January 14, 2017–The past week has been stuffed with events, each one controversial, each more outrageous than before. You can imagine where this is headed. General James Clapper, the Fearful Leader, pulled his punches all through the summer and into the fall on the Russian hacking caper, and ended up making desperate phone appeals to the president-elect. Donald Trump, who quacks like that other duck, and is much more a bombast, played his standard game of bait-and-switch, saying one thing to your face but twisting meanings, words, and whole ideas, in public or on twitter.
The prediction here a week ago was that Director of National Intelligence Clapper would get 24 hours to bask in the sun for the intelligence community’s briefing to Trump on the Russians, before president-elect Trump backed away from his initial acknowledgement of the assessment and resumed playing the intelligence as politics rather than a national security determination. That prediction erred–Trump made one statement shortly after the briefing appearing to accept its substance, while insisting that lots of countries do cyberspying and that the Russians had had no impact on the U.S. election outcome. He held off somewhat longer on returning to suit, with surrogate Kellyanne Conway taking the role of attack dog dismissing the intelligence.
But the prediction here was on the money in terms of the direction The Donald took. First, dilute the intelligence by widening the circle of suspects beyond Russia, while insisting on a lack of specific evidence implicating Putin. Next, falsify the DNI/CIA reporting by putting words in the mouths of Fearful Leader and the others–claiming that U.S. intelligence had concluded the Russian hack had not influenced the election, where, in fact, the spooks explicitly said they had made no attempt to evaluate the political impact of the hack. Trump personally had belittled the intelligence in advance of his briefing on January 6, with the phony assertion the spies had postponed the brief, plus the jab they must need extra time to put together credible charges.
President-elect Trump had his own event scheduled, a news conference on Wednesday, January 11. On the eve of that the web news site BuzzFeed released a long paper detailing alleged Donald Trump misdeeds and embarrassments the Russians had supposedly documented and held over his head. The paper, written by a former British spy, had begun as an effort by Trump opponents to gather ammunition to use against him, but the spook eventually found the allegations so disturbing he took the document to the FBI. By all accounts vague rumors drawn from this paper had been all over Washington for months, and both the FBI and media outlets had attempted, without success, to authenticate the charges.
Back on January 7, after the intelligence community meeting with Mr. Trump, General Clapper’s office released a 25-page unclassified version of the secret information it had given the president-elect. The public document did not contain a two-page annex that several sources now mention as a summary to Mr. Trump of what the oppo research paper might reveal. Multiple sources also affirm that FBI Director James Comey took Mr. Trump aside at the conclusion of the briefing to warn him that damaging information was out there and could surface at any time. The Donald was soon tweeting of a “total political witch hunt,” terming the oppo paper “fake news,” and asserting he had heard nothing about it until the document leaked.
The president-elect’s news conference became a shambles. Mr. Trump seemed to accept that there had been a Russian hack, but then repeatedly went back to his formula that anyone could have done it. He harped on the notion the hacking had not altered the election outcome. He accused media outright of purveying “fake news” for reporting the existence of the oppo paper. He asserted he’d known nothing about it. By the following day Kellyanne Conway was speaking of intelligence officials leaking for political purposes. Trump personally took up that theme yesterday–Friday the 13th–tweeting “Totally made up facts . . . probably leaked by ‘Intelligence.'”
Director Clapper phoned Mr. Trump to remind him the FBI had told him of the oppo paper material. The president-elect represented that as the opposite. Ms Conway piled on to add to claims the intelligence community is leaking information they are sworn to keep secret. This extra irony is especially painful because–as you will have read here several times now–my view is that Mr. Trump’s political wriggling has been facilitated by Director Clapper’s excessive concern for secrecy, which left such vagueness and ambiguity in intelligence community declarations about Russian hacking as to leave room for some plausibility in The Duck’s defense of Moscow.
The bottom line is this: Donald Trump and his surrogates seem completely unable to distinguish between what is political–whether or not Russian hacking turned the election of 2016–and what is national security–the threat to American institutions demonstrated by a foreign ability to enter and manipulate the top ranks of U.S. political parties. Mr. Trump’s entire concern is political. This reinforces the point made in this space in a previous posting–the new chief executive will be imposing a political litmus test on the intelligence brought to him.
For being right, Clapper’s spooks are in deeper doo-doo than ever.