This Mess We’re In, or From Russia With Malice

6 03 2017

There are many disturbing features of the potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, but maybe the most disturbing to me is that, with some exceptions, it seems to be playing out very nearly exactly as the Russians could have hoped.

As is sadly the norm these days, I have to lay out some things that seem to be facts but are not accepted as such by everyone. If you don’t believe these things to be true, you’re not going to gain much from this reading.

  1. All or very nearly all US intelligence agencies believe that the compromise of the DNC’s emails (as I understand it, it wasn’t exactly hacking, but rather social engineering – a nerdy technical difference, but a difference nonetheless) was part of a larger official Russian effort to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
  2. Several members of the Trump campaign and administration have deep connections with Russia.
  3. Multiple members of the Trump administration had meetings with the Russian ambassador around the time that President Obama was planning new sanctions in response to election interference. The Russian response to those new sanctions was very mild, to the surprise of people within the Obama administration.
  4. Gen. Michael Flynn was forced to resign his post as National Security Advisor when it became clear that he had phone conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and said that sanctions were not discussed when they actually were.
  5. During his confirmation hearings to become the Attorney General, then-Senator Jeff Sessions said under oath that he had not met with the Russians during the campaign, when we know that he met at least twice with ambassador Kislyak. AG Sessions maintains that those meetings were not related to the campaign and that the campaign was not discussed. The following is supposition, but at least one of the meetings (the one in his Senate office) took place in the immediate aftermath of the initial revelations in the press about potential Russian interference in the election, making it seem pretty odd that that issue didn’t come up at all. It’s possible, but seems odd.
  6. During the campaign, candidate Trump expressed a handful of positions that were well outside the Republican orthodoxy, leading some conservative commentators and officials to express concern that he was not a true conservative. Despite espousing these outré ideas, the only portion of the GOP platform the Trump campaign sought to change involved Russian interference in Ukraine, softening pledges of support up to and including weapons to a pledge of something like “appropriate support.”
  7. Throughout the campaign and into his presidency, Mr. Trump has offered praise to Russian President Putin and called into question accusations against Mr. Putin and the Russian government. For example, Mr. Trump expressed uncertainty over Russian involvement in the downing of a Malaysian Air flight over Ukraine. A multinational investigation concluded that the flight was shot down by a Russian-made surface to air missile, with witnesses and satellite photos showing a launcher carrying the same type of missile moving from Russia to the area where the launch likely occurred prior to the shoot down and then returning to Russia soon after minus one missile. While Mr. Trump did say “They probably did it,” he hedged with a lot of “we can never be sure.” In strictest terms, he’s right – short of being at the site when the missile was launched and tracking it to the moment of detonation, we can’t be absolutely certain that the Russian missile shot down the Malaysian plane. If we want to get wildly speculative, we can argue that the plane was going to crash anyway due to some unknown mechanical failure and the missile had nothing to do with it and happened to destroy any evidence of such an unrelated failure, but that’s getting crazy. Philosophers would probably agree that we can never really know anything with absolute certainty, but it seems to me that enough evidence exists to make Russia’s culpability in this case clear.
  8. White House Counsel Michael Cohen (Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer prior to his inauguration) worked with Felix Sater, a Russian-born businessman with a history with Mr. Trump and a checkered past, and a pro-Russian member of the Ukrainian parliament, to draw up a peace plan for the Ukraine/Russia conflict. The plan was seen as strongly pro-Russian and was understood to be a means to justify the lifting of sanctions against Russia.
  9. A well-regarded former member of England’s intelligence apparatus was hired to perform opposition research on Mr. Trump during the campaign and uncovered information that the Russian government had actively worked to cultivate Mr. Trump as an espionage asset, offering business deals and accumulating compromising material about him. The English operative found these assertions plausible and disturbing enough that he continued to pursue them on his own and submitted a dossier about them to US law enforcement, expressing consternation at the apparent unwillingness to investigate them further and finally taking them to David Corn at Mother Jones. Since the dossier became public, some of the information in it has been positively verified, though not the most salacious elements, and not necessarily anything that directly indicates that Mr. Trump is compromised.

Those are the facts as I understand them.

When the idea of Russian interference in the election was first put forward back in October, the goal that was ascribed to the effort was to erode confidence in our institutions. That goal has been achieved. The idea that a foreign power could interfere with our elections was not one that was taken seriously prior to this one, at least in my experience. Our ability to regard anything as settled fact has been pretty much shattered, making reasonable discussion very difficult. Ideas supported by strong circumstantial evidence are put into a blender with allegations with no supporting evidence of any kind, resulting in a slurry of distrust and cynicism. The party in total control of the government is unwilling to pursue serious investigation of the very serious allegations of improper cooperation between the new administration and our long-time primary state-based antagonist, even after multiple members of his cabinet have been caught lying about their contacts with that antagonist.

