Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

Note:  This is a post I wrote back on Feb 19.  I thought I had posted it, but I guess I didn’t press the right combination of buttons.  In light of recent developments, I thought I would post it despite the long delay.  The only changes I made today (Aug 1) were to add this comment and to correct two typos that I saw.  (Sadly, everything I do has typos.)

The conventional wisdom among many analysts not happy with the direction of President Trump’s administration is that Russian President Vladimir Putin supported candidate (now President) Donald Trump because Putin expected that Mr. Trump would follow more “Moscow friendly” policies that Hillary Clinton would.  While that explanation might have a grain of truth, I do not believe that it is correct since it misses the primary reason why Putin behaved the way he did and, more importantly, why the Putin-Trump “bromance” is destined to end acrimoniously.

Early in the primary season, before Donald Trump had emerged as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Moscow was already following its well-established policy of attempting to undermine faith in the American electoral system and the American system of government in general.  Moscow followed these decades-old policy initiatives with a modern twist, supplementing traditional propaganda tools such as fabricated anti-American rumors and news with an aggressive social media campaign backed by a veritable army of human and robotic “trolls” to help ensure that Moscow-created and Moscow-approved propaganda reached the maximum number of Americans as well as others around the world.  After all, the traditional target of anti-American propaganda is not just American citizens but pro-democracy activists around the world – and particularly those in Russia or in its sphere of influence.  In Putin’s world view, making Russia great involves making America weak since the world is a zero sum game.

As the primary season progressed, not only did Mr. Trump emerge as the front runner, he emerged as the perfect example of what Russian intelligence services have referred to for decades as the “useful idiot” – the individual who willingly and without payment spouts the exact false propaganda that Russian intelligence agencies devised in Moscow.  Given that Moscow’s traditional role was to “throw bombs” in an ongoing attempt to undermine faith in American democracy, the Kremlin’s attraction to a political “bomb thrower” such as Mr. Trump who cast aspersions on both parties and on U.S. government as a whole was clear.  The repeated assertions that American cities are collapsing under the weight of an unprecedented crime wave, that patriotism is under siege, that American government institutions are actively working to take away American’s basic rights and freedoms were right out of Moscow’s playbook.

Certain elements in the Kremlin may have also believed that Mr. Trump would pursue more “Russian friendly” policies than would Ms. Clinton, but that was secondary.  The main rationale for supporting Mr. Trump was almost certainly to support the person whose stump speeches denigrated American democratic institutions as vociferously as the Kremlin’s paid propagandists did.

It is alleged, but not proven, that Russian intelligence agencies have additional compromising information, or kompromat, on Mr. Trump and his inner circle.  While I have no inside knowledge, even if the dossier complied by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele is wildly inaccurate it is highly unlikely that Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Carter Page were the only three Trump insiders in touch with Moscow and that no one else in the entire Trump campaign organization and administration knew anything about those contacts.

Even if such kompromat exists in Kremlin vaults, however, that does not mean that Putin ever intended to use the material to blackmail or manipulate the White House into adopting pro-Moscow policies that are antithetical to American interests, whether those policies involve ceding Ukraine to Russia or turning a blind eye to Russian violations of treaties limiting intermediate nuclear forces. Neither Mr. Putin nor his top propaganda experts are stupid.  They understand that the American “establishment” – the Congress, the courts, public opinion, the media and even President Trump’s own party – would have very limited patience for abrupt changes in U.S. policy that favored Russian actions at the expense of American interests.

Putin’s motive was never to control the White House.  Instead, he was always playing (quite effectively) an old game to undermine faith in the U.S. government and thereby to weaken the U.S. government’s ability to act to check Russian expansionism.  Until very late in the campaign – likely on Election Day itself – Putin did not even expect Trump to win.  Putin supported Trump solely to give more voice to Trump’s almost apocalyptic view of American society and government.  When Trump actually won the election, Mr. Putin and his intelligence/propaganda services were almost certainly as surprised as anyone.

