by Paul R. Pillar
The dribbling out of revelations, many of which contradict previous denials, about dealings with Russia by Donald Trump, his family, and his associates, has increased the plausibility of the more sinister possible explanations of what this affair is all about. This has been especially true since revelations of the meeting last year in which Trump’s son, son-in-law, and campaign chairman met with Russian representatives with the intention and expectation of receiving dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s conspicuous obsession with the investigations into the affair and with trying to discredit, derail, and defeat those investigations adds to the likelihood of the more sinister explanations.
There is much we still don’t know, but it is prudent to think ahead about some of the implications if the more nefarious possibilities regarding Trump and Russia turn out to be true. Other politicians, the American public, and the U.S. bureaucracy need to figure out how to handle such an unprecedented situation.
Compromise of Classified Information
As a starting point, and to add some perspective to this extraordinary tale, consider whether some of the most influential people in the White House, who have access to some of the most sensitive secrets within the U.S. government, would be granted security clearances if they were ordinary applicants seeking positions in one of the departments or agencies for which such clearances are required. In the case of Jared Kushner, the son-in-law to whom the president has given a broad portfolio spanning foreign and domestic matters, the answer, assuming a thorough enough background investigation, would almost certainly be no. There would be red flags to begin with regarding past legal and financial problems and continuing liabilities to foreign interests. The repeated failure to report completely his past meetings and dealings with the Russians would be a disqualifier by itself. The effort to establish a channel of communications through Russian officialdom and out of reach of U.S. agencies would make denial of a clearance a slam-dunk. No security officer would need to think twice about it.
Some of the same sorts of considerations also would apply to Donald Trump were he an ordinary applicant, even though he evidently has not had to fill out a Standard Form 86 and therefore has had one less opportunity than Kushner to be deceptive about past dealings with Russia. There would be at least as many of the questions about financial and legal vulnerabilities, including financial dependence on people from Russia, and other possibilities of having been compromised by that foreign power. Strong issues of unsuitability would come up, even without getting into Trump’s complicated personal and marital life, regarding duplicity and dishonesty. Unmonitored meetings with Russian officials would be the final item in a file that would very likely lead security officers to put it quickly on the rejection pile.
The divulging of classified information is the principal contingency that agencies are trying to avoid by vetting applicants for security clearances. At least one instance of such divulgence has already come up with Trump; in a meeting at the White House, he blabbed to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister classified information that a third country had reportedly provided to the United States. The circumstances suggest that for Trump this was not a calculated disclosure but instead a form of bragging about how much good stuff he is privy to. Even so, such carelessness in handling classified information is part of what the system of security clearances and vetting of people who hold them is intended to avoid. Whatever the intention, the harm can be significant—in this case, harm to the trust that is necessary for effective intelligence liaison relationships.
U.S. departments and agencies dealing with sensitive national security information undoubtedly have devoted much recent thought to how they can perform their duties of informing the president while—given the nature of this president—protecting classified information from foreign adversaries. One advantage those agencies have in trying to deal with this dilemma is Trump’s short attention span and dislike for detail. As national security adviser H.R. McMaster has learned, well-organized, fact-filled briefings don’t work well with this president. Informal conversation, preferably laced with flattering references to Trump himself, is more likely to get his attention. Thus agencies can in good conscience withhold much sensitive detail in the interest both of protecting that information and catering to the preferences of the incumbent president.
Agent of Influence
Disclosing classified information is not, in any event, the main worry involving Trump and Russia. And from the Russians’ point of view, it is not the main use they would hope to make of Trump. Russia could get more detailed and extensive U.S. national security information from a low-level mole somewhere in the bureaucracy. They already have gotten more of it from a wholesale leaker such as Edward Snowden, who currently enjoys the Russians’ hospitality. For Russia, Donald Trump would instead be the most spectacularly well-placed agent of influence they could ever dream of. The great opportunity for Russia would be to use Trump to move U.S. policies in directions favorable to Russia.
That would be a very serious consequence. U.S. and Russian interests diverge in some important respects. For U.S. foreign policy to be even slightly nudged, let alone redirected significantly, not because of U.S. interests but because the person in the Oval Office is beholden to a foreign power, is unacceptable.
