by Paul R. Pillar
Two different issues—Russian interference in the U.S. election of 2016 and overall U.S. policy toward Russia—too often have been conflated. Donald Trump’s questioning of the interference and his submission to Russian President Vladimir Putin have tainted what in other circumstances would be seen as reasonable and justified engagement with Moscow. Conversely, some observers firmly opposed to Cold-War-type confrontation with Russia are so affected by the first type of conflation that they deny the reality of the interference. Both forms of distortion fail to recognize that there is nothing inconsistent, in terms of either logic or policy, in accepting the truth about the interference and its implications, while also accepting the need for constructive diplomacy with Moscow on many other matters.
Even before the special counsel’s most recent indictment, what journalists had uncovered about the cyber portion of the Russian interference effort should have convinced everyone that the subject was no fantasy or witch hunt. Now with this indictment—so remarkably detailed that the Russians must be wondering how much else the United States knows about Russia’s military intelligence activities—there can be no doubt about the hacking portion of the Russian interference program. Any remaining deniers are people who for whatever reason are committed to believing otherwise and refuse to acknowledge that their earlier skepticism was incorrect. Such refusal is found mostly on the political left, especially among those predisposed to doubt anything coming out of a supposed U.S. ”deep state.” Some such elements fling terms such as “McCarthyism” at anyone resisting full-speed rapprochement with Russia, whereas today’s actual McCarthyism—i.e., baseless charges that government officials are acting out of questionable motivations or misplaced loyalties—is found instead in scurrilous accusations from Trump and his supporters about those in the FBI and elsewhere who have been involved in the Russia investigation.
The persistent conflation appears not only on the left. For example, the respected former U.S. ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock, in a piece written before the most recent indictment, evidently was so distressed by how diplomacy toward Russia has been pre-empted by the mess involving Trump and the election that he, too, resorted to trying to knock down the intelligence community’s judgments about the interference campaign. An example of how far he stretches in endeavoring to do that is his response to the community’s disavowal of any attempt to assess the impact the Russian activities had on the outcome of the election. Matlock writes, “Now, how can one judge whether activity ‘interfered’ with an election without assessing its impact? After all, if the activity had no impact on the outcome of the election, it could not be properly termed interference.” Huh? Interference is interference, regardless of how much of the intended effect it did or did not have. Even if the effect was significant, the outcome of the 2016 election rested, of course, on much more than just the Russian efforts—including voters’ malaise, Hillary Clinton’s mistakes, James Comey’s announcements, wealthy donors’ campaign contributions, and countless other aspects of domestic politics that the intelligence agencies have no business assessing and quite properly did not try to assess.
There are not just two, but four, big problems involved. All of them pose severe challenges to the United States. Each must be addressed seriously and individually, without conflation.
The first is overall U.S. policy toward Russia. This is surely one of the most important segments of U.S. foreign policy. There is plenty to talk about with the Russians, from Syria to arms control to Ukraine and much else. A prudent, well-designed, realist policy toward Russia would advance U.S. interests by carefully taking into account where those interests conflict with, and where they parallel, Russian interests, and would judiciously use carrots and sticks designed to induce Russian cooperation. High-level engagement would be part of such a policy but only a part. This is not the sort of policy that was implemented in the ill-prepared meeting in Helsinki. That meeting instead was another show in which Trump claimed that everything was handled horribly until he came along, and that thanks to his brilliance things are now hunky-dory. With nobody else except interpreters in the room, it is as plausible to assume the worst about what took place between the two presidents as to assume the best. It is especially plausible to assume that the interests motivating Trump were the interests of Donald Trump more than the interests of the United States. The meeting was a gift (or a payment) to Putin.
The second problem is Russian interference in the U.S. democratic process. Now that the extensive interference in 2016 is established as a fact, Americans need to reflect deeply on the implications. The further fact that Trump has subcontracted his policies at least as much to certain Middle Eastern states as he has to Russia does not diminish the significance of what Russia has done. That much influence by any foreign power, over any U.S. election or any U.S. president, is a corruption of American democracy, as well as being a recipe for policies that are less in the interest of the United States than of the foreign state.
