Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
The aggregate sequence of events over the last few days involving Donald Trump, the intelligence community, the Russian Federation, and the still-unannounced naming of Exxon Mobile’s Rex Tillerson as our next Secretary of State is both odd and disturbing.
But it is is important to be clear on what is, and what is not, particularly unusual about it.
There is nothing especially odd about a President-elect of the United States who campaigned on an open promise of policy change vis-à-vis a particular country naming a secretary of state with extensive connections in that country and who has advocated a more congenial policy towards that country than that of the incumbent administration. After all, presidents get elected to make and change policy, and a President elected promising friendlier relations with, say, Russia might with perfect justice choose a secretary of state with a range of contacts and business ties there—including with the country’s own president—and a belief in easing Russia sanctions. While we viscerally disagree with any kind of rapprochement with Vladimir Putin, it is what Trump promised to do during the campaign and it is hardly fair to now be shocked as he does it.
Nor is there anything especially odd about a President-elect having a less, rather than a more, credulous attitude towards the intelligence community that will soon be working for him—though Trump’s mode of expressing his lack of confidence is unusually obnoxious. In fact, there are good reasons to want a president to be at least somewhat skeptical of intelligence reports. The intelligence community is a set of human institutions and government bureaucracies that are both fallible and candid that they are operating in a probabilistic framework in which confidence is never 100 percent. Even the intelligence community itself will acknowledge that sometimes it has “high confidence” of things that ultimately prove untrue. Therefore, a president may be wise to push back when he or she has a strong instinct that the community’s confidence in a given factual proposition is wrong.
Nor, we should add, is there anything irrational about the President-elect’s not taking an especially friendly view of the suggestion by the intelligence community in the period immediately following his surprise election that a foreign power actively interfered in that election and specifically did so to help him win—thus casting something of a pall over the results. Any president would want to see his victory as a purely organic expression of American voter faith in him and his political program. No politician wants to view himself as a foreign stooge; and more particularly, no politician wants the public to view him as a foreign stooge, indebted for his office to the covert services of a foreign dictator.
And we should be at least a little reserved in our objections to Russia’s attempt to influence the election of another country—or even its use of covert means to do so. The United States is not entirely above such behavior itself, which means that while we are certainly within our rights to object, we forfeit the right to do some on moral grounds. We have an abiding interesting in defending our democratic processes against foreign interference and in deterring foreign efforts to promote one candidate over another. But that is fundamentally our problem, not Putin’s—at least until we figure out how to make it Putin’s problem. It is understandable why Putin might want to help a candidate who praises him and seeks better relations with Russia over one who has taken a harder line against him in the past. And let’s be clear: Putin did not rig the election for Trump. He didn’t force anyone to vote for the man. He didn’t corrupt the voting process. It is important to establish a deterrence for the behavior that did occur, but we ought to do so without all the self-righteous whining.
With these caveats out of the way, let’s turn to what is profoundly troubling about the aggregate series of events here: denying the intelligence findings for no apparent reason while nominating Russia sympathizers to the Cabinet. What’s disturbing is the combination of the outright dismissal of the intelligence community’s considered judgment as to what Russia did and the apparent lack of concern about actively rewarding Russian meddling. Trump’s behavior does the opposite of establishing a deterrent to future hacking or election meddling. It sends a loud and clear signal that this is a good way to get what you want. It affirmatively rewards the behavior, both by denying it took place and by energetically throwing Russia a big bone.
Let’s review the bidding.
The background condition here is the intelligence community’s stated view from back in early October that it “is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations” and that the operation was “intended to interfere with the US election process.” Trump has always rejected this conclusion, though he’s never offered any reason for his skepticism.
On Friday came two pieces of news: first, the White House announced that President Obama had ordered a full review of Russian interference in the U.S. election. As Politico reported:
Obama has asked the intelligence community to deliver its final report before he leaves office, raising the prospect that agencies may conclude that a foreign power successfully altered the trajectory of the Nov. 8 election just days before Trump's inauguration.
The review will put the spate of hacks— which officials have blamed on Russia— "in a greater context" by framing them against the "malicious cyber activity" that may have occurred around the edges of the 2008 and 2012 president elections, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said during Friday's briefing.
That same day the Washington Post reported that “The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system.” The New York Times added: “American intelligence agencies have concluded with ‘high confidence’ that Russia acted covertly in the latter stages of the presidential campaign to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances and promote Donald J. Trump.”
For those carefully following this story over the past few months, the marginal news value of this latest disclosure was relatively slight. The difference between Russia hacking the DNC “to interfere with the US election process” and Russia hacking the DNC “to help Donald Trump win the presidency,” after all, is a matter of intention, not of action.
