WASHINGTON, March 4, 2017 — There is much we do not know about Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election, or about any collusion of Trump campaign officials or of Donald Trump himself in these efforts.
As FBI, congressional, and perhaps special prosecutor investigations move forward, the truth will become clearer. But what we already know is disturbing. In early January, two weeks before the inauguration, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, released a declassified report concluding that Vladimir Putin had ordered an influence campaign to harm Hillary Clinton’s election prospects, strengthen Trump’s, and “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”
In early January, two weeks before the inauguration, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, released a declassified report concluding that Vladimir Putin had ordered an influence campaign to harm Hillary Clinton’s election prospects, strengthen Trump’s, and “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”
Seventeen federal intelligence agencies have agreed that Russia was responsible for hacking DNC and Clinton campaign servers, but that those efforts did not directly affect the voting process. In testimony before the Senate, Clapper described an unprecedented Russian effort to interfere in the U.S. electoral process. The operation, he reported, involved hacking Democrats’ e-mails, publicizing the contents through WikiLeaks, and manipulating social media to spread “fake news” and pro-Trump messages.
Trump called stories about Russia’s role in the election a “witch hunt.” He said that the hacking attacks could have been from anyone: the Russians, the Chinese, or “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds.”
Finally, as the evidence mounted, he accepted the finding but insisted that Russian interference had “absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.”
The question now relates not only to Russia’s role but whether the Trump campaign colluded in these efforts. Classified intelligence reportedly shows multiple contacts between Trump associates and Russian representatives.
Some of Trump’s associates, Michael Flynn and Attorney General Sessions, for example, have been less than truthful about such contacts.
Trump’s second campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, had regular communication with his longtime associate, a former Russian military translator in Kiev who has been investigated by Ukraine on suspicion of being a Russian intelligence agent.
Another Trump campaign aide, former Pentagon official J.D. Gordon, met with Soviet ambassador Sergey Kislyak at a time when Gordon was helping to remove hawkish language about Russia’s conflict with Ukraine from the party’s platform.
Current and former U.S. officials say that phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Trump’s campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.
Trump himself has told a variety of different stories about his ties to Russia. When he was in Moscow for the Miss Universe contest in 2013, he told an MSNBC interviewer of Putin, “I do have a relationship and I can tell you that he’s very interested in what we’re doing here today.” At a National Press Club luncheon, he recalled, “I spoke indirectly and directly with President Putin, who could not have been nicer.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump said, “I never met Putin. I don’t know who Putin is.” Trump has tweeted that he has “nothing to do with Russia,” yet in 2008, his son, Donald, Jr. said, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”
At a news conference on Feb. 16, Trump was again asked whether anyone in his campaign had been in contact with Russia. He replied, “Nobody that I know of.” He called reports of Russian contacts—which we now know included meetings with the Russian ambassador by son-in-law Jared Kushner—”a ruse,” and said, “I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years. Don’t speak to people from Russia.”
The next day, the Senate Intelligence Committee formally advised the White House to preserve all material that might shed light on contacts with Russian representatives.
President Trump is free with criticism of both friends and foes. He regularly insulted his Republican primary opponents—”Lying Ted” and “Little Marco”—and his Democratic opponent: “Lock her up.” Since taking office he has criticized the president of Mexico and the prime ministers of Germany and Australia, among others. The only foreign leader he refuses to criticize is the man accused of influencing our election in his direction.
During the campaign Trump said that Vladimir Putin is a “strong leader,” far superior to our own president. As early as 2007, Trump declared that Putin was “doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period.” During the campaign, he said Putin was such an effective leader that he had turned the U.S. into a “laughingstock.”
In an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, Trump refused to criticize Putin. O’Reilly prodded him, “But he’s a killer, though. Putin’s a killer.” Trump responded, “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
Even Republicans who have silently accepted Trump’s rejection of traditional conservative policies and belief in free markets and free trade, could not remain silent. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, called Putin “a former KGB agent” and “a thug.” He rejected any comparison between the U.S. and Russia, citing “Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its incursions into Ukraine and its interference in our presidential election.”
“I don’t think there’s any equivalency between the way that the Russians conduct themselves and the way the United States does,” said McConnell.
