H. R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction

May 17, 2017–Now the truth stands revealed. When then-Lieutenant Colonel McMaster published his book Dereliction of Duty in the middle 1990s he got an extremely friendly reception. He rode that to generals’ stars, command in Iraq, scuttlebutt finding him a suitable candidate for chief of staff of the United States Army, and more. Today, Lieutenant General McMaster is national security adviser to the President of the United States. On the White House podium yesterday it all came tumbling down.

There were some more doubtful observers of the McMaster parade, me among them. I always thought McMaster’s argument about the Vietnam war a cheap shot. I said so in historian circles and in my book Unwinnable War. The thesis in McMaster’s book was that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and NSC staff at the time of the Vietnam war played the inexcusable roles of enablers by going along with President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s strategy–partial, cautious steps, fragmentary escalations–instead of demanding action on their real, much more forceful menu of operations. By McMaster’s lights this left the United States on an uncertain, wavering course, meandering through history to defeat in Vietnam. I thought McMaster wrong both in general and in detail. It was not true the JCS never held out for their “large solution” operations. What was true was rather that each time a major strategic review occurred the Chiefs argued for the large solution. Lyndon Johnson, acutely aware of the dangers war in Vietnam could morph into war with China or Russia or both, consistently resisted the maximum escalation. While LBJ staged scenes to denounce and embarrass the generals they never, in fact, gave up their underlying strategy. They were never guilty of dereliction of duty in the sense that H. R. McMaster (and the U.S. military) use the term.

The generals (and NSC staff) did act to preserve the dignity of the president and his office. They did not complain of the president’s high handedness. Only one, Army chief Harold K. Johnson in 1967, contemplated resigning in protest (hoping LBJ might agree to war mobilization and an invasion of North Vietnam to dissuade him). He didn’t do it–and he, too, kept his silence on what had happened.

McMaster’s prescription in his book was that an official, faced with such a dilemma, must resign in preference to dereliction of duty. Yesterday, in reality, the general met his Waterloo. Elevated to national security adviser, Hal McMaster serves Donald J. Trump. The president blocked his national security adviser from ousting staff who made trouble, prevented McMaster from keeping offensive rhetoric out of Trump’s public comments, and kept silent as the president called him a “pain.” In the past week the general no doubt watched in horror as President Trump fired the FBI director even as evidence of an attempt to manipulate a federal investigation began surfacing. Then, a few days ago, Mr. Trump blabbed to visiting Russian officials of secrets given the United States by an intelligence ally, reportedly Israel. This violation of every protocol regarding handling of classified information, Mr. Trump defended with the bland defense that, as president, he can declassify any intelligence.

General H. R. McMaster stood up for President Trump. He denounced the Washington Post’s report that Trump had leaked classified information, “It didn’t happen.” Why not? Not because it did not happen but because a president can decide to declassify secrets. Yesterday McMaster took the podium at the White House. He made more excuses for Trump. “The president wasn’t even aware,” the general said, “where this information came from.” The president had an “absolute right,” the general said. Nine times the general insisted that what President Trump had done was “wholly appropriate.”

Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster did not resign in protest. He did do precisely what his forebears had done during the Vietnam war–act to preserve the dignity of the office of the president. General McMaster seems to have discovered appropriate dereliction of duty.

Maybe Trump’s Right–So was Hillary

May 16, 2017–The latest escapade of this dysfunctional White House is the admission that, during the recent visit of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, President Donald Trump told the visitors secrets shared with us by our spy allies. Evidently in haste to defend the president, national security adviser H. R. McMaster insisted that no operation had been revealed that was not already known, and that no sources or methods were mentioned. Earlier today Mr. Trump himself, relying upon the power of the president to “declassify” information, insisted he had the “right” to divulge the secrets he did. This mess brings us full circle to where we were a year ago when Donald J. Trump’s minions persecuted Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server, chanting “lock her up!”

There’s quite a bit to unpack here. First, the Hillary investigation, conducted by James B. Comey’s FBI, helped fuel the Trump political campaign as it gathered momentum. As discussed here and elsewhere, Comey’s re-opening of the investigation just before Election Day affected the outcome. So did Mrs. Clinton’s wooden handling of the issue. In this space I argued repeatedly that the movement of classified emails–and the excesses alleged by certain government agencies–were less than simple press bulletins made it appear. Not only was that correct, but recently it turns out that FBI Director Comey exaggerated his claims of the dimensions of the potential leak.

