Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Russia dossier.

The Tweet: Golden shower or no, Russian agent or not, Donald Trump is proving to be a gift beyond Vladimir Putin's wildest dream.

Is Donald Trump a witting or unwitting agent of Russian intelligence as I posited in this space six weeks ago? Former CIA head Michael Morrell raised the issue of Trump being an unwitting agent of the Russian FSB in a New York Times op-ed last August. Now, the question of a more direct relationship has been asserted by the now-infamous dossier on Russian efforts to influence the Presidential election. The latter suggestion is a ludicrous notion on its face, and one that most Republicans and many Democrats must view as lying in the realm of conspiracy.

"Fake news!" was Donald Trump's response to questions about the dossier at his press conference last week. Yet the fact that the dossier was presented to Trump and FBI Director James Comey personally briefed him about it the Friday before the press conference made it news, regardless of how one assesses the content. Fake news is now the stock response of our President-elect to any news that paints him in a negative light, not simply blurring the line between the onslaught of real fake news stories that abounded during the presidential election and the serious institution of journalism, but wiping away the line altogether.

Donald Trump promised that he would disrupt our politics, and he has delivered. His press conference this week was a contentious, chaotic demonstration of what we can expect as a matter of routine going forward. Things will be combative and chaotic because our new president loves combat and chaos. Keeping people on edge is one of the ways he asserts control. He shows no respect for the institution of the press, both because, ironically, denigrating the press assures him more attention and more press, and because attacking the media plays well with his base. As Donald Trump has shown us, he cares about two things--media attention and the adulation of his base--and last week both were on display in spades.

The chaos of the press conference was a further reflection of the fundamental disregard that Trump has for the core institutions of our democracy. Over the past year and a half, he demonstrated repeatedly--in his attacks on Judge Curiel and the Central Park 5--his disdain for the judiciary. And he demonstrated time and time again his willingness to the undermine public confidence in our electoral system if it served his own interests. And then there is his disdain for the press. Not freedom of the press, but the institution of the press itself.

"You know," Trump went on, apparently oblivious to the irony of his words, "I’ve been hearing more and more about a thing called fake news and they’re talking about people that go and say all sorts of things." This from a man who built his public persona and political power base through the cultivation of fake news and conspiracy theory. Years before he became a national celebrity on The Apprentice, Donald Trump honed his craft of cultivating media attention as a fixture of the New York tabloids. He made his bones nationally as a fake news impresario as he single handedly made the Birther movement a force in our politics. He used a false story linking Ted Cruz's father to the assassination of JFK to dispose of his last Republican rival on the eve of the Indiana Primary. Yet there he stood last week, railing away at the assembled media.

"I will tell you, some of the media outlets that I deal with are fake news more so than anybody. I could name them, but I won’t bother, but you have a few sitting right in front of us. They’re very, very dishonest people, but I think it’s just something we’re going to have to live with." 

Yes, if nothing else became clear at his press conference this week, as Trump announced his plan to put his business interests in the hands of his sons, fake news and dishonest people are going to be part of our future.

Trump's ire--though it was not ire at all, but rather theatre--effectively sidetracked much discussion of the dossier on purported Russian efforts to influence the Presidential election. That dossier, prepared by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele for a private client, is a series of memos ostensibly written from June through December of last year.

The memos claim to report on discussions with sources in the Russian government as well as Trump associates. The memos describe Putin as motivated both by visceral hatred of Hillary Clinton as well as long-standing Russian hostility toward liberal democracies encroaching on Russia's borders and influencing its neighboring states. There is nothing inherently implausible about the descriptions in the memos of Russian efforts to influence our election, and the dossier is an interesting read if only on the perspective it suggests on Russian motivations at the highest levels.

