Tales of intelligence community, Russia and president-elect
On Wednesday, in his first news conference as president-elect, Donald Trump came out swinging — against some of the media (while praising others), against the policies and performance of the Obama administration, and against the intelligence community.
He had some legitimate reason. One was CNN’s report that Trump had been briefed that Russian operatives say they have compromising information about him. And BuzzFeed published a 35-page document it described as “a dossier, compiled by a person who has claimed to be a former British intelligence official, (alleging) Russia has compromising information on Trump.”
Pretty dodgy stuff. It turns out that this dossier had been circulated widely to news organizations, which have been trying to verify some of the charges and failed to do so. Trump praised his perennial nemesis The New York Times for declining to air the document, and BuzzFeed even noted, “The allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.”
One of those errors Trump was able to point out. His staffer Michael Cohen — said by the person claiming to be a former British intelligence official to have communicated with Russians in Prague — showed, by photographing his passport, that he hadn’t been out of the country at the time.
“Fake news,” Trump charged at the news conference, turning back on his critics a meme they have been using to suggest that voters were gulled into voting for him. “I think it was disgraceful, disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out.”
One must add that it’s not clear that “intelligence agencies” let out the information. But if they did, it was in line with the report they delivered to President Barack Obama last week claiming with high degrees of confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed the hacking and release of emails from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.
That report said the Russians wanted to discredit Clinton when she was the favorite to win the election. But she was the favorite to win — on psephological websites, in betting markets and in newsrooms everywhere — until about 9 o’clock Eastern time on election night.
It also said they wanted Trump to win. How could the intelligence agencies know exactly what was in Putin’s mind? It’s certainly likely that he wanted to sow discord and dismay about the American electoral process. But Russia, as Winston Churchill said in October 1939, “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
For his part, Trump retreated from his long-standing and puzzling reluctance to identify Russia as the hacker. He added that other hacking — apparently of Office of Personnel Management records — was done by the Chinese. And he added that if Putin did want him to win, that would be “an asset, not a liability.”
My ability to read the minds of leaders of the intelligence community is weaker than theirs to read Putin’s, and I lack knowledge of just how the 35-page dodgy dossier found its way into the computerized hands of BuzzFeed. But what we’re seeing looks an awful lot like an attempt by intelligence officials, probably including presidential employees, to delegitimize the president-elect and his administration. It’s in line with the warnings to Trump by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer not to tangle with the intelligence community.
That’s disturbing, even if you are troubled also, as I am, by Trump’s persistent unwillingness to criticize and persistent propensity to praise Putin. Just before Trump met with the press in New York, his nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was fielding pointed questions from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio about policy toward Russia.
Those are fair questions. Russia has invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. There’s evidence — see David Satter’s Aug. 17 piece for National Review — that the Putin regime has committed murder.
Meanwhile, Trump booster Sean Hannity has been recalling that the Soviet Union was our ally in World War II. But that was only after Josef Stalin’s erstwhile ally Adolf Hitler invaded Russia and Churchill said, “If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”
Things are not so dire today. Perhaps, as Trump says, we can work with Russia in fighting radical Islam. Perhaps not. There’s room for disagreement on that — but not about whether the intelligence community should be undermining the president-elect.
Editor’s note: Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of “The Almanac of American Politics.”