The President-Elect’s First War, Part II

By Andrej Mrevlje |

In 90 days, Donald Trump intends to report the true facts of the alleged Russian hacking during the November elections. At least, that is what the president-elect promised during his first press conference in months, just nine days before he is to be sworn as the new president. Trump’s words made it sound as though, with his own intelligence agencies in command, he will be in position to rewrite history. Nothing will ever be the same again, Trump seems to warn his citizens from high up in his golden tower.  

The staffers in Trump’s transition team must have been rushing to find the blue curtain, some American flags and a speaking podium with an emblem that looked kind of presidential. And where did they find that huge table for piles of paper documents? It all looked old — a bit like a courtroom, uncomfortable and retro, as if the whole affair was a political gathering from the times before the internet. It was an improvised venue, with over 200 journalists stuffed in the corner of Trump Tower’s lobby. But the president-elect was in a hurry to speak. It was the first time he met the press since he got elected. An occasion to thank his voters — perhaps to say a word or two on what he intends to do to improve the wellbeing of America’s jobless citizens. It would be polite and normal. Instead, Trump announced that he was planning revenge. He was enraged, but seemingly under control until half an hour into the conference, when he completely lost it. He was rude to journalists who did not fit his mood, praising the apparently well-behaved others who kept silent. He was like a furious god distributing justice and punishment; calling whoever authorized the dossier of unverified information against him a Nazi; showing renewed distaste for intelligence agencies and the “fake” news journalists who came to listen to what the president-elect had to say. They were there doing their job. And yet, for the first time during these months of long national dispute about the Russian hacking, he admitted that Russia — that Putin — had a hand in it.

But let’s step back for a second.

A week ago, the president-elect met with the CIA, FBI, NSA and DNI. Intel agencies requested the briefing in order to inform the president-elect — as they did with President Obama — of their findings on the alleged Russian hackings of the Democratic Party and on their meddling with the elections. Even before the elections, American spy agencies knew that Russians were hacking emails — creating chaos and distrust in the American electoral system.

Donald Trump denied those reports and avoided briefings with the intel agencies as much as he could. But this time, the pressure was such that he had to acknowledge the reports. He had to listen. There was no other way, since President Obama ordered sanctions against the spying and hacking Russians based on the same intelligence reports. This was one of the big differences between the two men. Obama trusted the agencies’ info and used it in his way and for his purposes, while Trump does not trust the agencies that are supposed to protect the nation. He thinks that they should only protect him. That is why he openly confronted them, attacked them and declared them incapable of doing their jobs. This attitude increased the feeling of uncertainty and confusion in the country, and consequently reduced the popularity of the president-elect even before he’s scheduled to take office.

But it was Trump’s reaction after last week’s briefing that got spies really angry. Trump tweeted as he came out of the briefing room, denying again that the Russians tried to influence the elections: “Intelligence stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results.”

Not even an hour later, the agencies struck back, releasing a declassified, 14-page-long report asserting the opposite: it was Putin who gave the order to undermine faith in the U.S. election and help Trump. The spy bosses have had enough. Every time the president-elect got the opportunity, he defied and humiliated them, boycotting their briefings and telling everyone that he knows better than they do.

As I wrote last week, “The polarization between what seems to be the leftover establishment and the ever-increasing, bulldozing power of the president-elect is reaching the point of no return. When the president-elect openly praises a person like Julian Assange for disputing U.S. intelligence reports that Russia strategically hacked and leaked internal emails from top Democratic sources, then a strange new coalition begins — one that includes everybody from Sarah Palin to Julian Assange, and from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin. Even people who apparently support Edward Snowden.”

The spies were offended. So was the public. Trump had made a big mistake. If he does not trust the secret service and other agencies and has decided to reorganize them — both legitimate decisions for a person in his position — then he should also know that he cannot do that overnight, especially not by announcing it publicly. It’s the kind of mistake that an amateur would make. To reorganize secret agencies requires time, patience, cunning and silence. Trump has none of these qualities. He is blunt and rude. So somebody — or rather, most of the Intelligence Community — has decided to stop him. They escalated the war that ended in heavy artillery fire on Tuesday and Wednesday.    

CNN was the first to reveal the existence of a two-page document that was based on the information that intelligence agencies discussed with President Obama and President-elect Trump during last week’s briefings. As CNN reported, the highly classified document contains allegations that the Russians are in possession of compromising personal and financial information that could be used against Donald Trump once he takes office. Moreover, according to CNN, the report contains allegations that Trump’s staff was in contact with Russia during the election campaign, exchanging information that favored Trump’s victory.

You should see CNN’s video, in which three anchormen tried to reproduce an air of conspiracy and show their capacity to dig deep into American spy networks. To increase the credibility of the operation, the CNN investigative team called in Carl Bernstein, the old glory of investigative journalism from the long-gone Watergate scandal. Did CNN think that they could trigger something similar with Donald Trump? Or was their bravado just a desperate attempt to prove themselves? Could it be that, just because the information came from (probably angry) intelligence sources, CNN thought that they could pull it off this time? The network was much more careful than usual — they said nothing that could really compromise them. But then, they once again showed bad judgment in what they chose to reveal. CNN was right that intel agencies were in possession of a dossier on Trump that has been compiled by a foreign source. However, the New York Times published a great, eye-opening story on the source of this dossier — a former British spy named Christopher Steele, who was first hired by the Republicans, and later the Democrats, in order to build a file on Trump’s ties to Russia. It is a sad story of low-level intelligence trading in order to build a case against Trump. The methodology of information-gathering that serves as character assassination of Trump is very similar to what happened in 2002, when weapons of mass destruction were used to justify attacking Iraq.  

