The pretense for leaking information about a late-December call between General Michael Flynn, then Donald Trump’s designee for national-security advisor, and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak was that the call presented some sort of grave threat to U.S. national security, and it was therefore worth committing a felony to get the word out. But so far, the only hint of criminality in this affair is in the leak itself, not in anything Flynn said to the ambassador.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that Flynn’s subsequent departure from his post had everything to do with trust (he had denied making any call to Kislyak) and nothing to do with lawbreaking. It may be too early to know for sure, but it is curious that the leakers have yet to release the transcripts of the call.
Regardless of how the whole Flynn saga shakes out, the newfound concern from the national-security apparatus and mainstream media about U.S. cooperation with authoritarians and government officials’ negotiating secret side deals is striking. Attempts by the Trump administration to forge a new, positive relationship with the Russians should be viewed skeptically, but reasonable people will save their loudest objections for when and if this administration starts dealing with Russia the way the previous administration did.
Bear in mind that President Obama and his team brokered side deals with the Russians (and Iranians, for that matter) that resulted in enormous advantage for them and loss for us — during his entire presidency.
For instance, in 2009 President Obama surreptitiously sent a letter to the Russians, offering to cancel plans to install a missile-defense site in Poland and corresponding radar apparatus in the Czech Republic. These would have provided an additional layer of protection for the United States and its allies from Iranian long-range missiles. All Russia had to do for Obama to cancel the plans was to agree to help pressure Iran to stop its nuclear-weapons program. What’s the big problem with that?
Well, for starters, the missile-defense site had nothing to do with Russia. Its purpose was to protect and defend the United States and its NATO allies from a threat that was just over the horizon. By offering this concession to the Russians, who opposed the site because they didn’t want U.S. troops in Poland, the Obama administration showed in its earliest days that it was willing to cave in to Russian demands, even if it meant damaging relations with a NATO ally and canceling a plan that would bolster U.S. security. The Obama administration did end up canceling the planned missile-defense deployment, and the United States to this day remains underprotected from Iranian ballistic missiles, even as the Iranians exploit relaxed U.N. Security Council missile restrictions (thanks to the Obama administration) and test long-range ballistic missiles.
Along those lines, President Obama was caught on an open microphone telling then–Russian president Dmitry Medvedev to pass along a message to then–prime minister Vladimir Putin. That message: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space. . . . This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” In other words, there are certain things the president would like to do for the Russians that would not please the American people, and those things would have to wait until after Obama had been reelected and no longer needed to worry about doing something the pesky American people would object to. Amazingly, this remarkable incident seems to have gone down the memory hole — definitely so for at least one media personality.
Then Congress grew increasingly frustrated when it repeatedly and unsuccessfully sought answers from the Obama administration about allegations Russia was in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. In 2014 the Obama administration finally, publicly admitted that Russia had been testing cruise missiles prohibited by the treaty as early as 2008, and that the United States had determined Russia was in violation of the treaty in 2011. What made this episode so maddening to Congress (and likely would have for the American people if it had been adequately covered by news media) is that the president and his State Department negotiated yet another arms-control treaty with the Russians, the New START Treaty, while Russia was in violation of the INF Treaty. How convenient that it did not publicly announce that Russia was cheating until several years after the Senate ratified the New START Treaty. Now the Russians have gone beyond testing the prohibited missiles and have deployed them.
In 2014 the Obama administration finally, publicly admitted that Russia had been testing cruise missiles prohibited by the treaty as early as 2008, and that the United States had determined Russia was in violation of the treaty in 2011.
Then there was all that Russian hacking that went on throughout the Obama presidency. Russian entities hacked private companies, Nasdaq, and banks, as well as government agencies including the State Department, the White House, and the Pentagon. Sure, government officials testified in open hearings about some of what Russia was up to, but other than that, the administration didn’t raise the profile of the issue with the American people. Ask the average American if he recalls the onslaught of Russian attacks and pilfering of American intellectual property. It’s likely that the only hacking he recalls is what went on leading up to the most recent American presidential election, which earned Russia a very public and direct, however belated, slap on the wrist from the White House. Hacking the Pentagon? Worth “managing” quietly. Hacking the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta? Time for a public scolding and sanctions.
Perhaps the main driver behind the Obama administration’s unwillingness to confront Russia, and its decision to ignore or downplay Russia’s trespasses, is that it wanted Russia’s help with what would become Obama’s signature foreign-policy “achievement,” the Iran deal. And help it got. From billion-dollar anti-missile sales to cooperation in bolstering Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the Russian–Iranian partnership wouldn’t be flourishing the way it is now if it weren’t for the Obama administration.
Although several of the deal’s problems are well known, many details about the Iran deal were negotiated secretly, avoiding congressional oversight and public scrutiny, and remain classified to this day. As the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, David Albright, recently testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “First, the workings of the deal have been far too secret. Some portions of the parallel or side deals and secret Joint Commission and Procurement Working Group (PWG) decisions and actions have been publicly revealed. Although the Joint Commission decided after Donald Trump won the presidency to release its major decisions, likely feeling increasing pressure to do so, much still remains secret.” Congress repeatedly fought for access to the side deals and annexes related to the Iran deal. Two such prominent officials were Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and then-Representative Mike Pompeo, who is now the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
And of course we can’t forget the time the Obama administration released Iranian criminals to Iran and shipped $400 million in cash on pallets to Iran on the day the Iranians released some American hostages. The Obama administration insisted that the hostage release and the pallets of cash did not amount to the United States’ paying a ransom, and that the transactions were unrelated. Members of the media reported this narrative as though it were true, even after the State Department spokesman eventually conceded that the timing of the cash transfer was “leveraged” to secure the hostage release.
Then, while the media frenzy was focused on the American election results and whether the incoming U.S. president was saying nice things about the Russian president, the United States and the five other world powers that negotiated the Iran deal (including Russia) authorized the shipment of 116 metric tons of natural uranium from Russia to Iran. David Albright noted to the press that the amount could be enriched to make more than ten nuclear bombs.
Bottom line: Russia is an adversary of the United States. It was true during the Obama administration despite Obama’s insistence to the contrary, and because of his constant stream of capitulations, it remains true today, only now Russia is more powerful.
— Rebeccah Heinrichs is a fellow at the Hudson Institute. She can be reached on Twitter @RLHeinrichs.