In 1962, MGM released The Manchurian Candidate, a classic Cold War political thriller. The convoluted plot involves the capture, brainwashing, and release of a squad of U.S. soldiers serving in the Korean War who, once returned to civilian life, become unwitting agents of the international communist agenda. The communists’ ultimate goal is the election of a pliable American president beholden to foreign interests rather than to the American people.
Interestingly, the actual candidate in the film—the fictional Senator John Iselin—is neither brainwashed nor the recruited agent of a foreign power. He is simply the communists’ useful idiot, the pawn of their machinations whose stupidity happily plays into their own agenda (thanks to his wife, the actual communist agent and mastermind of the conspiracy).
In other words, you don’t have to believe the candidate himself is treasonous to recognize that his presidency would undermine American national security interests.
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
The new 35-page document alleging ties between Trump and Russia that came to light recently is irrelevant to the broader story. Even excluding that document’s fantastical claims (which seem too convenient to be true, almost designed to engender skepticism), there is already a well-established relationship between the two.
Donald Trump and Russia President Vladimir Putin have a famous bromance. A year ago Putin called Trump “colorful and talented.” Trump responded by describing Putin as a “strong leader.” These comments echoed years of mutual admiration. In 2007 Trump praised Putin for “doing a great job…rebuilding Russia.” In 2011 he described Putin’s plan to dominate Europe through control of oil supplies—which is a real thing, but Trump’s response was telling. “I respect Putin…Hats off to the Russians,” he said, of a dictator’s attempt to blackmail America’s closest allies with economic strangulation. In 2015 he expressed belief that he and Putin would “get along very well,” and boasted that together they got great TV ratings on 60 Minutes.
Putin is, according to most other sources, a murderer and tyrant who ended any semblance of a free and open society in Russia since taking power 17 years ago. None of which seems to bother Trump: in response to allegations that Putin ordered the murder of independent journalists in Russia, Trump said, “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country…I think our country does plenty of killing also.”
Under the rules of standard diplomatic protocol, American officials usually condemn foreign governments for extrajudicial killings, rather than praise them and draw a moral equivalence between them and the United States. President Barack Obama came into office hoping to “reset” relations with Russia, and he was rightly criticized by conservatives and national security professionals for his naiveté and fecklessness. Trump’s approach to Russia goes way beyond Obama’s in the same direction.
Trump Publicly Encouraged Russia to Hack His Opponent
After this public love-fest, in July 2016 Trump publicly encouraged Russia to conduct cyber espionage against his domestic political opponent. “Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said, referring to emails missing from the private email server Hillary Clinton wrongfully used while serving as Secretary of State. Trump’s comments were widely, and rightly, condemned by officials and pundits across the political spectrum.
Trump subsequently doubled down with a tweet:
If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 27, 2016
Espionage is, obviously, a federal crime, as is aiding and abetting a foreign intelligence agency. Trump’s comments do not rise to that level, but it is hard to find the right word to describe the spectacle of a major presidential candidate encouraging a foreign power to interfere in America’s judicial and electoral process. That is probably why Trump’s campaign tried to pass his comments off as a joke.
Whether responding to Trump’s invitation or acting on their own, Russian intelligence agents were already doing something similar to what Trump encouraged them to do.
Over the summer WikiLeaks made public tens of thousands of embarrassing and revealing documents and emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. WikiLeaks purports to be media organization that “specializes in the analysis and publication of large datasets of censored or otherwise restricted official materials.” That is spin for “private-sector espionage organization” that steals proprietary and classified information.
The first organization to identify Russia as the culprit and the source of the WikiLeaks documents was not the U.S. intelligence community. It was CrowdStrike, a private-sector cybersecurity firm hired by the DNC to examine its servers. CrowdStrike noted “two separate Russian intelligence-affiliated adversaries present in the DNC network.” The hackers were “some of the best adversaries out of all the numerous nation-state, criminal and hacktivist/terrorist groups we encounter on a daily basis,” whose tradecraft was so sophisticated that CrowdStrike judged them to be “advanced methods consistent with nation-state level capabilities.”
