National Security & Defense

Russia, Putin, and Trump — Untangling the Conspiracy Theories

(Photo: Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/via Reuters)
Whatever he is, the new president is not the Manchurian candidate.

Today there occurs the first telephone call between President Trump and Russian President Putin. It will be a significant moment because both men have suggested that they want a better Russo–American relationship to be a main element in their foreign policies. That’s bound to be controversial when Russia is engaged in an ongoing war in Ukraine. But it’s especially so because allegations have been circulating in recent weeks that Russia “hacked” the U.S. presidential election to elect Trump. U.S. intelligence agencies have issued statements supporting the milder versions of this theory. And private intelligence agencies with links not only to them but also to Britain’s MI6 have been peddling salacious stories that Trump was probably vulnerable to blackmail by Russian intelligence, if he was not actually a Russian agent, the Manchurian candidate in fact. Some important people have been seriously worried by these stories; some Democrats and Never Trumpers, seriously delighted by them. So will Trump open up the conversation on some such lines as “Reporting in, boss. What is it today? Blowing up Brussels? Or switching sides on Ukraine?”

Some odd things are happening. But what? I think we should be told.

Maybe I should start with a brief declaration of non-interest. This article is not prompted by pro-Trump partisanship. I was a supporter of Ted Cruz in the primaries and, late in the day, urged voting for Trump in the general election because I thought Hillary Clinton was the greater threat to American liberty. I was delighted that Trump made immigration a major election-winning issue but very dubious about his economic protectionism. I hoped that despite his flaws, he would bring new constituencies of “forgotten Americans” into the GOP tent, as he seems to have done. And I was (and am) mystified by the apparent contradictions in his personality, since he seems to be by turns calculating and impulsive, harsh and generous, shrewd and clueless, ignorant and well informed, a lonely decision-maker surrounded by loyal friends and helpful advisers. It’s sensible to be worried about how such a complex figure will perform as president but rash to make firm predictions about it.

Okay, now to the nub, the gist, or the kernel of the controversy. Did Russia hack the U.S. presidential election? And the answer is plainly “No.” The commonsense meaning of “hacking the election” is using electronic methods to turn votes for A into votes for B. That never happened. Or, to be precise, no one has produced any evidence of its happening or any other reason to think it might have happened. My distinguished colleagues, Andrew McCarthy, Victor Davis Hanson, and Michael Barone have all produced variations on this point, and they have not been effectively answered. So, the election was not hacked, not for anyone’s benefit.

Let us dial down the outrage, then, and ask: Did the Russians try to influence the election? And the answer is that of course they did. If they think they can influence a U.S. election, they will do so — and most of the time they can do so legitimately by saying or hinting that they prefer one candidate to another. Most of the time, too, they prefer the incumbent to the challenger because they have usually learned to work with him after four years. Our NATO allies think exactly the same way. It doesn’t always play to the advantage of the more Russophile or (in past times) the pro-Soviet candidate. (The Soviets preferred Nixon over McGovern.) And the technical term for this kind of thing is diplomacy, albeit low-risk diplomacy.

On the other hand, if the Russians believe they can influence the election illegitimately — which will be rarely — they have to weigh the risks of doing so against the likely benefits of getting their favorite into the White House. A Henry Wallace might tip the scales toward such intervention; few other candidates would meet this standard — and Hillary Clinton does not qualify on the other side as someone whom the Russians would take risks to keep out of the White House. As secretary of state she accepted the Russian occupation of Georgia, withdrew the missile-defense programs from Poland and the Czech Republic, ignored the public appeal of East European leaders for a stronger U.S. commitment to resist Russian threats to their region, and pressed the famous “reset button” to signify a warmer relationship with Russia after the pro-democracy excesses of the George W. Bush years. She’s their kind of gal.

And, in addition, it seems that, like almost everyone else, they thought she was going to win.

The only circumstances in which the Kremlin might want to risk terminally alienating the potential next U.S. president would be if she offered them her head on a platter — which is exactly what Mrs. Clinton did when she installed a private server in someone’s basement and started playing fast and loose with U.S. security rules on secret communications. Leaking the results through some third party like WikiLeaks went from low-risk diplomacy to no-risk diplomacy because of the embarrassing fact that the stories being leaked were true.

This is now in danger of being forgotten or repressed in the rush to condemn Trump, but it explains why a Russian intelligence service might risk annoying the next tenant of the White House. There are limits to both risks and retaliation when all you are doing is accurately quoting your opponent. Mrs. Clinton and other Democrats are very assiduously drawing a veil over the outrageous things that the Russians are supposed to have done because their victim was also their accomplice. It is now the apparent intention of the Russian tactics — cui bono? who benefits? — to which Democrats now point with varying degrees of suspicion.

