To understand what is likely to happen next in the sad but widening scandal of contacts (at a minimum) between President Trump’s inner circle of advisors and Russian officials (including intelligence officers), we need to back up to ask: “Why?”
As is so often the case when dealing with Russia, the obvious (to American audiences) answer is not the correct one. The almost universal explanation about why Russian operatives reached out to leading campaign insiders such as Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Michael Flynn is that Russian President Putin wanted to help Donald Trump to be elected President of the United States. Often, this rationale is followed by further details on topics such as how Putin personally hates Hillary Clinton for her role in imposing sanctions or that Putin believed Donald Trump would adopt a more friendly approach toward Moscow. I believe that those explanations may seem obvious, but they are (to quote one of President Trump’s famous debate lines) “WRONG.”
To understand why the conventional wisdom is so wrong, we need to remember that while Putin may be playing a different offensive strategy, he is playing an old game. Following a pattern established over generations, President Putin interfered in the U.S. election in order to discredit American democracy. While Putin upped the game quite significantly, the basic playbook of undermining faith in American democratic institutions has been followed by his predecessors for a century. The first target audience for these attacks on American democracy has not necessarily always been the United States but the citizens of Russia, of the former Soviet Union and of countries in transition around the globe. Since the time of the October Revolution, leaders in Moscow have been attempting to convince their own citizens and the world that American (and other Western) democracies are hollow and that their much-vaunted institutions are so riddled by cronyism and corruption that that they are, at best, no better than Moscow’s authoritarian model.
Early in the election campaign, the trickle of leaks on topics such as U.S. domestic spying and the much larger flood of Russian propaganda designed to undermine faith in the American government by emboldening and amplifying conspiracy theorists all fit the traditional model of Kremlin interference in U.S. elections. While the tone and content of much of the Russian-origin propaganda was clearly intended to play to the far right-wing of America’s political spectrum, the intent was to undermine Americans’ – and the world’s – faith in American democratic institutions. Fifty or seventy years ago, Moscow believed that the best way to undermine American democracy was by supporting the far left. Today, Putin believes the best way to accomplish that same goal is to embolden the far right. The methods may change but the goal remains the same.
Shortly before the Democratic National Convention, Moscow’s campaign against American democracy embarked on a new tactic of supporting one candidate – Donald Trump – over the other. The dominant explanation (particularly among left-leaning reporters and pundits) is that Putin favored Trump over Clinton because he felt that Trump would be more sympathetic to Russian interests and viewpoints. I believe the majority is wrong. What Putin hoped to accomplish was the same thing his predecessors had strived to do for 100 years – undermine the very concept of democracy. Putin’s goal was not to elect a “Russia friendly” President but to undermine faith in American democracy so as to demoralize democratic movements around the world and paralyze the United States’ ability to act decisively on the world stage.
I am not disagreeing the US Intelligence Community’s report which concluded that President Putin personally directed Russian intelligence and propaganda organs to actively support Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. The report is excellent and I believe that the authors are correct. Instead, I am asking a different question – and one not addressed by the report – which is why did Putin support Donald J. Trump?
Possible answers to that question include “Putin hates Hillary Clinton”, “Putin believed Trump will be more accommodating to Russian positions” and even that “Putin has blackmail materials on Trump and/or his inner circle and therefore believed he could direct US policy in a Trump Administration.” While those answers all sound plausible, I believe they are all wrong.
The first, that Putin hates Clinton, can be dismissed based on the objective reality that Putin is a very intelligent tactical and strategic planner who would not risk international condemnation and ridicule at home by interfering in US elections just to spite someone, even someone as outspoken as Hillary Clinton. The second possible answer, that Putin believed Donald Trump would be more accommodating to Russian positions, should also be rejected on the grounds that Donald Trump is, first and foremost, unpredictable. That is his political trademark. He has a long history of first supporting and then attacking people and ideas. He was a huge fan of both Bill and Hillary Clinton before becoming their most strident critic. He was a defender of Planned Parenthood before vowing to defund the organization. The list goes on and on. Like most world leaders, Vladimir Putin values stability to the point that he would prefer an intractable but predictable enemy to an unreliable and unpredictable “friend.”
But what about the third possibility – the one that posits that Putin believed he could blackmail or otherwise control President Trump and/or senior members of his inner circle? Media speculation is exploding – but misdirected. The answer is that whether the basis for the blackmail is as sensational and salacious as some of the material contained in Christopher Steele’s now infamous dossier or as mundane as some embarrassing (and potentially illegal) conversations between Russian operatives and Trump insiders such as Michael Flynn, Carter Page and Paul Manafort, the outcome would be the same. President Putin is knowledgeable enough to understand that he could never blackmail senior U.S. government officials into consistently taking actions clearly at odds with U.S. interests. The U.S. Congress (including the President’s own party), the courts and the professional bureaucracy of the U.S. government and military would thwart any such actions.
While Vladimir Putin is smart enough to understand that he could never succeed at a blacking mailing the U.S. government into consistently taking actions antithetical to U.S. interests, he could use whatever information he has – whether it is mundane but embarrassing conversations or salacious video tapes – to undermine faith in the American government and thus render the U.S. incapable of taking decisive action on the world stage. This undermining of American citizens’ – and the world’s – faith in U.S. democracy is the true “Holy Grail” of Russian intelligence operations. My sad (to again quote President Trump) conclusion is that Putin is succeeding. If you doubt that assertion, just ask yourself what being a “patriot” means in today’s political environment. Somehow, “patriot” has become the term applied to people who question American democracy, support armed insurrection and long for an American leader who is more like Putin (or Kim Jong Un or another dictator).
It is hard to doubt the depressing realization that Putin’s carefully orchestrated manipulation of the U.S. election and his careful nurturing of right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists have already taken their toll on faith in American democracy. Over the coming months, we’ll all be witnesses as Putin continues his crusade by artfully doling out whatever “Kompromat” he has on President Trump and his inner circle to further undermine faith in a system of government that has endured for over 240 years.
So, where do we go from here?
The best scenario for America and the world would be if all contacts between President Trump’s campaign and/or administration were completely unauthorized and unknown by anyone other than former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, former Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort and former Foreign Policy Advisor to the Trump Campaign Carter Page. If those three genuinely acted on their own and with no coordination, approval or even knowledge by President Trump or any of his other top advisors, then it is possible that Putin does not have much more “Kompromat” to dole out and that the damage to the security and interests of the United States will not escalate significantly.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, however, and admit that it is unlikely that no one else in the Trump campaign or Trump administration knew of the relationships that Flynn, Manafort and Page had with Russian officials and intelligence. If others knew, it is a safe bet that Russia’s extremely professional and capable intelligence agencies already know every detail and that Vladimir Putin is now preparing to dole those details out in order to maximize the level of disruption and distrust in the American political system. If others in the Trump camp did know and/or approve of the actions of those three known “rogues,” Putin has plenty of arrows left in his quiver to target the very concept of American democracy – and we’re all in for a very unpleasant ride. If the allegations of sensational sex tapes are true, then Putin has even more arrows to fire at the very concept of democracy. In either case, however, Putin’s quiver is full enough to do serious damage to America’s and its allies’ interests.