Over the weekend, several prominent news media figures announced themselves as Trump/Russia skeptics. Politico’s Blake Hounshell seemed to kick off the discussion with this essay. This isn’t “fake news” type skepticism. It’s much more focused and I think reasonable. These folks fully grant the extensive and multi-pronged Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election. That involved fake news, email hacking, and multiple approaches to Trump associates to gauge interest in working together. The skepticism is whether we’ll ever find a proven and explicit agreement between President Trump and Vladimir Putin or some other similarly high-level Russian official to collaborate in subverting the 2016 election. If not documented proof of such an agreement then at least well-attested evidence of the same.
Relatedly, they say that the Trump campaign just didn’t seem organized enough to manage a full-blown conspiracy (a frequent explanation from the Trumpers themselves) and that if they had Trump is too impulsive and intemperate not to have spilled the beans by now.
I wanted to respond to these claims and doubts both because I partly agree with them but also because I think this read is based on basic misunderstandings of the nature of offensive intelligence operations and, simply, human nature.
First to the agreement. I’m also skeptical that we’re ever going to find this kind of formal and explicit agreement between Trump and Putin (what Hounshell calls the “silver bullet”) to conspire together at the very highest levels. My skepticism springs from a few sources. One is my simple skepticism of all bad behavior – both my bane and salvation as a reporter. The other is that I’m just skeptical of things for which I have yet to see clear evidence.
So what’s my problem with the skeptics? It has a few levels – but they all unite on one key point.
First, the manifest disorganization of the Trump operation and whether they had their shit together enough to conspire with anyone. This has always struck me as a basic misunderstanding of how spy work operates. Perhaps also human nature. Spies looking to infiltrate, compromise and direct a foreign organization look precisely for chaotic and disorganized contexts. They look for gullible people. They look for pleasers. They look for people who are desperate, broke, blackmail-able. These are all features, not bugs. This must have made the Trump campaign an irresistible target for Russia. Because it had all the key vulnerability points in spades. I think anyone who makes this argument really doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
The shambling character of the Trump campaign does suggest that the campaign itself likely wasn’t a foreign intelligence operation – as in, Vladimir Putin called up Donald Trump one day, told him he was running for president and that he would be setting him up with a crew of trained operatives to staff out his campaign. But this is, of course, a ludicrous theory and almost insanely high bar for what counts as a problem.
As I wrote a month ago, one thing that makes me think the fix wasn’t totally in from the start is precisely the evidence we have of all the contacts. If Trump had a firm understanding or partnership with Russian spies or Vladimir Putin at the outset, why all the cold approaches? That doesn’t quite fit. If anything it’s a potential source of danger. Why send a cut-out to meet with Don Jr. at Trump Tower or strike up a connection with George Papadopoulos? All these pieces of evidence, among the most damning we know of, suggest the relationship was being built over the course of the campaign, regardless of Trump’s pre-existing relationships in Russia.
For me this is actually the biggest question in the whole drama. The cold approaches suggest building a new relationship. But it’s very hard to believe that Trump’s pre-election Russia ties didn’t somehow connect to what happened in 2016. The two realities are reconciliable. But it’s a challenge. And how it all lines up I’m not quite sure.
But the biggest problem with this skeptics argument is this idea that if that explicit and formal agreement doesn’t exist – the “smoking gun” as skeptic Blake Hounshell puts it – that there’s “nothing there.” This strikes me as entirely wrong, not only as a legal matter but far more as a civic matter. This is for many reasons but the principal one is that corrupt transactions are often tacit. You’re helping me. I’m helping you. It’s a good thing for both sides. No need to complicate it.