David Satter has argued that the Russians intervened in the U.S. presidential election to try to show that American democracy is a sham that no one can seriously admire or wish to emulate

On the assumption that the Russians did intervene illegitimately, what was their purpose? There seem to me to be two very different possibilities. The first is that the Russians were attempting to show that American democracy is a ridiculous sham that no one can seriously admire or wish to emulate. David Satter advanced that interpretation in an NRO article, and it strikes me as being the more plausible of the two accounts. It fits perfectly into the long-standing Russian propaganda campaign, described by David and by Peter Pomerantsev in their recent books, to spread the word not that Russian authoritarianism is an attractive ideological system but that democracy is not much better, maybe even worse because it’s also hypocritical. This line of propaganda therefore appeals to a wider-than-usual range of possible converts because it takes in cynics.

The second possible purpose is that the Russians wanted to see the election of Donald Trump. That’s not necessarily criminal, of course, since they may simply believe they can work with him toward a more cooperative Russo–American relationship. Trump himself makes exactly this argument with a consistency that critics find worrying. Doesn’t it suggest that he might be in cahoots with them, they ask, a covert agent working for Putin? Well, it just possibly might, but surely it suggests at least as strongly that Trump thinks he has an important new U.S. grand strategy based on a U.S.–Russian alliance and, knowing it to be controversial, wants to make the case for it at every opportunity. (I don’t think he has a good strategy here myself, and it possible, even likely, that he will have to modify it greatly if Putin proves obdurate in his aggressiveness. But it is obvious that a friendly Russo–American relationship is desirable other things being equal.)

A variation of the Trump-as-agent argument is that the Soviets want Trump because they believe that they have compromising information with which they could blackmail him. Let me not rule anything out. Amazing things have happened in the past year. One of them is that a surprisingly large number of people, some of them friends of mine (not at NR), are eager to believe the Trump-as-agent theory even though at present it is supported by no evidence whatsoever. This strikes me as a very serious charge to make or even hint at without substantial proof — which is doubtless why thousands of potential Woodsteins and Angletons, including staff of a Senate committee, are currently combing the world for it. How are they doing so far?

Exhibit A is the document produced jointly by the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA, which, as generally reported in the American media, concluded “with high confidence” that President Putin had ordered his intelligence agencies to mount an influence operation in America to help elect Donald Trump president. It’s fair to say that this document was accepted more uncritically than less and even prodded Trump himself to backtrack on his criticism of the intelligence services.

But Masha Gessen in The New York Review of Books makes a series of devastating criticisms of the report (and implicitly of its coverage by the news media), starting with the fact that the NSA supported its most important conclusion with only “moderate” confidence. This was that central point that “Putin and the Russian government aimed to help Trump by making public statements discrediting Hillary Clinton.” (It was one of four purposes of Putin’s supposed campaign, the second being the same as David Satter’s interpretation outlined above.) She goes on to shred what is already very thin evidence supporting this conclusion. (Read the whole article, which, incidentally, is by a writer who is a strong critic of both Putin and Trump—and, full disclosure, with whom I have had disagreements in the past.) One item will suffice. Pointing to a suggestion that Putin had been boosting Trump in speeches prior to June 2016, she unearths the one such statement up to that date:

Well, he is a colorful person. Talented, without a doubt. But it’s none of our business, it’s up to the voters in the United States. But he is the absolute leader of the presidential race. He says he wants to shift to a different mode or relations, a deeper level of relations with Russia. How could we not welcome that? Of course we welcome it. As for the domestic politics of it, the turns of phrase he uses to increase his popularity, I’ll repeat, it’s not our business to evaluate his work.

If that confirms anything, it is the argument from Trump that Putin is open to a deal. And I’m sure he is; but on what terms? We’ll see. And we’ll see also whether Trump accepts a bad deal; my guess is probably not. In the meantime, Ms. Gessen’s demolition job means we should move on from the joint document of the U.S. intelligence agencies in a kindly spirit. It makes better evidence for the theory that U.S. intelligence agencies, or at least some people in them, are trying to delegitimize the new president than for the theory that Putin was trying to install a Russian agent in the White House. Let us turn to Exhibit B.

The evidence better fits the theory that U.S. intelligence agencies, or at least some people in them, are trying to delegitimize the new president.