While I certainly do not rule out that President Putin will take a few stabs at coercing the Trump Administration into adopting policies that favor Russia’s drive to recreate an empire, I seriously doubt he anticipates a continued string of successes.  Instead, each attempt to manipulate the Trump Administration will simply add to the Kremlin’s stockpile of kompromat that will eventually be utilized to undermine both Americans’ and the world’s faith in American democracy.

According to this theory of Russian actions, it has always been a given that Russian President Putin would not only cease supporting Donald Trump once he became President but Putin would use all of his intelligence assets to actively undermine the newly-inaugurated President.  This is because the goal has never been to support a “Russia friendly” President of the USA but to undermine the very basis of American democracy such as respect for the rule of law, the separation of powers and equality under the constitution.

If this view is correct, the only reason Putin has not yet begun to dole out kompromat against President Trump and his inner circle is that U.S. media, law enforcement and intelligence have already been highlighting the grievous shortcomings of both the President and his inner circle.  Should U.S. domestic criticism of President Trump being to die down – either due to fatigue or an active anti-media, anti-dissent campaign orchestrated by the White House – President Putin is waiting to fill in the gap because, in Putin’s world view, there is no better way to advance his desire to create a new Russian empire than to undermine faith in American democracy and to render the American government so internally conflicted that it is unable to take meaningful again against Russian aggression.

In this view, the only real question is when, not if, President Putin will turn against President Trump.

 

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Oh! What A Tangled Web They Weave When First They Practice To Deceive: A Trump – Russia Chronology

I suspect that I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the flood of information (revelations, accusations, denials, counter-denials, statements, revised statements, etc.) surrounding allegations of collusion and/or conspiracy between President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Government of Russia.  Tracking the whole web is beyond my abilities (Robert Mueller and his team is working on that), so I therefore attempted to assemble a chronology with complete original sources surrounding just one aspect of this complex saga: the events starting with June 3, 2016, when Donald Trump Jr. received an email proposing a meeting with a group of Russians through today, August 1, 2017.

I was tempted to try to create sort of wiring diagram to go along with the statements to highlight the myriad ways in which statements from the President, his family and various officials and spokespersons have “evolved” (or contradicted each other) over time.  In end the, I gave that up both because there were just too many lines to draw and because I felt readers could form their own views.

Readers be ware:  Having complied this, I can see why the various press attempts at a similar timeline are so incomplete – there is just too much information.  Nonetheless, I thought some people might be interested in reading the full, overly long, version.  If anyone believes that I have left out important dates/events/statements, please send a comment so that I can update accordingly!

 June 3, 2016: Trump Jr. receives an email from Rob Goldstone stating that Trump associates Emin and Aras Agalarov had arranged for the delivery of “information that would incriminate Hillary” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

June 7, 2016: In a primary-night speech at the Trump National Golf Club in Westchester, New York, Donald Trump announces that he will reveal “big news” about Hillary Clinton “probably” on June 13.

June 8, 2016: Trump Jr. forwards the email thread to Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner and to his Campaign Manager, Paul Manafort.  (The exact forwarding addresses and time are in the e-mail chain.)

June 9, 2016: The promised meeting took place.  Representing the Trump Campaign are Campaign Manager Paul Manafort, Trump Senior Advisor and Son-in-Law Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr.  Donald Trump Jr. now says the information offered was not of interest and that the meeting focused on the lawyer’s desire to change adoption-related sanctions against Russia.  Because adoptions were suspended in response to US sanctions over Russian human rights abuses, “discussing adoption” means discussing sanctions.

June 15, 2016: The Democratic National Committee’s Trump opposition research file is released online. The software firm CrowdStrike releases an analysis indicating that the DNC had been hacked by “Russian intelligence-related adversaries.”

July 22, 2016: On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, WikiLeaks releases hacked DNC emails.

July 24, 2016: Donald Trump Jr. tells CNN’s Jake Tapper that the Clinton campaign’s suggestion that Russia was trying to intervene in the election on behalf of Trump is “disgusting” and “phony.”  He goes on to state that “It just goes to show you their exact moral compass. They’ll say anything to be able to win this. I mean this is time and time again, lie after lie. … It’s disgusting. It’s so phony. … These lies and the perpetuating of that kind of nonsense to try to gain some political capital is just outrageous.” Paul Manafort similarly denies any links between Russia and the Trump campaign, telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that such a suggestion is “absurd and there’s no basis to it.”