In terms of transgressions, Hillary Clinton’s offense was moving message traffic across a medium (a private server) that had not been approved at a time when the State Department had yet to set its policy for handling this kind of information. There is no evidence the server was ever penetrated or read, hence no indication of a national security breach. By contrast, Mr. Trump personally and physically disclosed secrets to representatives of a nation long our adversary. They were secrets given by an ally. Although U.S. classification policy permits a president to release secrets, foreign government information is typically protected in our system. At a minimum Mr. Trump breached that confidence. National security damage was done.

When the Clinton email scandal first arose, the instant reaction here was not just to show how the issue had been blown out of proportion but to argue that current policy on secrecy makes it virtually impossible for senior officials to do their jobs without violating classification regulations. The Donald Trump faux pas just demonstrates that anew. It’s time to change the policy!

How Many Cards Has Putin ?

May 12, 2017–Seeing Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov parade through the White House two days ago was highly suggestive. The minister exhibited the facial expression of a person enchanted, entering their new domain for the first time, the scene documented by a photographer from the Russian news agency TASS. That in itself speaks volumes for the competence–or lack thereof–of the Trump White House, which had deliberately excluded press from the event but not bothered to check whether the Russian photographer worked for the Foreign Ministry or some other government entity (like TASS). In any case Lavrov had the air of someone surveying property, or potentate meeting vassal.

You can’t say that is evidence for the Russian Caper, but the White House parade is consonant with behavior you might expect from a successful conspirator. The very next day the chiefs of the U.S. intelligence agencies–now Donald Trump’s intelligence agencies–were at the other end of The Mall, on Capitol Hill, presenting their annual run down of threats facing the United States. Cyberattack took the lead, with the Russian attempt to manipulate the U.S. 2016 election the top exemplar. Mr. Trump may think the Russian Caper a hoax but only fabulists of his stripe will agree.

Readers of this space will know we’ve been following the Russian Caper for months. Articles here identified a quid and a quo, discussed the evolving events, related them to figures in the Trump election campaign, and analyzed the parallel, equally damaging, actions of Federal Bureau of Investigation director James B. Comey.

Yesterday I analyzed the president’s actions using the game of Bridge (“Trump Trumps Comey,” May 11, 2017). We left the piece with a few tricks still to play and the question, among others, of what cards Vladimir Putin may hold. This is a fair, in fact a crucial question.

First is the existence of the Russian Caper. As a real thing. With a timeline, strategy, and players. A story. Making Moscow’s manipulation public would instantly blow away Mr. Trump’s pathetic squirming in his attempt to suppress investigation. More than that, revelation of the cover-up would instantly plunge American politics into crisis. If the aim of a Russian political action operation was to create chaos in the United States, that would be a huge success. Moreover the threat of such a revelation–with President Trump now having fired his FBI director in commission of a cover-up–could be expected to incline the American leader to act as Moscow desires. Former acting attorney general Sally Yates lost her job warning of the dangers of a national security adviser (Michael Flynn) who could potentially be a Russian operative, imagine the scope for a president as an agent. That’s an Ace of Spades. In No-Trump Bridge there is no higher card.

To continue that analogy, Mr. Putin also holds the King of Spades. Last December the Russian security service FSB arrested two of its own, General Sergei Mikhailov, a deputy director of the service’s computer security unit; and Major Dmitri Dokuchaev, an operating hacker. Mikhailov, we are told, was interrupted in the middle of a meeting, a black cloth bag put over his head, and frog-marched away. Also taken was Ruslan Stoyanov a top cybersecurity expert at a contractor firm. Rumored reasons for the arrests included that these individuals were engaged in cybercrime, or that they were CIA agents. But these people were also linked to “Fancy Bear,” as Western cybersecurity experts have dubbed the hacking entity responsible for the penetrations into American political parties and networks, believed to be a unit of the military intelligence service GRU. If this is correct, the FSB can at any time roll out a set of witnesses to put details into the so-far hazy picture of exactly how the Russian Caper worked.

Next to the Ace, the King of Spades is the strongest card in No-Trump. The president does not control these cards and is, in fact, beholden to them. After firing Director Comey, President Trump’s hand is nearly exhausted amid a political situation in which specific concern over the Russian Caper is at fever pitch.

 

 

 

Who Trumps Whom ?