This is the famous “dossier” compiled by the former MI6 agent in which the most colorful charge is that Donald Trump hired Moscow prostitutes to urinate on the bed shared by President and Mrs. Obama in a Moscow hotel room fully bugged and photographed by Russian intelligence agencies. This story raises very disturbing questions that must be answered. The first one is: What on earth was the U.S. Secret Service doing when they allowed the president and his wife to occupy a hotel room bugged by the FSB or GRU? Heads must roll. Not only is this allegation implausible, therefore, but also the numerous Western news organizations that seem to have been given the “dossier” have spent time and money trying to verify these allegations and, so far, have been unable to do so. One can and should go further: One of the few checkable allegations in the dossier — an important one, moreover, on which the dossier itself admits that it relies heavily — turns out to be false. Trump’s lawyer who is alleged to have visited Prague for a key meeting to set up the Putin–Trump axis has demonstrated convincingly that he was in in the U.S. at the time.

In short, the dossier tells us very little about Trump but a great deal about other people. Its provenance is much more interesting than its quality. It begins life as a piece of “opposition research” on Trump from an American private intelligence consultancy, Fusion GPS, commissioned by friends of Jeb Bush during the primaries. Glen Simpson of Fusion brought in a former MI6 agent, Christopher Steele, now of another private intelligence consultancy organization, to help with the research. When Trump won the nomination, pro-Jeb funding vanished and was replaced by money from Democratic friends of Hillary. But when Trump won the presidency and all the money stopped flowing, Simpson and Steele did not halt their work. They became missionaries for their work and passed the dossier onto the FBI, and when the FBI “failed to take action” (i.e., didn’t believe it), they passed it on further, to David Corn of The Nation (who reported, in a guarded way, that this was happening), and then they eventually allowed it to be passed around the media generally. Still, no one could verify its allegations. The dossier languished.

What then happened is quite fascinating: A former British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Andrew Wood (who knew Steele from their days at the U.K.’s Moscow embassy), met Senator John McCain at an international security conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and told him all about the dossier. He went even further than that: According to Wikipedia, Wood vouched for Steele’s “professionalism and integrity.” McCain, his interest strangely aroused, obtained a copy of the dossier from a former State Department official and then passed it onto FBI director James Comey, which in turn led to all four directors of U.S. intelligence passing on a two-page summary of it to President Obama and President-elect Trump. By this stage everybody had read the dossier except the people. That injustice was remedied when Buzzfeed published it in full with a covering note that it was very likely to be, er, fake news, and CNN broke the story that the two presidents had been shown the summary.

As usual on such occasions, everyone then ran for cover — except Trump, who used the occasion to denounce journalists. MI6’s director was said to be livid that a former agent had gotten involved in such a political enterprise. Downing Street denied all knowledge of it. Ambassador Wood said that he had done nothing wrong and continued to defend Steele’s abilities. McCain turned pink with embarrassment. And Steele went into hiding, allegedly afraid for his life — but since those with the greatest incentive for killing him were Jeb Bush and John McCain, he’s as safe as safe houses. All of which cannot conceal that some extraordinary things had gone on.

The dossier compiled the former MI6 agent tells us very little about Trump but a great deal about other people. Its provenance is much more interesting than its quality.

Steele and Simpson, for instance, were not simply hired guns. They went on investigating long after their known clients had called them off. If they weren’t being paid by someone, what were their motives apart from pure public spirit? And if they were working for someone in the later stages, who or what was it? It seems also that they were determined to get their “dossier” out to where it counted, giving it first to the FBI and then to the media when the FBI didn’t bite. After many attempts, they succeeded. One need not subscribe to the romantic notion “Once an MI6 agent, always an MI6 agent” to think that Steele might have asked his former bosses whether they would mind his spreading the story that Moscow had kompromat on the next U.S. president that would go straight to the front page of the National Enquirer. It’s not the kind of thing that, if exposed, can be passed off with “And if the worst happens, you’re on your own, Carruthers.”

Moreover, Steele and Simpson had allies in this endeavor. Though the dossier consisted of unprovable scurrilities, a former British ambassador vouched for its author, and a U.S. senator thought the document itself plausible enough to pass it on again, this time to the FBI. Finally, all the directors of U.S. intelligence gave the story respectable legs, on which CNN ran, when they handed a summary of it to Trump and Obama. It’s very hard to dismiss the possibility that some important people on both sides of the Atlantic, including in intelligence but not only there, were flirting with the idea of, well, delegitimizing President Trump before he started.

Yet two days ago the American media tracked down the apparent source of the more salacious reports in the dossier — who turned out to be a Russian businessman with several names, currently Sergei Millian, previously a translator for the Russian foreign ministry, most recently running some kind of Russo–American trade association, who claims influence with both the Kremlin and the Trump organization, who has certainly made enormous efforts to get close to Trump over recent years, but whom the Trump people claim to have rebuffed. Mr. Millian is not at present returning calls from the media. But he doesn’t seem an obviously reliable source for such stories, as the media (except for Buzzfeed) realized. And at present the most likely explanation for the dossier is David Satter’s theory that it was part of a long-term Russian campaign to depict Western and U.S. democracy as a corrupt and cynical façade for vulgar and shameful carnival.

