorate’s mind on the gravity of the Supreme Court’s work; the ideological deadlock that hamstrung its capacity to decide major cases; the advanced ages of several justices, making it highly likely that the next president would make multiple appointments and shape the philosophical bent of the judiciary for a generation to come.

Beyond that, the attention of Americans was consumed by the future of health care, the challenges of border security and illegal immigration, safety from terrorist attacks, the weak recovery from the financial crisis, the tension between maintaining low crime rates and addressing calls for criminal-justice reform, the opioid crisis, and the anxieties of middle-class Americans. The question of which candidate was apt to be weaker on Russia, a shell of its former Soviet self, was a comparative non-factor. It’s not that nobody knew. Nobody cared … least of all Democrats, for whom the matter of Russian aggression would have been shoved right back in the appeasement drawer the moment Clinton’s slam-dunk victory was announced the night of November 8.

But she lost, so we’ve had three years of collusion narrative.

This is a book about that narrative. It is a complex, fascinating story about storytelling: about how critical it is in Information Age politics, and how dangerous it can be when the government dabbles in it, politicizing intelligence and putting its partisan thumb on the scale of electoral politics.

Writing a book about a still-moving target means having to break off a piece for study while history is still unfolding. Shortly before we went to press, Special Counsel Mueller published his voluminous report. Like Mueller’s appointment, which we address toward the end, the report marks a significant shift in focus from collusion to alleged obstruction. The obstruction allegations will not be grist for courtroom prosecution, and my own view is that they are not prosecutable. In our constitutional system, responsibility for addressing alleged presidential misconduct is vested in Congress, in the impeachment process—the subject of my 2014 book, Faithless Execution. The obstruction and impeachment dynamic is still playing out. It is beyond the scope of this book … except to the extent that collusion is what got us there. It is the collusion narrative by which Donald Trump’s opponents hoped to defeat him, and if they could not defeat him, to undermine his presidency—in hopes of defeating him next time.”

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