Sunday, December 18, 2016

Manchurian President.

The Tweet: Did Putin recruit Trump as his unwitting agent? Putin won a major information warfare campaign and all Trump seems to care about is whether it makes him look bad.

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.

“Why not get along with Russia?” Trump asked in his recent 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.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Saturday, December 10, 2016


The Tweet: GOP leaders are cowering as Donald Trump's power grows and his behavior becomes more egregious and destructive to the nation. Have they no shame?

Has there been a more shameful performance than the one put on by Mitt Romney? The Ken doll of modern politics, Mitt always looks good in a suit, but now that he has been stripped bare of his last vestiges of dignity, the suit still looks good, but the man has become a hollow shell of himself.

He seemed so comfortable eating frogs' legs with Donald Trump at the three-star Michelin restaurant in New York, Jean George, but you just know that Trump was just playing with him. Chris Christie had gone down this path, put his chips all in with the Trump campaign. Christie believed he had lost out for the VP nod by a hair, but was still hoping for something big--Attorney General or White House Chief of Staff perhaps? Somehow he thought the fact that he had thrown Jered Kushner's father into federal prison when he was U.S. Attorney would not be a problem. All seemed forgiven.

But nothing is forgiven, not the big ones. Christie, somehow, forgot the age-old wisdom deeply seated in his New Jersey roots. Unlike the sautéed frogs' legs at Jean George, revenge is a dish best eaten cold.

Mitt Romney had spoken cold, hard truths. Donald Trump is a con man and a charlatan, and there are likely many bombshells hidden in those tax returns. Somehow, after his scalding rebuke of the Republican candidate and holding the Never Trump line until the votes were counted, he fell for the bait floated out there by Team Trump. Mitt Romney for Secretary of State. An olive branch to the Never Trumpers, and all was forgiven.

Mitt bit, and bit hard. With the hook firmly implanted in his ego, he walked out of Trump Tower and lavished praise on the President-elect. Romney--referred to now as Reek online, the castrated character in Game of Thrones--lauded his vision and leadership, even as he flushed what remained of his integrity into the gutter along Fifth Avenue. We will never see those tax returns and Mitt Romney will never reign supreme over Foggy Bottom. Donald Trump holds all the cards now, and Romney's humiliation will soon be complete.

We are in the middle of a freak show. For more than a year now, people have been waiting to see if Donald Trump would pivot. This can't be all there is, the narcissism, the hubris and the fragile ego? But it is all there is.

And he lies, oh, how he lies. Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump's confident and erstwhile campaign manager, scolded the media in the fracas that broke out at the Harvard Kennedy School last week between the Trump and Clinton campaign staffs that they erred in talking Donald Trump's word literally.

Ted Cruz--no stranger to humiliation at Trump’s hands--summed it up best back in May, when he observed that Trump is a pathological liar. "He could say one thing in the morning, one thing at noon and one thing in the evening, all contradictory and he'd pass the lie detector test each time. Whatever lie he's telling, at that minute he believes it." But as Lewandowski would have it, the onus is on the rest of us to decide when his words have meaning, and when they don't. Kinda like the children of alcoholic parents.

There is a serious problem with Lewandowski's suggestion as to how to live in the Trump universe, where we are each responsible for parsing fact from fiction. When the President-elect tweets out “Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California" his supporters believe his words. Then for the next several news cycles, the media is--as it should be--consumed themselves in pointing out the lack of evidence to support the statement. But evidence has not mattered to Donald Trump since June 16, 2015 when he announced his candidacy for president and in that first speech previewed everything that was to come. Did he actually believe his tweet about voter fraud? In the moment, perhaps, as Cruz suggests, but that is not the point. The tweet was purposeful for Trump in the moment. It provided counter-narrative to his defeat in the popular vote, even as it demonstrated his willingness to undermine public confidence in one of our core democratic institutions--our electoral system--if it served his own interests.

On Face the Nation last Sunday, RNC Chairman and incoming Chief of Staff Reince Priebus exemplified the problem facing the Republican Party. When John Dickerson used the voter fraud tweet as an example to ask how Priebus handles Donald Trump's statements that he knows not to be true, Priebus hedged, "I don’t know if that’s not true, John... It's possible.”

Republicans--some of them, anyway--have to be horrified as they watch the continuing antics of the man who will soon occupy the Oval Office in their name. They have to be horrified to watch as people like Priebus and Mitt Romney sell the last vestiges of their souls to curry favor with a man who proves each day that he lacks the maturity and respect for our core institutions to serve in the office to which he has been elected.

Over the past few days, the depth of the problem has continued to escalate. There was nothing new in the childishness of Trump's tweet attacking Chuck Jones, a union leader who had the temerity to question Trump's claims regarding the number of jobs that had been saved at the Carrier plant in Indiana. But the massive response on social media from Trump supporters viciously attacking and threatening Jones brought new focus on the power that our President-elect wields to rain, if not the wrath of God, at least the wrath of his tens of millions of acolytes upon those who criticize him. “This is," noted Nicolle Wallace, White House Communications Director for George W. Bush, "a strategy to bully somebody who dissents." Trump tweets out the dog whistle, and the pack of dogs descend on the offending party. Any reasonable observer must, Wallace suggested, find it "dark and disturbing.” They are the brown shirts of the social media age, observed Glenn Beck, former right-wing talk show impresario.

As Mitt Romney paid his obeisance to the new leader of his party, he must have cringed inside. But the time for cringing has passed. Republicans--and they are the only ones whose opinions will matter--are going to have to think hard about the conduct and temperament of the man that they have proven far too willing to embrace. This is not about who he appoints to what positions; elections have consequences, as Barack Obama observed, and to the victor goes the spoils. This is about the willful undermining by the President-elect of institutions essential to our democracy. Republicans like Reince Priebus can hem and haw and deny the elephant in the room, but everyone can now see it for what it is, and he and other GOP leaders are ultimately are the only people who can do anything about it.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.