U.S. and Russian interests are not divergent everywhere, however, and moves by Trump that may satisfy Moscow are not necessarily a malign divergence from U.S. interests, or as much of one as some policy debate in the United States might lead one to believe. Take, for example, the news that the Trump administration has decided to end assistance to certain Syrian opposition groups fighting against the Assad regime—news that The Washington Post reported with a headline that identified the development as “a move sought by Moscow.” Certainly the Russians, as principal backers of the Assad regime, are pleased by the move. But this withdrawal of assistance, although criticized in some circles in Washington, is a prudent recognition that the armed resistance to Assad, given his foreign backing, was going nowhere and that it is in U.S. interests not to try to go further down the regime-change road in Syria.
A larger benefit that Russia has reaped so far from the Trump presidency and that clearly is contrary to U.S. interests is the overall degradation of U.S. relations worldwide, especially with traditional allies, and the resulting isolation of the United States and weakening of the Western alliance. Various statements and actions by Trump have been responsible for this, from pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement to withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, bad-mouthing NATO, and obsessively pursuing confrontation with Iran. Much of what Trump has said and done along these lines, however, he may have done for reasons unrelated to Russia—as an extension of campaign rhetoric aimed at a xenophobic and ill-informed domestic base, as a continuation of his determination to undo everything his predecessor did, and for other reasons involving his aberrant personality and inexperience in statesmanship.
In short, Moscow is getting most of what it wants just by Trump being Trump. Whatever additional favors it may get from this administration, such as possible return of Russian diplomatic compounds that the Obama administration seized in response to Russian interference in the U.S. election, are minor compared to the big setback, under Trump, to U.S. global standing and U.S. influence.
Limitations on Russian Influence
Some observers discern a pattern in Trump’s policies and statements that go beyond Trump being Trump and appear to involve deference to Russian preferences that cannot be explained just in terms of Trump taking a liking to Vladimir Putin as a nationalist tough guy. Perhaps the observers are right, and perhaps there are ways not yet fully uncovered in which Trump has made himself beholden to the Russian establishment. If there are such ways, however, two other factors will limit how much Trump will act according to Russian interests rather than to U.S. ones.
One factor is Trump’s own untrustworthiness. This is a man who feels no obligation to anyone other than himself. He has demonstrated that quality during his business career. He is demonstrating it as well as president. Despite demanding unquestioning loyalty to himself, he does not return that loyalty even to his most faithful supporters and subordinates. That same attitude of Trump can prevail toward a Russian handler. Just as Trump repeatedly stiffed subcontractors who helped to build his casinos, he can stiff the Russians who helped to elect him.
Of course, Americans should not take very much comfort from this. With Trump—the only president in U.S. history with no prior public service and with attitudes that match that self-centered resume—the sense of obligation to no one but himself applies regarding his own country as well as foreign countries. It is part of what makes him an awful president.
The other limiting factor is the public scrutiny of any Trump administration policies and actions that could be seen as doing a favor to Russia. The scrutiny will serve as a brake on Trump moving very far in directions favorable to Moscow. The brake might even be too strong in the sense of discouraging some moves that would be in U.S. as well as Russian interests (although it evidently was not too strong to prevent the ending of aid to the anti-Assad rebels in Syria).
Maintaining Attention to the Issue
A conclusion is the importance of keeping a public spotlight—while Robert Mueller and the congressional intelligence communities do most of their work behind closed doors—on the issue of Russian interference in U.S. elections. In the short term, this will keep the brake of public scrutiny—which is still on balance a beneficial check on this president, even if at times it discourages some useful moves—fully engaged.
The usefulness of the public spotlight over the longer term gets back to how Moscow already has reaped most of what it could have wanted by helping to elect Trump: that is, putting into the White House someone who by his nature is doing so much to weaken the United States as a competitor for global influence. Even if there are no quid pro quos yet to be exercised, stemming from secret relationships yet to be revealed, the main damage already was done last November.
Even if the investigations uncover no active collusion beyond Donald Junior’s meeting with the Russians in Trump Tower, the mere fact of Russian interference should be abhorrent to all Americans. It is a blow to the integrity of American democracy. It also, notwithstanding all the other factors that contributed to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, helped to elect someone whose destructive tendencies are affecting many things, foreign and domestic, that go beyond what even the Russians might have hoped for (except insofar as Moscow welcomes anything that weakens and divides the United States). A goal should be to prevent anything like that from happening again.
Photo: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the G20 Summit (Wikimedia Commons).