July 27, 2016: Paul Manafort again denies any relationship with the Russians and again says it’s “absurd” to suggest Russia was working on behalf of the Trump campaign.  (Note: He knew he was lying since he received a copy of the full e-mail chain with Rob Goldstone explaining Russia’s efforts to support Trump.)

July 27, 2016: Donald Trump publicly asks Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Oct. 7, 2016:  The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jointly stated that Russian intelligence services had hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the personal Google email account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and forwarded their contents to WikiLeaks.

Oct. 19, 2016:  During the final debate of the 2016 Presidential season, Donald Trump rejects the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies and instead declares that “the U.S. has no idea” who was behind election interference.

Oct. 31, 2016: U.S. President Barack Obama directly warned Putin to stop interfering or face “serious consequences”.

Nov. 8, 2016: Donald Trump wins the 2016 Presidential election with a minority of the popular vote but a majority of the Electoral College.

Nov. 10, 2016: Two days after Trump’s election, his spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, denied a report in the Washington Post that the Russians and the campaign had communicated, saying the campaign had “no contact with Russian officials.”

Nov. 11, 2016: Hicks issues another denial. “It never happened,” she said. “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”

Dec. 16, 2016:  The FBI officially concurs with other U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia hacked both the DNC and John Podesta’s personal e-mails as part of an overall campaign to influence the U.S. election.

Dec. 18, 2016: Kellyanne Conway, a campaign and eventual White House official, denies outright any contact between the campaign and the Russians. “Absolutely not,” she told CBS’s John Dickerson. “And I discussed that with the president-elect just last night. Those conversations never happened. I hear people saying it like it’s a fact on television. That is just not only inaccurate and false, but it’s dangerous.”

Jan. 10, 2017: Manafort denies a report alleging collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. “I have never had any ties to Russia or Putin,” Manafort told NPR.  (Note: Paul Manafort received millions of dollars from Russian government sources for his efforts to elect Viktor Yanukovich, a pro-Putin candidate, in the Ukrainian presidential election.  When widespread protests over election fraud forced Yanukovich from office, he fled straight to Moscow where he remains under Vladimir Putin’s protection.)

Jan. 15, 2017: Five days before the inauguration, Vice President Mike Pence went on Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday and stated unequivocally that there had been no contact between Trump campaign officials and Russians seeking to meddle in the election. “I think to suggest that is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy,” Pence told Dickerson.

Jan. 19, 2017: The day before the inauguration, Manafort again vigorously denies that any contact ever took place. From the New York Times: “In an emailed statement Thursday evening, Mr. Manafort called allegations that he had interactions with the Russian government a ‘Democrat Party dirty trick and completely false.’  “I have never had any relationship with the Russian government or any Russian officials. I was never in contact with anyone, or directed anyone to be in contact with anyone,” he said.  “On the ‘Russian hacking of the D.N.C.,’ ” he said, “my only knowledge of it is what I have read in the papers.”

March 18, 2017: Trump Jr. tells the Times: “Did I meet with people that were Russian? I’m sure, I’m sure I did. But none that were set up. None that I can think of at the moment. And certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.” Asked at that time whether he had ever discussed government policies related to Russia, the younger Mr. Trump replied, “A hundred percent no.”

March 27, 2017: Under scrutiny for a transition meeting with the Russian ambassador, the White House describes Kushner’s meetings with Russians as follows: “Throughout the campaign and transition, Jared Kushner served as the official primary point of contact with foreign governments and officials.”

April 6, 2017: The New York Times reports that Kushner failed to disclose meetings with Russians on his security clearance forms. His lawyer said he told the FBI the following about those meetings: “During the presidential campaign and transition period, I served as a point-of-contact for foreign officials trying to reach the president-elect. I had numerous contacts with foreign officials in this capacity.”

May 6, 2017: Trump Jr. tweets out a New York Post story titled “Bad news for the Trump-Russia tinfoil-hat brigade” denying any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, adding his own comment .