How could such things happen? Consider another recent little scandal — how the Obama State Department got through a U.N. Security Council Resolution to declare Israeli settlements on the West Bank illegal under international law. Most American attention has focused on the fact that, contrary to long-standing precedent, the U.S. failed to veto the resolution. But the deeper story is how the U.S. recruited the U.K. to help push UNSC 2334 to passage. It wasn’t a simple matter, since President-elect Trump had persuaded the Egyptian government to withdraw its sponsorship of the resolution. So Obama’s Washington asked London to help write the revolution and to use its good offices to get New Zealand to sponsor it. And with this support, UNSC 2334 passed into international law.

It was immediately evident to Downing Street that this was a major diplomatic blunder both at home and abroad. The full story is told by Melanie Phillips on her website and Stephen Pollard in the U.K.’s Jewish Chronicle. The bare bones are as follows:

‐It meant that Britain had deliberately set out to frustrate one of Trump’s first forays into foreign policy — and succeeded — on behalf of a president retiring a few weeks later.

‐It meant that the British were ruling themselves out of Israel’s consideration as a negotiating partner in Mideast negotiations. The Israelis are inured to the British policy of condemning settlements on the West Bank and would not have been unduly perturbed by the U.K.’s vote alone. But this was a maneuver that hurt their interests deeply.

‐And it meant that the Tories, who have cultivated the Jewish vote with some success in recent years (in part because of Labour’s odd flirtation with anti-Semitism), suddenly found themselves fielding baffled protests from organizations such as the Conservative Friends of Israel.

Two responses promptly followed. First, the word went out from Whitehall that all this happened because everyone was away for Christmas. A junior Foreign Office minister, told by his officials that the resolution condemned Palestinian terrorism for the first time, had misread its significance and okayed it. All very sad. Not our finest hour. Won’t happen again. That’s the standard ploy following such cock-ups, as any addict of Yes, Prime Minister knows. (In fact, there’s one episode which follows this scenario almost exactly.)

But the second response showed that Prime Minister Theresa May took the U.N. vote far more seriously. A few days later she astonished the U.S. State Department by issuing a criticism of John Kerry’s speech on the composition of the Israeli government. None of our business, she said, which parties serve in the government of an ally. A few days after that the Brits refused to sign a declaration critical of Israel at the close of the 70-nation Paris conference on Middle East peace, because the Israelis had been excluded from the event. Neither of her responses was strictly about UNSC 2334, but they corrected a diplomatic blunder without acknowledging that one had been committed. And they showed a democratic politician — anxious to maintain good relations with the new president, with both of the two sides in the Middle East, and with important domestic political constituencies — deviating from the orthodoxy of the diplomatic world when she felt it conflicted with wider interests, with justice, or with common sense.

So what has this to do with the moves to delegitimize Trump? Both are instances of national and international networks that have developed a common outlook so strong that they mistake it for either the truth or for the collective national or international interest. And this prompts them either to believe things about which they should be skeptical or to do things about which they should be wary. In the case of UNSC 2334, it was that the U.S. State Department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the 70-nation Paris conference, and the “international community” etc., etc., bedazzled by Obama’s Nobel Prize–winning glamor, were all united by the conviction that Israel’s settlement policy is the main barrier to peace — and they were enabled to make a moral gesture to that effect because President Obama, feeling released from responsibility for its practical consequences, encouraged them to do so. Theresa May then had to pick up the pieces. In the case of believing Trump to be the Manchurian candidate, those political circles that had a special interest in a strong foreign policy that relied on NATO and were anxious to reverse the foreign-policy gains of Putin during the Obama years — both positions I support — were vulnerable to believing that a strong opponent of these policies, especially one who came out of left field, must be actuated by suspect motives of one kind or another. They were initially guilty of groupthink, reinforcing each other’s prejudices, and when evidence was presented that seemed to justify their suspicions, they fell victim to confirmation bias and were too ready to believe it. And these quite powerful collective manias produced negative Trump Derangement Syndrome in the first case and were facilitated by positive Obama Derangement Syndrome in the second.

So when President Trump talks to Putin today, he will face many obstacles, including his own overconfidence, to reaching a prudent deal that benefits America and the West and Ukraine. On the evidence, however, those obstacles will not include that he is a major security risk. As for his being the Manchurian candidate, see the movie: When the Manchurian candidate (Angela Lansbury) is on the verge of office, she vows to strike hard and ruthlessly against her Kremlin bosses. Double agents rarely stay bought — not when their new job is such a step up.

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