Trump’s Generals and the Russia Story

President Donald Trump, right, reaches out to shake hands with Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, left, at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., Monday, Feb. 20, 2017, where Trump announced that McMaster will be the new national security adviser. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Susan Walsh/AP

Yesterday CIA Director Mike Pompeo gave a speech harshly attacking Wikileaks as a hostile non-state intelligence agency which frequently works with adversary spy services like Russia to attack America. It was an attack not only on Wikileaks but the entire information campaign carried on against the Democrats in 2016. In other words, it was an attack on Russian information warfare.  There were none of President Trump’s professed doubts about who was behind the attacks, victim-blaming about the Democrats’ poor security and suggestions that the interference may somehow have been a good thing. The whole effort was somewhat belied by some quick online sleuthing which revealed that less than a year ago Pompeo gleefully tweeted out stolen emails published by Wikileaks. But that doesn’t change the aim of the speech or the larger campaign it seems to be a part of.

As I’ve noted in various posts in recent weeks, for all the Kusher/Bannon drama, the real evolution of the Trump White House is the rising dominance of a group of three and four star generals – especially Defense Secretary of Mattis and perhaps even more National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster – who I believe have an increasingly dominant role in policy formation, certainly on everything tied to national security and foreign affairs. Pompeo, though certainly not a senior general and actually a pretty intense partisan, nonetheless seems part of the effort to put the traditional national security apparatus in charge of policy. That in many ways was the point of that Pompeo speech yesterday.

But I see something a bit more general. Why did Pompeo give a big speech attacking Wikileaks and Russia and specifically not only accepting the reality of 2016 election tampering but calling it out aggressively? Why is Nikki Haley being so outspoken and hawkish on Russia? Some of this of course is that this is likely just where these men and women were in the first place. Working for Trump is just a bump in the road. They’re just reverting to form. The changing situation in Syria itself is of course a major factor. But again, I think there’s more than this.

I see a more general effort by the generals and other traditional Republican hawks in the administration to accomplish what amounts to a forced Trump rebrand. Many of the people most visibly associated with the Russia story have already been tossed from the administration. Those who were never in the administration are more and more written off as people who played no role of consequence in the campaign. So much of Trump’s connections to the Russia story are already being swept away. These folks are trying to create a rebranded Trump unsullied by all the Russia smoke.

I would not call this an effort to cover up the Trump story, more an effort to erase it going forward, to create a new “Trump” for him the nefarious connections and the Puto-philia are both absent.

This is not to say that this is merely a cosmetic operation. They are also creating a structure, a shell around Trump which can, they hope, conduct an establishment Republican foreign policy around him. The point is to wash away as many of these connections, cleanse Trump as well as they can and put in place an establishment Republican foreign policy. Being not only aggressive toward Russia in the present but aggressive about election interference retrospectively are both key parts of this.

It is important to remember that whatever we think of these generals, they weren’t even involved with Trump during the campaign, weren’t tied to the Russia stuff and – quite significantly, I think – likely don’t really know what the full story is. For the moment, it doesn’t matter as long as they are taking control of all national security and foreign policy and running it on what they view as proper lines.

Of course, the challenge is that the past did happen. Whatever bad acts took place still happened and will have profound political repercussions if they see the light of day, even if the individuals in question were tossed already from the world of Trump. Of course there is also the President. He can’t escape from himself, whatever he did and whatever he knew. So the strategy has limits and may be on a collision course with evolving investigations.