We already know that Russian spies and cutouts made numerous approaches to Trump campaign staffers and, as far as we know, always got a positive reception. As Don Jr. put it when presented with the possibility of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton from what was explicitly described as the Russian government trying to help elect Trump President, “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
The Trump campaign, through multiple channels that we know about, made it clear repeatedly that they wanted to play ball. Repeatedly with a consistent message. Did Donald Trump himself know about or approve these contacts? I don’t know or rather don’t have proof. But you have to be terribly naive to think that Trump’s comically approval-starved son Don Jr. didn’t loop his dad in on this great opportunity he’d come up with.
But none of these are the key thing. That is this: For the second half of 2016 Donald Trump himself and his campaign knew that Russia was engaged in a wide-ranging effort to subvert the 2016 campaign and to work to get him elected. Yet despite this knowledge he and his campaign continued to approve numerous contacts with Russian government officials, clandestine meetings, receive offers of assistance. He also continued to push a decidedly Russia friendly policy agenda, even to the point of threatening to short-circuit or abandon the NATO alliance – probably Russia’s principal foreign policy goal not only today but decades back into the Cold War. They continued to authorize all of this, continued to feel out the possible dimensions of the relationship and, critically, made no effort to contact the FBI or other relevant federal agencies about a plot they knew these agencies were tracking and trying to combat.
Now, key question: How do I know they knew this? First, they knew because the Russians told them. Explicitly told them. Second, they knew what all of us knew. Remember: from late July through November there was a constant stream of reportage detailing Russian efforts. At the time that was mainly tied to the theft and distribution of emails. But the Russian use of social media bots and sock puppets as well as Russian-state owned English language media were apparent too. A lot was public in the fall of 2016. But the critical thing is this: starting in August, Donald Trump personally, as well as various high-ranking members of his team, were briefed on the Russian interference effort by US intelligence and law enforcement officials. We know this, Mr. Trump and we want to make sure you know.
If hearing it from the Russians themselves wasn’t enough, if seeing the numerous press reports wasn’t enough, the US government’s intelligence leaders telling him certainly should have been. Repeatedly. Notably, they likely included a number of key details we in the public only learned as much as a year later.
He knew. He 100% knew. And yet they continued on with the contacts and clandestine discussions and public policy promises right up to election day and intensified them during the transition. Not once, as far as we know, did anyone associated with the Trump campaign or Trump himself speak to anyone from law enforcement or the intelligence community and say, “Hey, you told us about that interference campaign. This one guy contacted us and we had a few conversations with him. Just wanted you to know.”
Of course, Trump or Jared Kushner or Paul Manafort or Don Jr might have said, “Hey, now that you mention it, we actually took this meeting in Trump Tower in June. And someone said it was the Russian government itself trying to give us dirt. We just wanted you to know.”
Not once. None of that happened. To me this shows a clear consciousness of guilt and more specifically a desire to participate – ‘collaborate’ is probably the better word – in the Russian operation out of the view of the US government which was trying to prevent it. Note here that I haven’t even gotten into the after the fact obstruction, calling in the the Russia Foreign Minister and sharing the most closely held US intelligence secrets or the continued refusal to impose sanctions mandated overwhelmingly by Congress.
I don’t know what this means as a legal matter. That involves facts I don’t know and legal knowledge I lack. As a civic matter, however, it is already a scandal almost unparalleled in American history. They knew they were playing ball and they did play ball. To say that only a signed contract (the ‘smoking gun’) will mean there’s a there there is both a wild and unparalleled goalpost moving but also a basic misunderstanding of how subversion efforts and information operations work.
Perhaps there will be a smoking gun – or something equally concrete and intentional. As I noted at the outset, I tend to doubt it. But mainly that’s just caution and the fact that I don’t assume things I don’t know. I doubted a bunch of things I’ve already found out happened. Far more likely, in typical Trumpian fashion, he made it known to his various favorites and toadies what he wanted done and they went ahead and did it. Remember that in the Trump moral universe, what helps Trump is right and vice versa. There’s no moral compass beyond pure self-interest. That’s the Trump pattern. If he didn’t touch the third rail himself, he knows his cronies probably did. And that explains all the obstruction from pretty much day one.