May 11, 2017–In the game Bridge the players establish a set of expectations and nominate a suit of wild cards before play of the hand begins. They do this in a ritual of bidding, four players in two teams for the game. The players also seek to signal their partners the strength of their hand through this same bidding process. The card suits have a rank order from the lowly Club to the top-notch Spade, and from the deuce at the bottom to the Ace at the top. “Two Clubs” is the smallest opening bid you can make. If your hand is not worth that you pass. To bid in “No Trump” is nirvana, indicating your hand is strong in every suit. If the bidding results in a named suit, by contrast, play of any card in that suit will beat the highest card of the suit currently on the table. This is relevant in today’s political controversy–I have heard pundits who could not resist the endearment of “Trump trumps Comey,” as the dismissed FBI director disappears out the door. But my thought is that the bidding was wrong–the card tricks will not play out the way Mr. Trump thinks.

The president, being Donald Trump, naturally bid “No Trump,” the strongest form of play. In No Trump the top card in the suit in play wins. There are no wild cards. The cards mean what they say. Sometimes a player with a weak hand bids in No Trump when he should not, or an inexperienced one does not know any better. This is problematic for President Trump because he has the lead in this game, and he is trying to escape the consequences of the Russian Caper.

There will be thirteen card tricks in the play of the hand. Mr. Trump took the first two when he benefitted from Russian intervention in the presidential campaign and then when he won the election. After that he started to squirm. The big reveal of partner Mike Pence’s hand showed the cards are not so strong after all. Trump bulled his way through a trick by insisting the Russian Caper is a hoax, then sacrificed one by remaining silent as Congress organized to investigate Moscow’s role in American politics. But the attempt to coax out the opponents’ high cards flubbed when the White House was revealed to be bending the congressional  investigators to its whim.

On the next trick came a major blowup, when national security adviser Michael Flynn was caught on surveillance tapes talking to the Russian ambassador. Flynn further complicated the play, at every step being caught in more compromising poses (taking Russian money, disguising that he did, neglecting to get required permissions, to register as a foreign agent; even carrying water for his foreign clients at the very moment of the election). The FBI, headed by James Comey continued its investigation throughout all this, and when Mr. Trump entered office the Flynn dossier had already grown thick. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates did Trump the courtesy of giving the White House advance notice of the burgeoning file. Rather than do anything about Flynn, the White House demanded to see the evidence. Trump lost a trick when Mike Pence rushed to Flynn’s defense, spouting Flynn’s phony denials as gospel truth. Trump’s spin doctors made it worse by attacking media for doing their jobs–and the president doubled down by, in fact, blaming the media for the dismissal of Michael Flynn.

Mr. Trump’s sixth trick was to blame Barack Obama, alleging the former president had ordered surveillance of his political campaign. That flubbed too.  Carter Page of the Trump campaign was a subject of FBI investigation for his role in the Russian Caper, but that flowed from solid investigative leads. When Mr. Trump fatuously declared the “leaks” of juicy tidbits from the investigations to be the problem, rather than the Russian Caper itself, he lost another trick. The latest press reports paint a president furious at the FBI for continuing to investigate the Caper instead of focusing on the phony Obama surveillance allegation. Trump still had one high card. He used it to fire Bureau director James Comey. But the incompetence and lack of political skills of Mr. Trump’s White House are such that no one made any preparations for handling the fierce questions that were sure to follow Comey’s dismissal. Trump took a trick but immediately lost another.

Now the president is stuck. The Russians actually have some of his cards. No one knows how many. Trump himself is down to, say, a deuce of clubs and a three of diamonds. The game continues. Opponents have the big cards and–because this is No Trump–there are no wild cards to smite them. It’s not enough any more to assert that no one is interested in this story, or that it’s yesterday’s news, or that it’s fake news, or any of the other low-grade deceptions Trump has relied upon in the past. Stay tuned.

“Mildly Nauseous?”

May 7, 2017–Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James B. Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee a few days ago that thinking his actions last October 28, scant days ahead of the 2016 presidential election, might have had some impact on its outcome makes him “mildly nauseous.” Poor Jim Comey! He’s had all kinds of rocks thrown at him, he says. “Lordy!” it’s “been painful,” he says. All this is uttered in a tone of wonderment as if it’s a surprise people might connect any FBI action–more specifically the re-opening of the Hillary Clinton email investigation on the eve of the election–to her defeat. Perhaps Mr. Comey doesn’t know (but if he does not, he has no business being in charge of the nation’s primo investigative agency). The fact is that lots of people have been talking about Comey’s action in exactly those terms since October 29, 2016. Readers of this space, for example, saw two commentaries on Director Comey’s actions (“Spooks Gone Wild!!”, posted that same day; and “Obama and Comey,” November 2, 2016), both posted before Election Day, that worried Mr. Comey’s actions would have the precise effect they did.