But Trump didn’t react to these two events by simply reiterating his earlier denial. He began by ridiculing the intelligence community as “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
Trump then went significantly further. On Fox New Sunday, he described the allegations of Russian hacking as “just another excuse” by Democrats for Hillary Clinton’s loss. “I don't believe it. Every week, it's another excuse.” And more significantly, he made clear as well that not only was he not taking intelligence briefings on a daily basis, he didn’t expect to do so as President:
WALLACE: I just want to ask you about your skepticism about the intelligence community. You are getting the presidential daily brief—
WALLACE:—only once a week.
TRUMP: Well, I get it when I need it.
WALLACE: But is there some skepticism?
TRUMP: First of all, these are very good people that are giving me the briefings. If something should change from this point, immediately call me. I’m available on one minute's notice.
I don't have to be told—you know, I’m like a smart person. I don't have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years. It could be eight years—but eight years. I don't need that.
But I do say if something should change, let us know. Now, in the meantime, my generals are great, are being briefed. Mike Pence is being briefed, who is, by the way, one of my very good decisions. He's terrific. And they're being briefed. And I’m being briefed also.
But if they're going to come in and tell me the exact same thing that they told me, you know, that doesn't change necessarily. There might be times where it might change. I mean, there will be some very fluid situations. I'll be there not every day but more than that.
But I don't need to be told, Chris, the same thing every day, every morning, same words. Sir, nothing has changed. Let's go over it again. I don't need that.
In sum, the President-elect dismissed the “high confidence” conclusions of the intelligence community as partisan Democratic excuse-making and said that he didn’t need regular intelligence briefings. But he didn’t stop there either.
Mr. Tillerson has close ties with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whom he has known for more than two decades. Russia awarded Mr. Tillerson its Order of Friendship in 2013, the year before Washington’s relationship with Moscow sank into a deep freeze over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its shadow war in eastern Ukraine.
Relations with Russia have grown only more troubled since American intelligence agencies formally determined shortly after the November election that Russia had taken steps intended to help Mr. Trump win.
Mr. Tillerson, with no background in diplomacy outside the energy arena, would inherit those problems. He would also face the question of whether to maintain sanctions on Russia—penalties he has criticized for slowing Exxon’s investments in that country.
Tillerson’s contacts with Russia are not incidental to Trump’s apparent choice of him to lead the State Department. This is not a nominee chosen despite some business ties with Russia or without reference to those ties. This is a man chosen, at least in part, because of those ties. Trump himself made that clear in his interview with Fox New Sunday, in which he singled out Tillerson’s Russia ties as a major reason for choosing him:
WALLACE: Let me ask you about Rex Tillerson, head of ExxonMobil. Why does a business executive make sense as the chief diplomat?
TRUMP: Well, in his case, he's much more than a business executive. I mean, he's a world class player. He's in charge of, I guess, the largest company in the world. He's in charge of an oil company that's pretty much double the size of his next nearest competitor. It's been a company that's been unbelievably managed.
And to me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players. And he knows them well. He does massive deals in Russia. He does massive deals for the company, not for himself, but the company.
In other words, faced with the judgment of the intelligence community that Russia had interfered in the election in a bid to aid his candidacy, Trump not only denied the factual premise of the conclusion, not only denigrated the intelligence community he is soon to lead and made clear he doesn’t need its work on a daily basis, he also appears to have chosen as his chief diplomat a person he regards as a “world class player” precisely because he is well-connected in the very country whose interference in the election Trump denies.
It is almost as though Trump is going out of his way to emphasize the success of the Russian intelligence operation even as he denies it took place: Putin got involved in the election presumably in an effort to make American policy towards Russia more congenial, and Trump is now very publicly and unapologetically naming people to his cabinet who will . . . make American foreign policy more congenial towards Russia.
One has to ask what kind of idiot Putin would have to be not to consider the hacks as a good day’s work.
Trump’s behavior is not only significant for the message it sends to Russia, but also for the message it sends to the American people. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have rightly expressed grave concern over Russian interference. With speculation at a fever pitch, ordinarily a president-elect would do everything in his power to reassure the public they have not, in fact, elected a Manchurian candidate. He would do so by pledging to get to the bottom of allegations of foreign interference in the election, condemning such activity as unacceptable if true, even if he felt compelled to express reservations over the veracity. And he would select a Cabinet that strongly rebutted any suggestion that Putin had won something by intervening on his behalf, thereby sending the signal that he is in no one’s pocket.
Instead, faced with the undeniably bipartisan anxieties of a great many people, Trump twists the knife, nominating not only a secretary of state whose ties to Russia raise concerns, but then boldly taunting his detractors on national television by making it clear that those are the very features he most values about his choice