It’s entirely possible there’s a perfectly innocent explanation for all of this smoke, one that doesn’t involve any actual fire, but instead of getting the information that would prove that to be the case, we’re getting stonewalling. Mr. Trump was fond of the notion that Mr. Obama could dispel the notion that he was born outside of the United States, an idea already contradicted by real evidence, by showing us his papers. To my knowledge, that had never been demanded of a president prior to Mr. Obama, but Mr. Trump was insistent. Now Mr. Trump faces a situation where he could easily dispel at least some of the suppositions about his relationships with the Russian government by simply following the decades-old custom of releasing his tax returns, but he steadfastly refuses, often citing an audit that the IRS says doesn’t prevent him from doing so. He could put at least a big part of this to bed, but he refuses to do so, and his party is offering him steadfast support.

In the meantime, as all of this continues to swirl and spin out day after day, our allies have expressed serious misgivings about the commitment of the United States to the partnerships that have ensured our mutual security for decades. A Russian intelligence trawler was sighted close off the east coast. Russian fighters buzzed a US warship in the Black Sea. Immediately following Mr. Trump’s inauguration, Russia stepped up operations in Ukraine after a long period of relative inactivity. Russian forces may have bombed US-backed rebels in Syria recently.

All of these seemed designed to provoke a response as a way of gauging the new administration’s resolve, which is probably normal after any major transition of power, but here’s the thing – any response from the Trump administration is now going to be read in terms of the possibility that he’s compromised. If he eases sanctions as he has indicated he may be in favor of doing, he appears to be a Russian stooge. If he proposes a strong response, it looks like he’s trying to counter the idea that he’s a Russian stooge. He cannot react without considering the political fallout, which is true for any president, but is turned up to 11 (or quite a bit more) in this case. So far, the response seems to be leaving everything the same, which sends a message to the Russians – even if the administration isn’t in their pocket, it’s not in a position to do anything about their aggressive moves.

In the body primarily responsible for checking the president, unwillingness to investigate him in any meaningful way is leading to greater entrenchment on both sides. Initially, most Democrats were agonizing over the question of whether to oppose Mr. Trump on everything or to seek areas where cooperation was possible, but the ongoing Russia mess and GOP recalcitrance has solidified the opposition. I won’t pretend to be upset about the prospect of rigid Democratic obstruction of an administration I believe is unethical, immoral, hateful, and destructive, but any chance of loosening the deadlock that has characterized Congress for years is gone as long as the GOP puts partisanship ahead of clearing the air.

The executive branch is under an unprecedented cloud. Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal were bad, but they came fairly late in their respective administrations. This is right out of the gate. Some will argue that this is due to unprecedented press opposition, but 1> It is the job of the press to oppose, to speak truth to power, to keep the people informed in order to keep our government honest and accountable to us. 2> Much of what the press is putting out isn’t in dispute. The meetings between Mr. Kislyak and Mr. Sessions happened. No one is disputing that. What was discussed in those meetings is unknown, but we know what surrounded them (news of Russian interference with the election, the only change to the GOP platform requested by the Trump campaign), which makes them questionable. What’s more, we know that another administration official, Gen. Flynn, said there was nothing to his phone calls with Mr. Kislyak when there actually was, so flat denials aren’t immediately convincing. Meetings happened. People lied (or, in Mr. Sessions’s case, at the very least misspoke) about them and about the topics discussed. Many, many members of administration have undisputed ties to Russia and entities very close to the Russian government. Those with the power to dispel the cloud aren’t doing anything to do so, and every attempt to move beyond the issue is immediately ruined by some new revelation. Even if this is the work of a partisan press, they aren’t making the accusations up out of whole cloth. Even if the constant leaks are improper, they have real substance.

So we’re in a situation where the United States government isn’t behaving in a trustworthy manner. I know many people believe that’s been the case for, well, ever, but there are many who haven’t held that belief but are coming around to it now. The government is above the law and beholden only to the continuation of its own power, or at least the other guys are that way. The already bitter divisions between the parties are just intensified. Our ability to act on the world stage is completely frozen, leaving our main antagonist with a freer hand and scaring the hell out of our long-time allies. To some, the press is made more and more suspect, despite the fact that, again, there’s indisputable substance to this stuff. If there wasn’t, Gen. Flynn wouldn’t have resigned. If there wasn’t and he could prove it, AG Sessions would have fought back rather than recusing himself.

The one thing that Russia hasn’t managed to get is the lifting of sanctions, and the political calculus for that looks terrible right now. Who knows, though? If things get really bad, irretrievably bad for the Trump administration, what’s to stop them from taking steps that seem like political death blows? If they’re already terminal, why not make moves that will enrich them in ways that remain after they leave office? Leaving office seems to end culpability in our culture. Resignation is deemed punishment enough for even illegal acts, so even if things come out that look like outright treason, there’s a decent chance that no one will go to jail – certainly not anyone at the top. They can resign to private lives made even more cushy by their actions. They may be pariahs in the public eye, but memory fades, and there will be plenty of people who think they were right anyway. Even if they are reviled, their money is still green, and they move in rarified circles, anyway.

So that’s where we are. In my estimation, the Russians could barely ask for a better outcome.

EDIT 3/6/2017, 11:18AM – Changed “and idea already contradicted by real evidence” to “an idea already contradicted by real evidence.”

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