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times (April 23, 2017) ran an extensive investigative piece by journalists Matt Apuzzo, Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman and Eric Lichtblau that explored the inner workings of the FBI’s decisions in this case. They quote candidate Donald J. Trump saying, “This changes everything!”

The point is the impact of Comey’s actions was obvious, not hidden in any way. In an email to the work force Mr. Comey explained that not informing Congress of the resumed FBI inquiry– which would have conformed to the Bureau’s standard operating procedure– was wrong. The authors of the Times story quote Comey’s email: “It would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record.”

Let’s review the byplay. Director Comey could have followed Bureau standard procedure, which would also have conformed to the instructions he had from the Attorney General. What he did went outside both those rubrics. That requires some significant rationale. We now know the FBI had several related investigations underway at the same time. Trump political operative Paul Manafort was under investigation for acting as an illegal foreign agent for Russian and Ukrainian interests. Other Trump operatives, separately or together, were potential subjects of an investigation into Russian political actions in the United States. Whether these were different investigations or the same one we don’t yet know. We do know that the Director of National Intelligence and the chief of the Department of Homeland Security had already gone on record, in early October 2016, charging that Russia had been conducting these actions. So far as we know at this writing, the FBI was resisting public reference to its own inquiries in this area. Had Mr. Comey’s concern only been whether he was misleading Americans if he did not own up to re-opening the Clinton email affair, he could have preserved an equal political footing by simultaneously revealing the Trump-centered inquiries.

Instead Director Comey, in a charged political atmosphere, was willing to confirm to the public an investigation targeting Hillary Clinton but not to place the Trump campaign in the same soup. His resignation ought to have been on President Obama’s desk the day after the election. Now he is only “mildly nauseated?” Rubbish!

This is not about Mr. Trump’s margin of victory, or Ms Clinton’s political mistakes that cost her the election. It is not about politics per se. It is about an action by a security agency that had any political impact at all–and about the actions of a director who knew, but stubbornly refused to acknowledge, his actions had that effect. The most plausible explanation for Comey’s actions–the argument I made at that very time–is that he was attempting to avoid criticism of the FBI (from Republicans) for alleged inactions in the email affair. If so, Mr. Comey was putting the FBI’s–and his own–interests ahead of those of the entire American political system. For that reason alone he should be gone.

Now Director Comey is on Capitol Hill asking for an unregulated extension of government surveillance powers, the so-called “Section 702” eavesdropping provision of the USA Freedom Act, set to expire this year. The head G-Man insists the spy powers are absolutely necessary. But now Mr. Comey has credibility and judgment problems. Americans can no longer believe what he says nor can they trust his judgment. That is the price of the FBI’s election interference.

Senate Intelligence Committee’s Mojo Coming Back?

March 31, 2017–Capitol Hill is a place of contrasts. The most recent is the startling difference between inquiries into the Russian Caper being mounted, respectively, by the United States House of Representatives and Senate. The House committee’s “inquiry” has been a pure smokescreen, engineered by a chairman acting as an operative of the Trump White House, in ways calculated to protect President Donald J. Trump from the consequences of his methods. (The jury is still out on what actually happened in the Russian Caper–and the appropriateness, even legality, of that–but it is quite clear that tactics used subsequently to distract attention and/or evade scrutiny are wholly unacceptable.) Democratic Party members of the House Committee are powerless in the face of California Republican Devin Nunes, the chairman. Nunes may be destroying any bipartisanship that existed among his colleagues, recasting himself as a laughing stock, but the practical effect of his actions has been to destroy the House investigation.

That leaves the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). Readers of this space will recall that during the time of the fight between the Senate committee and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) over the SSCI’s inquiry into the CIA torture program, my analysis was that the agency maneuvered to obstruct and emasculate its Hill overseers. Langley had good success doing so, enough that at the end of the day the SSCI seemed impotent. Now the Russian Caper plus the failure of the House inquiry casts the SSCI in the lead role for what probes that remain possible within the current framework.

