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.