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.

West Wing Chaos

February 15, 2017–It used to be said of Frank Wisner, operations chief of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the high Cold War, that he would give the identical assignment to a half dozen different people and then sit back to see who brought him the first results. As a device for pushing the CIA toward producing outcomes, Wisner’s technique might have had something going for it, but as a management tool it was a vehicle that produced a state of constant chaos.

Donald Trump–would you believe it?–is up to something very similar. Political strategist Stephen Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus, “adviser” Jared Kushner, all seem to have the same instructions. The difference between the way CIA’s Wisner utilized this method, and the way it is in the West Wing today, is that in the Cold War the object of the action was foreign nations, while in Trump’s White House today the aim is simply to seize control over the reins of government.

The fall of Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser inaugurates the next phase in this inside struggle. A weak national security staff never found its footing, leaving one of the most important functional areas of U.S. government action up for grabs. Since President Trump himself has articulated nothing more than vague, subjective visions, the person who can turn the Trump’s longings into a concrete foreign policy stands to gain control of the process.

Meanwhile the bloodletting across government will continue and deepen. I made the point in this space at least as early as the election itself that Trump would purge the U.S. intelligence agencies because they knew stuff damaging to him that flowed from events during the political campaign. The fall of General Flynn shows that point to have been precisely correct. One place the attrition will take aim quickly will be CIA at Langley, and its other companion agencies. So much for Trump’s day-after-the-inauguration appearance at Langley, where he promised the spooks so much backing they’d get sick of it.

While all this is going on, have you noticed a “United States foreign policy”? Right. Neither have I. The infighting is creating a policy vacuum. That might not be such a bad thing, since so many of Mr. Trump’s inchoate visions are so dark, but the point is that instead of taking grasp of the reins of government, the president is the helpless driver of a runaway stagecoach, its reins slapping along the ground. Senator John McCain is right to say the White House is “dysfunctional” on national security.

Bannon Balloons

February 3, 2017–The remarkable rise of Steve Bannon is the talk of several towns I know. For the moment the conventional wisdom seems to be that Mr. Bannon is taking over the National Security Council (NSC) staff from Mike Flynn and that his influence in the White House is unmatched. It was Bannon and Jared Kushner who attended on the president and helped Trump at the moment of his decision for the SEAL raid into Yemen that killed the Al-Awlaki child. And it’s reported that Bannon is seeking his own spokesperson–a sure sign of visions of self-importance in Washington.

There’s no time for anything substantial today, but if there is a battle for the White House I’d not put my money on Bannon. As noted in this space the other day, Reince Priebus is there to put shots across the bow at the NSC. Another strain of going for broke is that Bannon cannot ultimately compete with the Trump family. It was Ivanka, not the chief strategist, who accompanied the president to receive the body of the SEAL killed on that mission.

The thing about hot air balloons is that you have to pump them up without ceasing. If the air cools they fall to earth. If it escapes–say from a shot that breaches the balloon membrane–they crash.