We need to preface this post by stating straight off that the 2016 presidential election is over and would-be dictator Donald J. Trump won. Period, end of story. The Bernie Bros conspiracy theorists, the Jill Stein re-count fans, and those who fantasize that the Electoral College will hand the election to Clinton despite the election results all need to sit down and shut up.
It’s over. We have to play the ball from where it is now, even if it’s sunk six inches in a sand-trap.
But there are reasons we should be extremely worried about the CIA’s finding that Russia actively interfered with the election by hacking into Democratic databases and leaking the information gained in the hacks to the now-unhinged Wikileaks, which posted them online and caused the alt-right conspiracy loons to go apeshit. Our concern should not be to twist that interference into yet another asinine online petition asking the Electoral College electors to vote against Trump, because, once again, that ship has sailed. (We’re about to run out of metaphors here).
No, our concern needs to focus on what it means for the Trump presidency, and how we need to respond to the most autocratic president America has ever elected. Why would a dictatorship with territorial aspirations in Europe want to elect Trump? Why does Trump publicly praise Russian president Vladimir Putin, a conservative authoritarian dictator who imprisons political enemies and suppresses dissent by the press and political activists?
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly professed admiration for Putin, who Trump said was a “stronger leader” than President Barack Obama. Many speculate that Trump’s pro-Putin statements stemmed from an earlier statement from Putin calling Trump a Russian word that some media outlets translated as “brilliant,” although the actual translation of the word is “bright” which in Russian does not carry with it the English secondary meaning denoting intelligence. The word as applied to a person really is closer to the English word “flamboyant,” which Trump certainly is. Many were puzzled by Trump’s adulation of an autocratic Russian president who has turned Russia back into the same kind of human rights abuser it was under communist rule. But some speculated that it signaled Trump’s intention to become a conservative authoritarian leader himself. This line of thought was bolstered by Trump’s concerning comments about jailing political opponents and loosening up the nation’s libel laws to make it easier for leaders like Trump to sue media outlets critical of him. It felt to many like Trump meant to turn the rule of law on its head, the first step away from democracy and towards dictatorship.
Trump also said on several occasions that he did not feel bound by America’s military alliances with western European powers, particularly the obligations imposed by our membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Asked about a potential Trump administration’s likely response to future Russian aggression against bordering NATO members, he ruled out an automatic military response by the United States, as the NATO treaties provide, but would instead only come to the aid of those nations who had satisfied their monetary obligation to pay their fair share of NATO-mandated defense costs. In a staggering display of his ignorance of national security and the global strategic stage, Trump called NATO “obsolete” and said the organization had done a poor job fighting terrorism. Writing about Russia’s recent military build-up in Kaliningrad, Russia’s outpost on the Baltic Sea, the Wall Street Journal noted:
During his campaign, Mr. Trump expressed admiration for Mr. Putin’s leadership and said the U.S. and Russia could cooperate more on fighting terrorism.
Meanwhile, his comments about NATO’s collective defense obligations have raised hackles among U.S. allies. In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked the Baltic states, he would consider coming to their defense only after reviewing “if they have fulfilled their obligations to us.”
Trump’s comments about weakening the key U.S. role in keeping NATO forces as a deterrent to Russian aggression were music to Vladimir Putin’s ears. Putin’s actions in the former Soviet state Ukraine met with stiff opposition from the Obama administration and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Trump also has stated his intention of allying with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against ISIS fighters in Syria. Assad is heavily supported by Putin’s Russia and American policy to date has been to support the rebel fighters seeking to overthrow the Assad regime.
So the motivation for Russian support of Donald J. Trump is no real mystery. From Putin’s viewpoint, a Trump presidency would give him free reign to annex the Ukraine without American interference and pursue his pro-Assad agenda in Syria. Hillary Clinton’s Russian policy would have been just the opposite, of which Putin is well-aware.
Despite Trump’s fact-challenged denials, the American intelligence community has long known that the hacks of Democratic computer systems were accomplished by hackers employed by Russia. Many Democrats speculated that the motivation for the hacks and leaking the information to Wikileaks was to influence American voters to support Trump rather than Clinton.
This weekend the New York Times reported that CIA analysts have confirmed that the circumstantial evidence supported the conclusion that the Russian-sponsored hacks and leaks were in fact motivated by a desire to skew the election in Trump’s favor. One significant piece of evidence was the revelation that these same Russian-backed hackers penetrated the computer systems of the Republican National Committee and other GOP organizations but did not leak the hacked information to Wikileaks or otherwise reveal it to the American voting public.
Despite the CIA’s conclusion, the FBI said Russia’s motivation remained unclear. Intelligence experts attribute the FBI’s position to its law enforcement focus, in which decisions to prosecute must be supported by more than the kind of circumstantial evidence that intelligence analysts routinely rely upon to reach conclusions.
Donald Trump and other Republicans have chosen to simply disbelieve the CIA’s conclusions. Trump, as usual without any evidence to back him up, called the CIA’s leaked conclusion “ridiculous.” Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton speculated the hacks were perpetrated by the Obama administration, because Thanks Obama.
Other, more responsible Republicans like Mitch McConnell and John McCain are calling for congressional hearings and investigations into Russian interference with American democracy, and they are entirely correct that the whole sordid mess needs to be dragged out into the open.
It is a big deal.
It is also a big deal that Trump responds to professional intelligence analyses with infantile denial, as though the analysts are trying to take away his new toy, in this case, the presidency of the United States of America.
The Senate should also look very closely at Trump’s apparent nominee for secretary of state. Trump reportedly will choose Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil’s CEO, for state. Tillerson has many business ties to Russia and a close relationship with Vladimir Putin. Given the Russian interference in our election, senators should seriously consider whether American’s chief ambassador to the world may be a Putin sycophant.
And America needs to keep close tabs on a president who admires dictators who say nice things about him. The foreign policy of the world’s only remaining superpower should not be determined by who strokes Trump’s tender ego.