The third problem is that the United States currently has a president who very likely has been personally compromised by, and feels beholden to, Russia. Although past presidents have had individual likes and dislikes for specific foreign states—going back to the early days of the republic, when Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans had different sentiments toward Britain and France—Trump poses the first instance of foreign connections raising a fundamental question of loyalty. Jonathan Chait’s extensive review of Trump’s connections with Russia is worth reading. It provides a picture of dependence that does not hinge on any one compromise or piece of blackmail, but that makes many of the possible compromises that have been mentioned all the more plausible. Robert Mueller’s team is still at work and has the plea-bargained cooperation of several people who were in position to know much. It is implausible that everything significant there is to know in the case of Donald Trump and Russia is already in the public domain.
As intelligence veteran Rolf Mowatt-Larssen observes, “Donald Trump would have been an active target of Russian intelligence since the moment they laid eyes on him for two reasons that come straight from the classical espionage textbook: He has influence; and he is potentially vulnerable to various forms of compromise.” This does not imply some three-decade-old Russian plan to put an asset in the White House. As Tom Nichols of the U.S. Naval War College explains, Trump was one of the many bets the Russians routinely place, while recognizing that most such bets will not pay off but a few will, at times and in ways that are unpredictable.
Trump’s Pro-Russian Posture
Trump’s own policies and pronouncements since taking office provide the strongest evidence that this one bet is paying off handsomely for the Russians. Putin could hardly have made the script for Trump’s conduct at the recent NATO meeting any more to his liking—and any better designed to foment division and distrust within the Western alliance—than the way Trump actually behaved. A further indication has been Trump’s reluctance to acknowledge, even after the recent detailed indictment, the Russian interference in the election. In Helsinki the world saw the extraordinary spectacle of a U.S. president, when invited by a reporter to say directly that Trump believes his own intelligence agencies’ findings and to warn Russia about future election meddling, refusing to do so and instead acting as a front man for the Russian president.
Trump’s attempt to backtrack the next day in response to a firestorm of criticism is not convincing. His answer in Helsinki was not just a double negative that Trump says he stumbled over but instead was another of his rambling excoriations of the FBI and the whole Russia investigation. Trump has repeatedly denounced the conclusions U.S. agencies have reached on this subject, beginning during the 2016 election campaign after Trump received a classified briefing on the subject and continuing in unscripted remarks during other foreign travel last year and on other occasions.
Columnist Charles Blow has described the situation bluntly: “America is being betrayed by its own president. America is under attack and its president absolutely refuses to defend it.” Blow—along with former CIA director John Brennan, seconded by Tom Friedman—calls this treason. Most other observers have not yet used that word, but there are ample grounds for using it.
The fourth problem goes beyond Trump. Members of his party, in aiding and abetting Trump’s conduct as it relates to Russia, have been placing partisan goals above any serious effort to address problems two and three. In fact, they have actively subverted efforts to address those problems. The subversion has included Mitch McConnell’s refusal during the 2016 campaign to sign a bipartisan statement condemning the Russian interference. This refusal is part of the background that renders ridiculous Trump’s attempt to blame the interference on the Obama administration, which obviously needed a bipartisan response to avoid appearing to interfere itself in the election. (Another part of the background was Trump’s own open appeal to the Russians to hack into Hillary Clinton’s email, on the very day they started their hacking.)
The subversion includes Devin Nunes’s making a hash of congressional oversight in an effort to discredit the intelligence community’s findings about the Russian program. It includes browbeating FBI officers in a fruitless attempt to find evidence of bias in the investigation of that program. It includes a groundless effort to impeach the deputy attorney general, who oversees the special counsel’s investigation and announced the recent indictment. Justice is being obstructed, and it is not only Trump who is doing the obstructing.
This fourth problem is in many respects the most intractable one of all. Trump is not just a one-off national nightmare that will end when he leaves office. The problem has political and social roots that go far beyond Russia-related issues. Its resolution might require nothing less than a reconstruction of the American party system.