CrowdStrike concluded, “Both adversaries engage in extensive political and economic espionage for the benefit of the government of the Russian Federation and are believed to be closely linked to the Russian government’s powerful and highly capable intelligence services.” Two other private-sector firms later backed up CrowdStrike’s conclusions.
In October, the U.S. intelligence community weighed in. The U.S. Director for National Intelligence, Jim Clapper, issued a joint statement together with the Department of Homeland Security: “The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations,” they said. “These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process.”
In December and January, U.S. intelligence officials added to their judgment a new assessment about Russia’s intentions: Russia’s actions were intended to help Trump and weaken Clinton. Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper testified before Congress this month, “We assess that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized the recent election-focused data thefts and disclosures, based on the scope and sensitivity of the targets.”
In an extraordinary move, his office then released the unclassified conclusions of a longer report about Russia’s actions. “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” according to the topline judgment. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
Notably, hackers also reportedly gained access to the Republican National Committee—but have not (yet) leaked any embarrassing documents. It could be the entire staff of the RNC is so professional and courteous, and have been since the dawn of the computing age, that there is not a single damning or embarrassing revelation in the entire electronic archive of the Republican Party. Or it could be that the hackers had an agenda and selectively leaked information most favorable to their purposes.
There is no evidence that Russia’s interference changed the outcome of the American election—which should be comforting to no one. Russia’s interference is, by itself, deeply disturbing, regardless of the outcome.
Trump Criticized U.S. Intelligence
Trump has gone out of his way to contradict the overwhelming consensus that Russia undertook a covert operation to interfere in the United States’ electoral process. He also cast doubt on the competency and usefulness of the U.S. intelligence community.
In one of the weirdest press releases of an already-unconventional political operation, the Trump team responded to the reports about Russia’s actions in December with a statement that said, simply, “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. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”
Later, when asked about the reports of Russia’s actions, Trump replied “I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it.” Trump also boasted about not taking the President’s Daily Brief every day because “I’m, like, a smart person,” and could serve as his own intelligence analyst. In January, after a briefing with senior intelligence leadership, Trump softened his stance, slightly. He conceded that Russia, like China and others, is continuously trying to infiltrate America’s cyber defenses.
Trump tweeted that if the roles were reversed and he were accusing Clinton of collusion with Russian intelligence, the claims would be dismissed as a wild conspiracy theory.
Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 12, 2016
To be fair, Trump is probably right—except, in this case, the wild conspiracy theory has been corroborated by multiple private-sector cybersecurity firms and American intelligence agencies.
Trump appears poised to reorient U.S. foreign policy in a fundamentally pro-Russian direction. Trump suggested in the summertime that he was open to recognizing Crimea as Russian territory (it was part of Ukraine until Russia invaded and annexed it in 2014). His pick for Secretary of State, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, has publicly opposed the U.S. sanctions regime against Russia. His National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, advocates closer ties with Russia.
But that may not be Putin’s most important victory. Even if Trump decides to turn on Russia and keep or escalate sanctions—which is possible considering Trump’s mercurial temperament—Putin has already achieved another strategic objective. He has long worked to undermine the appeal of democracy and, by association, American leadership. Nothing about the past year has enhanced America’s reputation or its standing in the world.
Russia did not brainwash Trump or recruit him as a sleeper agent. The veracity of Buzzfeed’s 35-page document detailing five years of alleged ties between Trump and Moscow is irrelevant. Even if it turns out to be a fabrication (which I think is likely), the relationship between Trump and Russia is still cause for concern. Like the original Manchurian candidate, Trump himself was not the target of Russia’s influence operation. He was simply the convenient tool whose usefulness to Russia redounded to Trump’s accidental benefit. Trump’s behavior and beliefs were already consistent with Russian interests.
As Michael Morell, former head of the CIA, wrote last fall, “In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” Unwitting: in other words, Trump has no idea and does not care that his views, his agenda, and his tweeting play right into Putin’s hands. In its campaign to make American leadership look ridiculous, the Kremlin can now count on the President of the United States to be Russia’s “useful idiot.”
Paul D. Miller teaches public policy at The University of Texas at Austin. He is a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He previously served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Bush and Obama.
Photo Credit: President-elect Trump visits President Obama at the White House on November 10, 2016. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.