During the recent angry exchanges between Trump and Clinton campaign operatives at a forum at Harvard University, Kellyanne Conway asked Democrat operatives, “Hashtag he’s your president. How’s that? Will you ever accept the election results?" Perhaps the more important question is will Donald Trump.
Donald Trump won big, and--to paraphrase former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan--he just can't take yes for an answer. Winning has not been enough. As in all manner of things, Trump is driven to claim that he won a victory of historic proportions--despite the fact that his electoral college victory ranks 46th out of 58 elections in our nation's history. First, there were the tweets spurring on the faithful to believe that millions voted illegally. Then, Trump directly asserted that but for those purported illegal votes, he won the popular vote as well.
Now, in response to reports of a CIA assessment--subsequently embraced by the FBI--that the Russian government worked to support his election, Trump and his team shifted into overdrive, turning their fire on the CIA, asserting, inaccurately, the historic proportions of the Trump victory: “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."
The frailty of Donald Trump's ego has been on display for more than a year now--both his love for those who shower him with praise and his instinct, in Melania's words, to "punch back 10 times harder" when he is attacked. The CIA report was not about him, but rather the conduct of a global adversary, yet Trump felt compelled to view the CIA report as a personal attack, authored with the intention to impugn the legitimacy of what he is now framing as a titanic victory. Oddly, by his tweet storm it was Trump who focused public attention on the notion that without the help of Vladimir Putin, he might not have won the election.
Donald Trump has never won--or lost--an election before. Close elections in particular are replete with accusations and explanations for what affected the results: the ad that someone ran, or the ad that they decided not to run; heavy rain on election day that suppressed turnout; national events that refocused voter attention. There are any number of things that supporters of a losing campaign will bring up as they try to explain their loss in a close race. But it is hard to recall a race where the winning side spent so much effort to explain why they won.
There is nothing new in suggestions by the intelligence community that Russia was attempting to meddle in the U.S. election, or that Vladimir Putin felt a particular animus toward Hillary Clinton. He viewed her as the instigator of U.S. efforts to meddle in Russia's 2011 election, and a significant threat to Russian interests. The Russian information operation against Hillary Clinton involving first the theft and then the strategic leaking of opposition research and emails stolen from the DNC and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta began well before Putin had any idea who the Republican nominee would be. As hard as it is for Trump to imagine, it really was not about him. The emergence of Trump and the prospect of supporting the election of an American President who routinely went out of his way to praise the Russian leader has simply been icing on the cake.
So far, Putin's efforts have produced results beyond anything he could have imagined when he set out to undermine Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions. Trump's election and the ensuing nomination of Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State have offered hope to the Russians that a wedge can be driven between the U.S. and the European Union, leading the U.S. to drop economic sanctions imposed in the wake of Russia's intervention in eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. But Trump's rejection of the CIA report and his general disdain for the intelligence community has suggested to Putin and the FSB--the successor agency of the KGB--the prospect of achieving the Holy Grail of driving a wedge between the CIA itself and the American President.
Last summer, former CIA head Michael Morell suggested that Vladimir Putin "had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation." To recruit Trump, Morell noted, "Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him. He responded just as Mr. Putin had calculated." Witting or otherwise, playing to Trump's vanity--his characteristic that makes him both susceptible to flattery and enraged by insults--has become a proven effective strategy, and when you win over Trump, he brings the enthusiastic embrace of his core supporters along for the ride.
Man of the Year interview in Time magazine, as he has at myriad rallies over the course of the campaign. And his supporters who are now driving the Republic Party have dutifully responded. Based on a recent Economist/YouGuv poll, GOP attitudes toward Putin have shifted significantly to align with Trump. Putin's net "favorable/unfavorable" rating among Republicans has improved from -65 (meaning something on the order of 17% positive/83% negative) to -10 (roughly 45%/55%), while only 12% of Trump supporters share the consensus view of the intelligence community that Russia was responsible for the election hacking.
It is hard to know at this point, after 18 months of the Donald Trump for President reality show, if it is his arrogance, narcissism or ignorance that Vladimir Putin found to be the greatest vulnerability that he could exploit. After 18 months during which Donald Trump has trampled whatever rules used to exist for those who aspire to be President, the President-elect has learned that he can do literally whatever he wants and no one will challenge him. Over the past two weeks, he has been unable to resist his overwhelming need to attack the intelligence services because he views their analysis of the evidence--embraced in a bipartisan manner on Capitol Hill--as a personal attack on him and a blemish on the defining nature of his electoral triumph. He is incapable of considering that Vladimir Putin might be playing him.
Donald Trump won the presidential election. Kellyanne Conway should stop yelling at Democrats and try to get her boss to understand that. If he insists on viewing CIA assessments that don't comport with what he wants to hear as acts of insubordination against the Commander in Chief, Vladimir Putin will have scored the biggest victory of all--whether or not his information operation against Hillary Clinton was a determining factor in her defeat, and Donald Trump's victory.