The good news is that the SSCI, so far, seems to be stepping up to the plate. Over the past several weeks Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, the ranking opposition member and vice-chairman, has garnered most of the public attention, but has consistently held to a bipartisan approach, and said good things about how the Senate committee will proceed. Then on March 29 Senator Warner appeared with his chairman, North Carolina Republican Senator Richard Burr, at a joint press conference. For forty minutes they laid out how the SSCI will proceed, defended each other, and generally put on a good face.

Senator Burr had gotten off to a rocky start after taking the committee over from California’s Dianne Feinstein. Burr had demanded government agencies return all copies of the SSCI torture report to the committee, evidently intending to deep six the data, handing the final victory to CIA. Investigation of the Russian Caper–which calls Republican party loyalties into question–is an even more difficult proposition for the GOP senator than overseeing the agency.

But Burr and Warner are clearly together in this enterprise. Senator Warner spoke of thousands of documents handed over to the SSCI investigators, and the first public hearing the committee held, on March 30, pulled no punches, with a former FBI special agent discussing Russian active measures tactics. It seemed a good start. Perhaps the Senate intelligence committee is getting its mojo back. We’ll see.

Is the Cover-up Worse than the Crime?

March 29, 2017–Just back from a research trip. There were many days I longed to post here–so much has happened in the past several weeks. There was President’s Trump’s sudden accusation, leveled at predecessor Barack Obama, for personally wiretapping him last year. Then Trump’s dark hint evidence would emerge within a short time corroborating his charge. Then Representative Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) trotting up to the White House, mysteriously to be permitted to see the “evidence,” so he could step outside and run interference for the president yet again. That’s not the half of it. The fabulous Michael Flynn, it turns out, failed to register as a foreign agent while pocketing money from abroad, even while working with the Trump campaign. He also failed to obtain the required permissions from his former military colleagues. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, held meetings with the Russian ambassador, as well as bankers linked with the Kremlin, during the presidential transition. Impressario Roger Stone now concedes he was in touch with Russians as well as the web presence (individual? organization?) the Russians used as cut-out to toss hacked American political emails to Wikileaks last year. The FBI has affirmed in pubic that it  is conducting an investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. And Paul Manafort, erstwhile Trump campaign manager, has now been tied to cash transfers from Russia through Cyprus.

Meantime the selfsame Congressman Nunes has, deliberately or not, robbed HPSCI of all its credibility in investigating the Russian caper, since–despite his responsibility to be even-handed as committee chairman–Nunes has now repeatedly rushed to defend Trump and his political campaign even while supposedly investigating that very entity. Nunes has also cancelled open hearings that were intended to gather evidence. This sounds like nothing other than a pre-emptive defense.

Over the past few days there has been a veritable rush to volunteer testimony to congressional investigating bodies. Among those suddenly clamoring to be witnesses–where before they insisted there was no there there–are Messrs Kushner, Manafort, Stone, Carter Page and others. Beware the Iran-Contra poly–during the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra scandal the fact of having testified before Congress became a protection against criminal prosecution, because multiple courts dismissed prosecutors’ declarations they had obtained the same evidence independently of what had transpired before Congress.

Events also evoke the old Watergate adage: the cover-up is worse than the crime. Playing with the Russians, so long as it did not involve espionage or embezzlement, violated only limited numbers of statutes. Apart from a possible cut-out on the American side (Roger Stone?), for whom hacking and computer information laws may be implicated, legal liabilities remain fairly limited. But lying to the FBI is a felony crime, as is obstructing justice (say, by interfering with an investigation), or manufacturing “evidence” on a different allegation with an intent to distract or mislead an inquiry. The president’s spokesperson, Sean Spicer, skates on thin ice here. God knows what it cost Ron Ziegler, Mr. Nixon’s spokesman, to follow his boss during Watergate.

For those who favor investigation by a 9/11-style panel or a special prosecutor, so far the allegations lack in drama what they actually do possess in importance. Absent such a dramatic development–along the lines of the 18-minute gap in Mr. Nixon’s audiotapes, or the Oliver North destruction of evidence–the administration should be able to confine inquiries to conventional paths. My bets for the locus of such developments are (1) evidence of positive acts taken to backstop Mr. Trump’s tweets; or (2) concrete confirmation of deals between Trump campaign figures and the Russians.

For the moment everything rides on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), which, unfortunately, found itself emasculated during Barack Obama’s dark hours trumping the CIA torture investigation. Under its current chairman, Republican Richard Burr, there is not a lot of confidence the SSCI can investigate a paper bag.