However, CNN’s breaking news about the dossier in the intelligence agencies’ possession created temporary confusion and encouraged a lot of guessing. According to CNN, the source — the former MI6 agent — was reliable. But if the existence of the dossier was known for months, then why did they wait to come out with the news? Does the FBI really have hard, not-just-circumstantial evidence on Russian action and Trump’s complicity?

Ever since Trump won the election, the hunt for his head — for the reasons we all know — has been in full swing. It’s not a witch hunt, as Donald Trump calls it. It’s a hunt after him using legal, nonviolent means. There are a couple of news organizations that are working very hard to bring up evidence of Mr. Trump breaking the law in the past. I doubt that any of the other American presidents were as closely observed as Donald Trump is and will be. My gut feeling is that Trump’s character and personality, his disrespect for political institutions and his ignorance of state affairs — not to mention his potential unconstitutional behavior — will create so many conflicts in the country that many more people will turn their backs on Trump or start to talk. Eventually he will be forced to step down. In short, I am inclined to believe that the 45th president will not last until the next presidential election.

To cite my favorite example in this case, Silvio Berlusconi — former Italian prime minister and tycoon who was equally ignorant of state affairs– had to resign from his government position in November 1994, only seven months after he came to power, because he got subpoenaed. But Berlusconi came back to power during the next election cycle.

So, in the moments after the CNN’s coup attempt, I wondered why it was the only cable network to release this information. The doubts did not last long, though. Soon enough, Buzzfeed published the whole dossier. And now it looks like a scam. It will be very, very hard to prove that the dossier is not fabricated. Just as I am writing this, I got ahold of Paul Woods’ piece for the Spectator, which adds new elements to the story — citing more sources and revealing other dossiers that were made during Trump’s 2013 visit to Russia. Sex scandals? Not only that, Woods says — intelligence agencies have been trying to trace some money that ended in president-elect’s pocket. However, it’s now clear why the American news organizations that do not have their own investigative sources could not report independently on this spicy story that could jeopardize national security. Even the Times and the Washington Post could not do it because they simply could not substantiate what they read. At least, this is what they are saying. But from what I read, it seems pretty clear that this is a fabricated story. And one does not have to be a spy to see that. So perhaps the president-elect was right on this one. Less so when he tweeted that, “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” But in principle, he was right.

The day after Trump ranted at reporters during his press conference, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper apologized to Donald Trump for the leaks. But Clapper’s apology is circumstantial — it does not count. The heads of the intelligence agencies will be replaced in the regular turnover that comes with the arrival of a new  administration. Clapper will leave his office a week from now, but most of his spies are staying. And from what we hear, they do not like to be called Nazis.

So where are we standing now? I would say that the score is tied. BuzzFeed’s publication of the dossier was good because it ended the myth that intel agencies had something concrete against Trump. It took away their leverage against him. On the other hand, Trump was finally forced to acknowledge the evidence of Russian meddling in American affairs. The battlefield will now move to a new territory — perhaps to the Senate, where the future members of the Trump’s cabinet will have a difficult time getting confirmed. But they will get their confirmations in the end. Then a new issue will pop up — and another, and another. The United States will lose the a peace and quiet of a self-assured empire. There will be no peace with Trump in the White House, especially because — contrary to all expectations — the main noise will come from abroad, after the Republican Party internationalizes their internal disputes, as David Brooks writes in the New York Times:

The Republican regulars build their grand strategies upon the post-World War II international order — the American-led alliances, norms and organizations that bind democracies and preserve global peace. The regulars seek to preserve and extend this order, and see Vladimir Putin as a wolf who tears away at it.

The populist ethno-nationalists in the Trump White House do not believe in this order. Their critique — which is simultaneously moral, religious, economic, political and racial — is nicely summarized in the remarks Steve Bannon made to a Vatican conference in 2014.

Once there was a collection of Judeo-Christian nation-states, Bannon argued, that practiced a humane form of biblical capitalism and fostered culturally coherent communities. But in the past few decades, the party of Davos — with its globalism, relativism, pluralism and diversity — has sapped away the moral foundations of this Judeo-Christian way of life.

Humane capitalism has been replaced by the savage capitalism that brought us the financial crisis. National democracy has been replaced by a crony-capitalist network of global elites. Traditional virtue has been replaced by abortion and gay marriage. Sovereign nation-states are being replaced by hapless multilateral organizations like the E.U.

Decadent and enervated, the West lies vulnerable in the face of a confident and convicted Islamofascism, which is the cosmic threat of our time.

In this view, Putin is a valuable ally precisely because he also seeks to replace the multiracial, multilingual global order with strong nation-states. Putin ardently defends traditional values. He knows how to take the fight to radical Islam.

According to Brooks, Vladimir Putin has a strategist who thinks the same way as the silent but omnipresent Steven Bannon sitting in the back of Trump’s office. Compared to the language that the president-elect uses, the alliances that Brooks writes about seem to be gigantic. In other words, that table covered with piles of papers that we saw during the press conference is an important story. It is another president-elect fairytale, this time about resolving his conflicts of interest. But compared to plans for an alliance with Putin, that is a much smaller and less important story. The question is, which of the two will public opinion decide to follow? It’s a trick that we began to understand once Trump started to repeat it every day. What the president-elect tweets day by day is not important — what’s important is what he will do every day once he is in office.

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