May 8, 2017: Trump makes the header image of his Twitter account an image that incorrectly states that former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had “reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows – there is ‘no evidence’ of collusion w/Russia and Trump.”

May 9, 2017: President Trump dismisses FBI Director James Comey without even warning Comey in advance.

 May 18, 2017: President Trump repeatedly denies collusion during a press conference, but then seems to hedge on whether any of his campaign officials might have colluded. “The entire thing has been a witch hunt. And there is no collusion between, certainly, myself and my campaign, but I can only speak for myself and the Russians—zero.”

May 30, 2017: Trump Jr. tweets another denial of collusion, this time including a story from TownHall.com, a conservative site that consistently backs the Trump administration.  The TownHall.com story repeated President Trump’s mischaracterization of Director Clapper’s remarks.  Trump Jr. added his own comment that “You mean nothing has changed in the 10 month witch hunt?

June 8, 2017: On the day of James Comey’s Senate Intelligence Committee testimony, Trump Jr. sends out a series of tweets denying collusion.  One thanking former FBI Director Comey read “Thanks James: Comey Debunks NYT report about Trump Campaign having repeated Russian contacts.”  The other referenced a report on the right-wing “Drudge Report with Trump’s Jr.’s added comment “If Chris Matthews is willing to say it, it’s over folks. Now can we get to work to ???”

June 27, 2017:  The “Trump 2020” campaign fund pays the law firm of criminal defense attorney (who is best known for defending Mafia figures) Alan S. Futerfas $50,000 to represent Donald Trump Jr.

 July 8, 2017: The first story about Trump Jr.’s meeting with lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya went up on the New York Times website.

 July 8, 2017: In response to the New York Times article, Trump Jr. states that campaign issues were not discussed in the meeting and that he didn’t know the identity of the person he was meeting.  He specifically stated that “It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up. I was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.”

July 9, 2017: Donald Trump Jr. gives the following new and greatly revised statement about the meeting:  “I was asked to have a meeting by an acquaintance I knew from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant with an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign. I was not told her name prior to the meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to attend, but told them nothing of the substance. We had a meeting in June 2016. After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information. She then changed subjects and began discussing the adoption of Russian children and mentioned the Magnitsky Act. It became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting. I interrupted and advised her that my father was not an elected official, but rather a private citizen, and that her comments and concerns were better addressed if and when he held public office. The meeting lasted approximately 20 to 30 minutes. As it ended, my acquaintance apologized for taking up our time. That was the end of it and there was no further contact or follow-up of any kind. My father knew nothing of the meeting or these events.”

July 10, 2017: Trump Jr. sends two tweets.  The first states “Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent… went nowhere but had to listen.”  The second denied that there were any inconsistencies between the multiple evolving statements he had issued describing the June 9, 2016 meeting with Russian representatives.

July 11, 2017: Trump Jr. sends a tweet at 5:27 AM stating “Media & Dems are extremely invested in the Russia story. If this nonsense meeting is all they have after a yr, I understand the desperation!”

July 11, 2017: A few hours after the tweet above, the New York Times informed Donald Trump Jr. that they had obtained copies of the actual e-mail exchanges that led up to the July 8, 2016, meeting with the group of Russians and planned to publish them.  Trump Jr. himself released the an image of the e-mail chain via twitter at the exact time deadline set by the NYT for comments.  The full e-mails in readable form can be found on the NYT website.

July 11, 2017:  On afternoon after Trump Jr. pre-empted the NYT story by releasing the e-mails himself at the very last minute, the White House issued a statement from President Trump is statement from President Trump stating that “My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency.”

July 12, 2017:  Jay Sekulow, the lawyer on President Trump’s personal legal team charged with handling all press relations appeared on Good Morning Americaand stated categorically that “the president didn’t sign off on anything” and “wasn’t involved” with the statement in any way.

July 16, 2017: Jay Sekulow reaffirmed that statement on NBC’sMeet the Press”, stating “I want to be clear – that the President was not involved in the drafting of the statement.