Russia seems to be the big winner here. Putin wanted Trump to win the election. He viewed Clinton as more hawkish and interventionist than Trump and was angry at Clinton and the Obama administration for imposing sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. Putin welcomed Trump’s “America First” declarations, particularly his welcoming of Britain’s decision to leave the EU, and his statements about NATO being increasingly irrelevant.
Putin’s goal is to rebuild the Russian Empire. Weakening the EU and NATO is a critical element in this effort. Putin not only tried to help Trump get elected, but is now interfering in elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands and other Western countries.
In France, Russian banks have helped finance the far-right wing campaign of Marine Le Pen and the Natiinal Front. Le Pen’s goal is to have France leave NATO and the EU. This would give Putin the free hand he seeks to expand Russian power beyond its borders. People all over Europe are nervous and wonder if the U.S. under Trump will fulfill its commitments.
The president of the European Council believes that Trump is a potential threat to the EU. Donald Tusk warned of “the worrying declarations by the new American administration all make our future highly unpredictable … the change in Washington puts the European Union in a difficult situation with the new administration seeming to put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy.”
General Sir Rifhard Shirreff, the former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, says that “Putin is calling the shots at the moment.” Russia has been building up its forces around the Baltic states, including an aircraft carrier group dispatched to the North Sea, an expanded deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander-M ballistic missiles, and anti-ship missiles. In Shirreff’s view:
“The great fear is the neutering of NATO and the decoupling of America from European security. If that happens, it gives Putin all kinds of opportunities. If Trump steps back the way he seemed to as a candidate, you might not even need to do things like invade the Baltic states. You can just dominate them anyway. You’re beginning to see the collapse of institutions built to ensure our security. And if that happens you will see the re-nationalizing of Europe as a whole.”
Europe fears Putin and cannot understand Trump’s embrace of Russia and apparent indifference to the EU and NATO. The German magazine Der Spiegel published an editorial that reflected the general feeling in Europe and the decline in America’s standing since the election. The new president, it said, is becoming “a danger to the world.”
Some have expressed the view that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have much in common. Andrei Kozyrev, who served as foreign minister in the Yeltsin government and now lives in the U.S., left Russia as it became increasingly authoritarian. Now he sees a similar pattern in his adopted country:
“I am very concerned. My fear is that this is probably the first time in my memory that it seems we have the same kind of people on both sides—in the Kremlin and in the White House … It’s probably why they like each other. It’s not a matter of policy, but it’s that they feel they are alike. They care less for democracy and values, and more for personal success, however that is defined.”
By interfering in our election, Russia in effect declared war on our country. Since he was the beneficiary of Russia’s intervention, Trump is reluctant to confront what really happened. He may be the innocent beneficiary of Russia’s actions, or his campaign may have colluded in these efforts. Numerous secret meetings with Russian officials and false denials that they ever took place must be throughly investigated.
In the meantime, Russia seems to have served its own purposes very well. It’s influence is expanding abroad, while at home, autocracy is advancing. Writing in The New Yorker, Evan Osnos, David Remnick and Joshus Yaffa report:
“Dissent has been effectively marginalized. opposition candidates are frequently kept off the ballot by legal technicalities. And when they do make it on, they are denied media coverage, let alone the ‘administrative resources’ enjoyed by pro-Kremlin politicians. Some thirty journalists have been murdered in Russia in the past decade and a half; human-rights groups that receive funding from abroad are registered in Moscow as ‘foreign agents.’ And contemporary Russian television is not only compliant but celebratory. ‘Imagine you have two dozen TV channels and it is all Fox News,’ Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister under Putin and now a critic, said.”
Early in March, concerned about Russia’s aggressive posture toward Poland and the Baltic states, Sweden reinstated conscription. In the Journal of Strategic Studies, Martin Kragh recently published a study of Russia’s “active measures” toward Sweden, meaning the use of forged documents, disinformation military threats, and agents of influence.
Throughout Europe, Russia is on the march. Putin put a large bet on Trump. So far, it seems to be a good one. Now, it is important that the American people learn exactly how all of this came to pass. Let us hope that our system of checks and balances and accountability works as it should.