Hold on to your hats!

The Russian Caper

March 4, 2017–Even as two days ago Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any inquiry on the Russian caper, the Trump White House was busily asserting that Mr. Sessions was being improperly accused. Just another step in this delicate dance. Let’s review the latest developments in the story of the Russian caper.

First, the Russians. The evidence on them grows by the day. Yesterday the New York Times reported that Dimitri K. Simes, of the Center for the National Interest, introduced the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergei I. Kislyak, to Donald J. Trump. That happened in April 2016 at a Center dinner. On March 2, Trump adviser Carter Page admitted on an MSNBC telecast, “All In with Chris Hayes,” that he had met with Ambassador Kislyak in Cleveland during the Republican Convention last July. Jeff Sessions who gave the nominating speech for Trump at Cleveland, also met with Kislyak at the convention. Michael T. Flynn, the retired Army general who initially led Trump’s national security staff, was in Cleveland too, but his contacts there with the Russian ambassador have yet to be established.

Now there are new skeins of yarn atop those. In the early days of the Trump campaign the candidate hardly had a foreign policy advisory shop. Just a few people, really, and Trump explicitly mentioned Carter Page as one of them. J.D. Gordon was another. Both participated in a Global Partners in Diplomacy round table event held at Case Western Reserve University during the convention, where they spoke afterwards with the Russian ambassador. Both men, when initially questioned, denied having met Mr. Kislyak. Equally to the point, Gordon had an official role at the convention as representing Trump’s interests on the Republican Platform Committee, and there he acted to block language in the party platform that would have condemned Russia’s aggressive actions in the Ukraine. Here the quid for the quo begins to come into view.

On July 25 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced it had begun investigating Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Two days after that Mr. Trump virtually invited the Russians to hack America, in the guise of asking if they could find emails of Hillary Clinton that were missing from her computer servers.

Jeff Sessions saw the Russian again, in Washington at the then-senator’s Capitol Hill office, on September 8. According to the assorted reports on the Russian hacking from U.S. security services, the cyber intrusions peaked around May 2016. Readers of this space will know that already last year we observed that the American spies botched their inquiry into the Russian caper by serving up watered down evidence that permitted both the Russians and the Republicans wide scope for denial. But you can see in this chronology a logical progression– the Russian links with Trump, Russian cyber positions itself to act, Russians apparently all over the Republican convention, Trump invites them to do more, Kislyak sees Sessions at least one other time.

Sessions’s role is underlined by the odd way he responded at his confirmation hearing for Attorney General, when asked if he would recuse himself from any U.S. investigation of the Russian Caper. Sessions did not answer that question at all. Instead the nominee talked about his contacts with Russians: “I didn’t have–did not have communications with the Russians.” Since Senator Sessions was under oath when he said this, the categorical denial amounted to perjury.

Another key Trumpian power player, son-in-law Jared Kushner, had more contacts with Ambassador Kislyak during the transitional period following the November 2016 vote. The Washington Post reminds us of an important Russian comment, just after the election, from deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, who told the Interfax news agency not only that there had been Russian contacts with the Trump campaign, but went on, “Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage.”

Now let’s bring back General Flynn. It became apparent shortly after Mr. Trump’s inauguration that, in December, when President Obama imposed sanctions on Russia to respond to the hacking, Flynn was on the phone to Kislyak the same day. The general lied to Vice-President Michael Pence about the contacts, leading the latter to spread falsehoods in defending the Trump campaign. Flynn’s lies were serious enough to force him to resign as national security adviser.

What is it that requires multiple participants to obfuscate, lie, or otherwise obscure their roles when asked about an activity? Guilty knowledge. This is not an individual event. There is a pattern here. Whether or not the conspiracy was criminal can be established only by investigation. The FBI itself is not entirely in the clear. Its questionable role adds to the mystery. It’s a good thing Mr. Sessions recused himself, but I fear America is going to need more than that to get to the bottom of this.

 

 

Beware the White Knight McMaster

February 23, 2017–Do you hear the swooning? The country is almost heaving sighs of relief over President Trump’s appointment of Army Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster to preside over the National Security Council (NSC) staff in place of the departed Michael T. Flynn. The oohs! and aaahs! are audible. Suddenly the perception is that Mr. Trump is enlisting an adult to run his inside-the-White House national security staff, so rationality will prevail. The gossip is also that the NSC structure Trump laid down in one of this early presidential directives will be revised (again) to bring back the director of national intelligence, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and CIA chieftain. Before we go too far, though, I want to register a “Not so fast!”