July 31, 2017:  The Washington Post breaks the story that President Trump personally dictated the initial (July 8) statement issued in the name of Donald Trump Jr. concerning the meeting with multiple campaign officials and Russians in Trump tower.  This contradicts every previous statement made by the White House and Trump’s lawyers.

August 1, 2017: While being careful to avoid confirming the details of the July 31 Washington Post story, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders indirectly confirms the gist of the report during an official press briefing by stating “Look, the statement that Don Jr. issued is true. There’s no inaccuracy in the statement. The president weighed in as any father would, based on the limited information that he had.

 

 

 

Where Next?

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.

President Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration: A Self-Inflicted Wound

First, a caveat.  On policy grounds, I do not agree with President Trump’s order banning nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.  While I agree that provisions for screening applicants can always be improved, a sudden ban on all entry will weaken America’s position in the world, embolden our enemies, help ISIS and other Islamic extremist organizations with their recruitment, and unfairly victimize literally thousands of individuals who have selflessly contributed to fighting terrorism – including Islamic extremism – around the world.  I recognize, however, that I disagree with the President on policy.  As President, Mr. Trump does not need to listen to me.

As President, however, Donald Trump does need to abide by the US Constitution and to manage effectively the operation of the government of the United States.  In issuing his Executive Order on immigration, Mr. Trump failed miserably.  Here are three specific ways he failed.

(1) President Trump could have ensured that his Executive Order (EO) was consistent with the US Constitution by excluding legal permanent residents (AKA “green card” holders) from the entry ban, but he did not.

(2) President Trump could have made an exception for “special immigrant visa” (SIV) holders, which includes persons who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to American values by helping advance American foreign and military objectives abroad, but he did not.

(3) President Trump could have made allowances for persons who were already in the air flying from an overseas origin to the USA, but he did not.

Let’s look at each of those failures in more detail.

Legal Permanent Residents:  It is telling that when Department of Homeland Security officials first saw the text of the EO they interpreted it not to cover legal permanent aliens since it was clear to the immigration experts that such a ban cannot, under the US Constitution, be applied to permanent residents of the USA.  The experts were overruled by the White House, which specifically ordered the exclusion of legal permanent residents.  That specific policy direction from the White House was clearly unconstitutional because it denied the right of due process and equal protection to legal permanent residents of the United States.  (Note: According to Section A of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”)  While numerous Federal Courts quickly moved to prevent the removal of legal permanent residents, countless reports indicate that many such individuals were deported or “turned around” despite the existence of valid court orders.  Others were coerced into “voluntarily” giving up their status as legal permanent residents under various threats.  The legal mess from this part of the EO will likely drag on for months or years.  The impact on the lives of people who were summarily returned to countries where they do not live, do not have a home, and may well be targeted for politically-motivated arrest or execution is incalculable.  The impact on American security will be severe.

Special Immigrant Visa Holders:  The fact that the very first person to be detained pending expulsion under the EO was Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an Iraqi who had worked for the US military in Iraq for 10 years prior to immigrating to the USA with his family, is emblematic of this deeply flawed EO.  Mr. Darweesh was not a newly-arriving immigrant; he already lived here.  Even after immigrating on an SIV, however, Mr. Darweesh continued to work with the US military and it was in this capacity that he agreed to return on a dangerous mission to Iraq to help US military advisors working to defeat ISIS.  As he was returning from this dangerous mission undertaken on behalf of the US government, Hameed Darweesh was detained and would have been deported under the provisions of the EO had not a Federal Court quickly ruled that he must be afforded full due process under the Constitution.  Luckily for Mr. Darweesh, immigration officers in New York followed the court order.  Reports from elsewhere in the USA indicate that other permanent residents were not so fortunate.  To understand how unfair and how counterproductive the EO was as written, consider that Mr. Darweesh had survived 10 arduous years supporting US forces in Iraq.  Under SIV rules, he would have been eligible to immigrate to the USA after just two, but he stayed in Iraq to support US troops because he believed in the US cause and the US government.  Even after he finally did leave to save the lives of his family, he agreed to return to Iraq to support US troops.  As thanks, the US nearly threw him out of the country.  Mr. Darweesh is one man, but his story is the story of thousands of Iraqis.

