It’s been a very busy weekend when it comes to Donald Trump, Russia, and the democratic sovereignty of the United States. If you missed the whole thing in a blissful whirlwind of festive preparation or because you were lucky enough to be on a pre-Christmas minibreak, here’s a catch up.
On Friday, President Obama announced a full review of all electoral-related hacking, including the cyber-attacks on the Democratic National Committee e-mails and those of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta. That day, the Washington Post reported that a secret CIA assessment had concluded that Russia had influenced the election in favour of Trump, noting that the hacked data sent to WikiLeaks had been provided by individuals with ties to Putin’s government. One senior US official said:
“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected. That’s the consensus view.”
Understandably, hell immediately broke loose. Grieving Democrats who are still in denial wondered desperately whether this review – which Obama ordered to be completed before he leaves office on January 20th – might stop Trump ever becoming president. More rational observers on both sides of the aisle called for a full investigatory probe of Russian interference by Congress, and made entreaties that such a threat to American democracy from a foreign power should not become a partisan issue. They include leading Republicans, such as Senators John McCaine and Lindsey Graham.
Trump’s response to the CIA announcement has, unsurprisingly, not been one of bipartisanship. The immediate comment from his team on Friday was:
“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”
Leaving aside for a moment that the 2016 election was far from one of the biggest Electoral College wins but was in fact relatively close (tighter than either of Obama’s victories, for example), it is almost unprecedented for a president elect to trash the integrity of the intelligence agencies he will soon lead. But Trump was not content to just disparage the CIA – in an interview with Fox News that aired on Sunday, he startlingly argued that he didn’t need security briefings at all:
“I don’t have to be told – you know, I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years. It could be eight years – but eight years. I don’t need that. But I do say if something should change, let us know. Now, in the meantime, my generals are great, are being briefed. Mike Pence is being briefed, who is, by the way, one of my very good decisions. He’s terrific. And they’re being briefed. And I’m being briefed also… But I don’t need to be told, Chris, the same thing every day, every morning, same words. Sir, nothing has changed. Let’s go over it again. I don’t need that.”
Just to be clear, that is the president elect saying he is so “smart” he doesn’t need to be briefed by intelligence officials on the security concerns facing America. Nor is it the first time he’s made such a comment – I wrote last month about how Trump was skipping his security briefings, noting his assertion on the campaign trail that he doesn’t need foreign policy experts because he has a “very good brain”.
All this means that the Republican-led Congress is now stuck between investigating a security threat to the American electoral process and staying on the right side of a future president who believes he knows more than the CIA because he is “smart”. It’s a delicate balancing act, as evidenced by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has said he “rejects any politicization” of the Russia issue but would not call for a congressional investigation.
Meanwhile, just to add fuel to the Russia fire, Trump hinted on Sunday that he would appoint Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, as his Secretary of State. Tillerson has a long history of business dealings in Russia with close ties to Putin himself and is known in particular for his tough opposition to US sanctions against Russia. The very thought of Tillerson as Secretary of State was so horrific that hardline Republicans immediately came out against it, most notably Marco Rubio, who tweeted: “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState”.
Of course, the tweet about Tillerson could well be yet another distraction ploy by Trump, designed to detract attention from something else or even just drive his opponents mad. Nonetheless, it is catastrophically disturbing that Trump’s team is playing such games with American democracy.
Whatever Russia’s involvement, Vladimir Putin must be watching the antagonistic chaos in Washington right now and laughing.