Part of the continuing problem is structural. What President Trump did, long before appointing McMasters as national security adviser, is create competing centers of power at the White House. None of them is the NSC staff. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, obviously has The Donald’s ear any time he needs it. Strategist Stephen Bannon reflects the political base of Trump’s power, and he has an agenda. He will not be crossed, or dismissed, unless the president decides on radical surgery and holds on to the tiller come what may. Reince Priebus mirrors the Republican party hierarchy that Mr. Trump needs to govern. He has an agenda too. For all of them the national security adviser is a target, someone to enlist to further their goals. Some objectives of the assorted White House power centers may overlap but others do not–and no amount of overlapping is going to do away with the equally thorny competition among the potentates for who gets the credit for each thing they do.

From this point of view Mike Flynn actually had an advantage. As an ideologue on his own account, one whose opinions were close to Trump’s, Flynn almost had the jets to stand up to the policy predators. General McMaster lacks such preordained positions. He might have strong prescriptions for strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq, but across the Trump administration policy spectrum McMaster has an empty file cabinet waiting to be filled. Expect to see more, rather than less, engagement from the predators.

Much of the relief bandied about with General McMaster’s appointment centers on the historical conclusions he drew in a Vietnam history published in 1997, Dereliction of Duty. Many see McMaster as finding the military leaders at the time of Vietnam as wanting–failing in their duty to tell truth to power and kowtowing to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (LBJ) agenda by keeping their silence and not telling him his strategy was flawed. That construction is mistaken. General McMaster actually delivered a much more conventional interpretation in which LBJ, the military’s civilian leaders, and the White House staff shared responsibility. The secretary of defense at the time, Robert McNamara, in this version of history, moved from distrusting the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to misleading them, and McNamara plus LBJ created the illusion that decisions to attack North Vietnam were alternatives to war rather than war itself. According to this logic the course led to planning for failure, and then a war without direction.

I critiqued McMaster’s analysis in 2009 in my book Unwinnable War  where I noted a number of things off with that construction. For one, LBJ’s views on Vietnam were opaque, and varied from day to day. McMaster cited only the telephone conversations where Johnson wanted no war, not those where LBJ spoke of “touching up” Hanoi. It is true that Robert McNamara rode herd on the JCS, but the charge the military were derelict is thin. Quite the opposite is true: every time they were asked for an opinion the Chiefs recited a litany that included cross-border operations into Laos, bombing, mining, and ground troops in great numbers. That litany would be recited as early as the Tonkin Gulf incident of August 1964, and over time they added more elements. In 1967, when Congress held hearings on the bombing, the military openly and publicly denounced McNamara’s approach. As for the directionless war, there is no evidence the Joint Chiefs had any more innovative a military strategy in mind than did the president.

Meanwhile, senior military leaders were well aware of the political impact of their public views. Then–as now–the military were guarded and diffident about what they said. H. R. McMaster should have been well attuned to that aspect, which, at the time he was writing, had most recently been demonstrated in the Gulf War of 1990-1991, when Joint Chiefs chairman Colin L. Powell had kept silent his differences with then-defense secretary Dick Cheney. What goes around comes around–in the prelude to the Iraq invasion of 2003, Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki did openly express a different view from his political superiors–and he was promptly let go. The diffident silence which McMaster found so objectionable when looking back at Vietnam is the norm, not the exception.

In the Trump administration today the military has a different planetary configuration. It is not only General McMaster as security adviser, but also General James Mattis as secretary of defense, and General John F. Kelly as secretary for homeland security. Other military men occupy numerous positions on the NSC staff, including McMaster’s current deputy. Some of the public’s relief at the McMaster appointment actually stems from the thought these officers will be the “adults” who rein in the outlandish proposals of the president and his henchmen, but that is unlikely for two reasons: the norm of deferring to the political leadership (reinforced in McMaster’s case, by the way, because he remains on active duty, and therefore subject to regulations about what can be said about [and to] a chief executive); and the limited knowledge and experience of these military men outside their chosen profession. Meanwhile McMaster will be under intense pressure to conform to the views of the various White House power centers.

The McMaster appointment does not get citizens out of the woods. President Trump’s activities will continue to provoke and  distress. A more likely role for the military men in this presidency–as General Mattis has already shown–is to sooth nerves shaken up by the president. We’ll see.