While the Pentagon, under the leadership of General James Mattis, is preparing a list of SIV holders from Iraq as well as Iraqis who have provided invaluable assistance to US troops but who are still in Iraq, there is nothing in the EO that would allow the State Department to issue visas to those individuals or that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to admit them to the USA.  I have faith in the ability of Secretary “Mad Dog” Mattis to convince the White House to modify the EO, but that does not change the fact that it should never have been written so as to exclude people who have risked their lives to advance US security and save the lives of US service members.

People in the Air:  A basic principle of American legal system is that no law can be applied retroactively.  In other words, a city or state cannot decide 2017 to make fireworks illegal and then proceed to fine or arrest everyone who has ever lit a firecracker in the 50 years prior to that ban.  While retroactive laws are rightly acknowledged to be illegal and unethical, that is exactly what the EO did to the hundreds of people who boarded planes thinking that they had done absolutely everything right to prepare for their trip to the USA but then were treated as criminals on arrival.  Those caught in this trap included tourists, students, business people and at least one tiny infant coming to the USA for emergency open heart surgery.  A 60-year old woman was not allowed to see her severely ill mother in a US hospital for even a few minutes before being sent back.  The horror stories have been repeated hundreds of times.  These stories of personal anguish, as well as the perception that the US is ignoring one of the pillars of its own legal system, could have easily been avoided by including even a very brief grace period for persons who were already in the air.  Despite White House comments to the contrary, no one from one of the seven countries included in the ban could possibly receive a visa quickly enough to travel during that tiny window, meaning that allowing such a window carried no risk, no downside at all.  (Note:  All persons from those seven countries were already subject to “special processing” requirements – AKA extreme vetting – that takes at least weeks and usually months to complete even for a simple tourist visa.)

Why Did This Happen?

There are only two ways this could happen.  Either the White House is so unaware of the US Constitution and long history of the US working closely with foreign nationals to advance US national security that they did not realize how detrimental the EO would be, or they did not care.

Conservatives such as Karl Rove and former Vice President Dick Cheney have clearly expressed their disappointment with President Trump’s EO on immigration, stating that it could have, and should have, been handled much better.  Karl Rove, for example, specifically used the term “amateurish” to describe the drafting and roll-out of the EO.

I hope Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are correct, because the alternative explanation – that the White House knew its actions were unconstitutional and detrimental to US security but did not care – is much, much worse.

 

Rex Tillerson, Our Future Secretary of State

I just finished watching Rex Tillerson’s testimony with the critical (at times cynical) eye of the senior professional diplomat.  While I try to keep an open mind, I have to admit that there was a part of me that was rooting against him.  I now admit to myself that the little voice inside me was probably wrong.

It is not that I agree with everything Tillerson said.  I don’t.  As every career State Department employee knows, however, we never agree with everything our political leaders say but we nonetheless do our absolute best to implement the policies of the Administration while making sure that our political bosses know the reality of what is happening on the ground around the world.

When it comes to policy, a good diplomat needs to be as flexible as a Cirque de Solei performer.  Another trait we share with a good circus performer is that we have to always be practical, recognizing the difference between what we’d like to do and what we are certain we can accomplish.  A failed policy initiative – like a failed acrobatic stunt – is not an acceptable outcome.  (Full disclosure:  I always hated the “reset”; it was a slogan not a policy and was therefore always destined to fail.)  Rex Tillerson’s testimony demonstrated to me that he is adept at the art of the contortionist, giving me hope that he will also be adept at the art of the diplomat.  He is also clearly practical, always doing his utmost to advance the agenda he has assumed.

The one thing I really wished Secretary-to-be Tillerson had said to lay to rest concerns about his past positions on climate change, Russia sanctions, etc., is:  “When I was responsible for ExxonMobil, I did my absolute best to advance the interests of the company and its shareholders.  That was my job and I did it to the best of my ability, subjugating myself and my interests to succeed at my assigned task.  If confirmed, I will take that same approach to being Secretary of State, furthering the interests of the American people.  Whatever my personal interests may be, I will do my absolute to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States and to advance policies that increase the security and interests of American Citizens.”  While he did not speak those words, I think (or hope) that I correctly read them “between the lines.”

