It is very likely now that Donald Trump will be inaugurated as president of the United States on Jan. 20, in no small part because of the direct intervention in and manipulation of the American electoral process by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s strongman who rose to power as a ruthless agent of the KGB, the former Soviet Union’s secret police.
As we all know, The Washington Post and The New York Times recently reported just how deeply Russian hackers invaded the computers of the Democratic Party, a move intended to confuse voters with leaked excerpts of emails and other documents and thus throw a monkey wrench into the election. Now The Post reports that the CIA believes the Russian meddling was deliberately intended to help sway the vote in Trump’s favor. And NBC News says it was Putin himself who “personally directed” those leaks.
Why did he do this? For one thing, according to Michael McFaul, the former American ambassador to Russia, Putin has a thing about Hillary Clinton. “He has had a vendetta against Hillary Clinton that has been known for a long time because of what she said about his elections back in the parliamentary elections of 2011,” McFaul told NBC News (Clinton had questioned the integrity of the Russian elections). But more important, McFaul continued, “He wants to discredit American democracy and make us weaker in terms of leading the liberal democratic order. And most certainly he likes President-elect Trump’s views on Russia.”
All of which, apparently, now has helped land us in the worst political fix since the Civil War, an electronic invasion that former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson says he believes could be “the largest intelligence coup since the cracking of the Enigma code during World War II.”
Yes, we know some of this remains speculation. Yes, we know Democrats would like to point attention away from some bad, self-inflicted mistakes the Clinton campaign made, mistakes that hurt it on Election Day. That they failed to realize the depth of the anger in the American heartland didn’t help. And neither did the FBI/James Comey intrusion.
Yes, we know the documents handed to WikiLeaks from the Clinton campaign and the DNC were real (although it’s worth noting that as The Times reports, some documents leaked from George Soros’ Open Society Foundation “turned out to have been altered [apparently by the hackers] to make it appear as if the foundation was financing Russian opposition members.”)
Yes, we know that despite all the Russia news, Republican efforts to suppress the vote are ongoing and a huge concern from which we cannot be distracted — and which must be addressed as well. And yes, we know the United States has consistently intervened in and sabotaged elections in other countries, actively working to install leaders who would kowtow to the interests of our government and American corporate interests.
But none of this negates the greatest implication of Putin’s ability to influence the election of a fellow authoritarian and would-be strongman to the presidency of the United States.
It is, in the words of former acting CIA Director Michael Morell, who briefed George W. Bush on 9/11 but supported Hillary Clinton this year, “an attack on our very democracy. It’s an attack on who we are as a people. A foreign government messing around in our elections is, I think, an existential threat to our way of life. To me, and this is to me not an overstatement, this is the political equivalent of 9/11.”
Nancy LeTourneau notes at Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, “To understand what is happening here, it is important to reject the old Cold War frame about a contest between capitalism and communism. Russia has long since ceased to be a country built on the teachings of Karl Marx and has evolved into a right-wing ethno-nationalist plutocracy.”
As circumstantial as some of the evidence may seem, we must not forget that these anti-democratic tactics are something that Vladimir Putin has attempted not only in the United States but also in a lot of other places. He is the “standard-bearer and patron” of extremist politics, Daniel Benaim and Perry Camack wrote in The New Republic this past March, and “has paired his brand of hyper-macho contempt for liberalism with active support for radical parties in Europe.” Now he has brought his brand to America and found a kindred salesman in Donald Trump.
Did Trump or members of his staff know what was going on? Probably. Remember that Trump’s first campaign manager Paul Manafort — the “King of K Street” lobbyists — had pro-Russian factions as clients; his name with multimillion amounts beside it was found in a log of financial transactions after he had helped Putin’s friends in the Ukraine. When word began to spread of these ties, Manafort left the campaign. He is now back in Trump’s graces and, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, positioned to reap the harvest of his relationship with Trump and his merry band of crony capitalists. It could be most revealing to hear what Manafort would say, under oath, about his intercession between Trump and Putin.
And just how extensive are our president-elect’s ties to Russian oligarchs? How much does he owe Russian banks? Now we may know more exactly why Trump has refused to release his tax returns; they could be full of clues about his foreign creditors. We’d learn more if he’d divest his business interests, too, but he won’t. We do know that Trump’s son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets… We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” And there’s more to come as Putin and Trump mix and mingle Russian oligarchs with American plutocrats.
What happens now? How do we confront this crisis of a president-elect who may owe his victory partly to the stealth of his Russian doppelganger? How do we get to the bottom of this before it is too late and a very unstable, egomaniacal and vindictive Donald Trump is handed control of the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the US Army and Navy and Air Force, the Departments of State and Homeland Security, the IRS and every regulatory agency of the US government? Who from within will challenge him then?
President Obama has ordered a full report from the intelligence community before he leaves office. A bipartisan commission like the 9/11 investigation could become the public watchdog, certainly more so than proposed House and Senate committee investigations which Trump loyalists in the GOP might publicly support but certainly attempt to stymie.
Maybe, as Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) has suggested, the vote of the Electoral College on Monday could be delayed. In a tweet, he wrote, “I believe that Electors should be given all information relevant to this interference before they make their decisions and before they cast their votes,” and told The Washington Post, “If we don’t act early, and soon, we run the risk of having an illegitimate president. That’s not good for Donald Trump and not good for America.”
Not likely to happen, we know. But listen well. Not only does this increasingly seem like yet another step in Putin’s worldwide subversion of liberal democratic beliefs and Trump’s desire to enrich his family and cronies by surrounding himself with multimillionaires and billionaires known for their predatory appetites; it is one more step to a planet dominated by international oligarchs and kleptocrats, part and parcel of a “huge con job,” as Nancy LeTourneau writes. The Trump campaign “convinced a lot of Americans that they are a populist movement on behalf of the American worker when in reality it is all about an attempt to improve the fortunes on the very global elite they rail against.” If that means hooking up with Putin and authoritarianism, she concludes, Trump’s people believe that’s not a problem.
Just look at the appointment of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, a man who’s been a happy business partner of Putin’s Russia — and other totalitarian regimes — for years. He has shaken the bloody hand of just about every despot whose power rests on the black gold beneath their subjects’ feet, and it doesn’t seem to keep him awake at night. He’s made it clear: His only interest is making money. So don’t be surprised if one day soon you hear talk from the White House of something very like that golden oldie of World War II, a non-aggression pact — this one to divide up the world’s natural resources.
Trump had nothing to say about the judgment of the intelligence community that his pal Putin directed the sabotage of his opponent’s campaign, except, “I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it.” It was the reaction of someone whose answer to any summons toward responsibility is a tantrum. The difference is that this immature, undisciplined and thuggish 70-year-old is about to be handed the keys of the kingdom.