The objective of the Russian information operation as described in the dossier was to achieve long-standing Russian objectives to undermine NATO and liberal western democracies through a combination of psychological, cyber and propaganda efforts that it had been unable to achieve through diplomatic initiatives or military intimidation. As stated in the dossier:

The Russian authorities had been cultivating and supporting US Republican presidential candidate, Donald TRUMP for at least 5 years. Source B asserted that the TRUMP operation was both supported and directed by Russian President Vladimir PUTIN. Its aim was to sow discord and disunity both within the US itself, but more especially within the Transatlantic alliance which was viewed as inimical to Russia's interests. Source C, a senior Russian financial official said the TRUMP operating should be seen in terms of PUTIN's desire to return to Nineteenth Century 'Great Power' politics anchored upon countries' interests rather than the ideals-based international order established after World War Two.

The report is silent on what other Americans had been cultivated during the same period as Trump, and indeed there is no reason to imagine that the operation dating back years--if it existed--would have only chosen him. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, new American Presidents have imagined that they could build a new relationship with Russia, yet each failed to recognize the singular Russian obsession with encirclement by the west and its territorial integrity. The core Russian objectives described in the series of memos of sowing political discord within and between the western democracies and weakening NATO has been a long-standing Putin project, and is one that may well reach full flower with the election of Trump and the rising influence of right wing political parties in Europe that are less antagonistic toward Russia. One Russian source is cited by Steele as explaining why the Kremlin initiated such an aggressive effort on Trump's behalf:

Russia needed to upset the liberal international status quo, including on Ukraine-related sanctions, which was seriously disadvantaging the country. TRUMP was viewed as divisive in disrupting the whole US political system: anti-Establishment; and a pragmatist with whom the could do business.

Notably, the dossier suggests that while Trump had been willing to share information with the Russians over the years, he declined to bite on their offers of financial inducements. This was the context of the aspects of the dossier that are most salacious and have accordingly received the most attention in the media here, but ultimately are the least convincing or interesting aspects of the dossier with respect to what they illustrate about Russian intentions.

The Kremlin's cultivation operation on TRUMP also had comprised offering him various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia, especially in relation to the ongoing 2018 World Cup soccer tournament. However, so far, for reasons unknown, TRUMP had not taken up any of these... However, there were other aspects to TRUMP's engagement with Russian authorities. One which had born fruit for them was to exploit TRUMP's personal obsessions and sexual perversion in order to obtain suitable 'kompromat' (compromising material) on him.

Unfortunately, media focus on the few salacious paragraphs has overshadowed the light that the dossier claims to offer on Vladimir Putin's determination to destabilize and undermine public faith in democracy in this country. It may be that the entire document is itself an information operation concocted to stir up anti-Russian animosity by parties opposed to Donald Trump's apparent inclination to build an alliance with Putin, but the aspects of the dossier that reflect Russian motivations pursuing their own national interests ring true. Christopher Steele, the author of the dossier, is not a 400 pound Macedonian teenager making up fake news in his bedroom; his British colleagues attest to his credibility. He describes the anger within the Trump camp that their collaboration with Russia might contribute to the overarching  Russian objective of undermining U.S. democratic institutions:

TRUMP's associate also admitted that there was a fair amount of anger and resentment within the Republican candidate's team at what was perceived by PUTIN as going beyond the objective of weakening CLINTON and bolstering TRUMP, by attempting to exploit the situation to undermine the US government and democratic system more generally. 

If undermining our democratic system is Putin's objective, Donald Trump is his man whether or not the dossier is fake. Under the guise of disruption and change, Trump has continued to demonstrate his disdain for the core institutions that support our democracy--the electoral system, the independent judiciary, and the media--and encouraged his supporters to share that disdain. Over the course of his campaign, and now as we approach his inauguration, Trump has managed to take a nation that was already deeply divided and deepen those fissures. Public faith in those institutions is critical to the strength of our democracy. Without that faith, we risk becoming closer to Russia that we might imagine to be possible, which is exactly what Vladimir Putin has in mind.

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

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