I’m not saying that Rex Tillerson will be our best Secretary of State ever, but he certainly won’t be the worst either.  Only history can judge that.  What hit me was that he is qualified and that his background and testimony gives me grounds for optimism.  As an incurable pragmatist (another trait of diplomats), that’s all I can ask for.

 

Tempest in a Teabag

The latest Hillary Clinton “revelation” that Republicans and right-leaning pundits are shouting from the rooftops (and from every media outlet that will provide them an audience) is that Secretary Clinton instructed an aide to turn talking points from a classified cable into a nonpaper. According to the anti-Hillary crowd this incident provides clear proof that Mrs. Clinton instructed staff to violate secrecy rules and thereby endanger national security. That contention is utter nonsense, as anyone with even the slightest familiarity with the operation of American diplomacy would know. Transferring talking points into a nonpaper is completely normal and is probably done hundreds of times a day by American diplomats serving around the world.  If the so-called experts quoted in the press recently cared more about truth and less about scoring political points, they would have said so.

To understand what Secretary Clinton was doing and why it should be viewed as entirely normal requires only a small amount of “Diplomacy 101” background, starting with three key pieces of vocabulary.

“Talking Points” are a list of facts, policies or other information that U.S. officials can draw upon during meetings with foreign counterparts. Talking points range from the very specific to a simple tick-list of topics to cover. Most commonly for American diplomats serving overseas, those talking points originate in Washington, DC, and are intended for delivery to officials of the government of the country where the American diplomats are serving. At times, however, American diplomats are instructed to deliver talking points to people other than their host foreign government. Other audiences could include diplomatic colleagues from friendly nations assigned to the same foreign country, to non-governmental agencies, to public gatherings or even at press conferences. By their very nature, talking points are intended to be released to some foreign government(s), officials or potentially even to the public.

“Classified Cables” include all communications between the State Department and U.S. Diplomatic and Consular outposts that include at least some classified (Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret) information. If there is any classified information in a cable, the entire cable must be handled via channels and methods approved for classified national security information. While it may seem counter-intuitive, talking points and even press guidance intended for the widest possible public distribution frequently arrive within classified cables. This happens because the cable conveying the talking points may also contain sensitive or even highly classified background information for the American Ambassador and/or others at an overseas post. The talking points are intended to be conveyed to others outside the Embassy; the classified background information is not.

“Nonpapers” are a standard tool used by diplomats around the world. The term refers to any written communication that lists some pieces of information but contains no identifying marks as to the origin of the information or who conveyed it. The term “nonpaper” reflects the fact that the paper itself has no status as an official communication. Nonpapers are commonly left behind by diplomats delivering talking points as a courtesy so that the person on the receiving end of the exchange can listen rather than take notes. For this reason, it is extremely common practice for American diplomats serving abroad to take the talking points they have been instructed to deliver to a host government and turn them into a nonpaper.

Knowing just these three common diplomatic terms is enough to debunk all of the nonsense being brandied about by partisan hacks. When unable to receive a complete classified cable that likely included both classified background information that must be protected and talking points intended to be passed to a foreign interlocutor , Secretary Clinton instructed her staff to transfer the talking points only to a non-paper that she would read and potentially even leave with the foreign official(s) she would be meeting. It was, in all likelihood, the most normal request in the (diplomatic) world.

I am not saying that it was right for Secretary Clinton to use a personal email account for official business. I believe it was not.  More broadly, rules and accepted practices that allow political appointees to behave in ways that are forbidden for career staff are almost always counterproductive.  Downsides to making special exceptions to rules and regulations for political appointees range from decreased efficiency and loss of transparency to an increased likelihood of unethical behavior.  Such exceptions to established rules are, unfortunately, quite common; they did not start with Clinton or the Democratic Party, nor are they unique to the State Department or even the Executive Branch of government.  Some of the worst examples of abusing personal position I have ever witnessed were committted by members of Congress.  Former Secretary Clinton’s decision to use private email for official business is just one example of this genuinely bipartisan and long-standing policy failure.