By Edward Lozansky and Jim Jatras
Departing presidents tend to fade from public consciousness surprisingly quickly once they leave office. Most at least have the good grace to assume a low profile on their way out to give their successors room to launch.
Not Barack Obama though. The closing weeks of his tenure have seen a contrived imbroglio over a non-veto of a U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlements, grudging unwillingness to accept that his “regime change” policy in Syria is a wretched failure, and slapping sanctions on Moscow for supposed Russian hacking to skew the U.S. election in favor of Donald Trump. Obama plans to stay in Washington and remain engaged in policy—which means sniping at his successor.
Whether or not one thinks that material released by Wikileaks was the fruit of Russian cyber activity—we think it highly implausible—there is no doubt of the intent lurking behind the claims First, to cast a cloud over Trump’s election and the legitimacy of his presidency. Second, to throw as much sand in the gears of Trump’s oft-stated desire to improve ties with Russia, most importantly on the critical question of presenting a common front against (WARNING: the following phrase may offend acolytes of Hillary Clinton and Obama) radical Islamic terrorism.
Regarding the legitimacy of the election, the hypocrisy of some Democrats and their pet mainstream media is breathtaking. Trump’s opponents shrieked that he was “undermining our democracy” when during a debate he refused to state absolutely in advance he wouldn’t challenge the outcome. No sooner had the same opponents picked their shocked selves off the floor the morning of November 9 than we witnessed the launch of #NotMyPresident mobs and a vain attempt to suborn the votes of Electors pledged to Trump, efforts denounced by neither Obama nor Clinton.
Obama’s attempt to undermine Trump was stepped up a notch in late December. Imposition of new sanctions on Moscow, including expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and closure of two diplomatic compounds, was clearly designed to trigger tit-for-tat retaliation. Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to take the bait, preferring to wait for grown-ups to take over in Washington on January 20 and inviting American diplomats’ kids over to the Kremlin to see the Christmas tree. Trump then rubbed salt in the Russophobes’ wounds by praising Putin as “very smart” for his restraint.
The next escalation was a Senate hearing that featured Democrats and Republicans alike treating the hacking allegations as proven fact and calling for tougher measures. Then, on the very day Trump was officially elected president in the Congressional tally of Electoral College votes—and was briefed by intelligence community honchos—the Empire Struck Back with release of an unclassified report from the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), already conveniently leaked to NBC. The key assertion:
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”
This claim, and other in the same vein, is presented with no actual evidence. (For those unfamiliar with spook-speak, “high confidence” means “we think so but don’t know for sure.”) Instead, Americans are expected to accept such allegations on faith from the same people who brought us Benghazi and WMDs in Iraq. Anyone failing to do so is presumptively a witting or unwitting tool of the Kremlin.
Aside from the unproven hacking claims themselves (at the Senate hearing, Lt. Gen. James Clapper conceded that the U.S. hacks other countries and vice versa) nothing in the DNI report indicates that any Russian efforts of political influence involved falsification of information. (“Disclosures through WikiLeaks did not contain any evident forgeries.”) Or put differently, whatever their provenance, the disclosures released by Wikileaks regarding, for example, John Podesta’s emails and efforts to tilt the Democratic primary race against Bernie Sanders, were true. So even if we accept for the sake of argument it was the Russians, how dare they tell us what those corrupt Democrats were up to!
The real tipoff is found in the DNI report’s political assertions regarding a narrative that reinforces what we agree is most Russians’ preference for Trump over Clinton, as reflected in opinion polls, as well as in Russian media and officials’ public comments:
Hillary Clinton: “ . . . focused on her leaked e-mails and accused her of corruption, poor physical and mental health, and ties to Islamic extremism,” whose “election could lead to a war between the United States and Russia.”
Donald Trump: “ . . . the target of unfair coverage from traditional US media outlets that [the Russians] claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment,” and “an outsider victimized by a corrupt political establishment and faulty democratic election process that aimed to prevent his election because of his desire to work with Moscow” in “an international counterterrorism coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).”
Which of the above characterizations attributed to Russian messaging are Americans supposed to disagree with?
Following his briefing on the classified version of the DNI report—which presumably detailed all the real evidence redacted from the public version to protect “sources and methods”—Trump appeared underwhelmed, producing a string of three tweets:
“Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad! We have enough problems around the world without yet another one. When I am President, Russia will respect us far more than they do now and both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the WORLD!”
Trump’s short message, when compared to the thrust of the DNI report, is what it all boils down to: the defeated Obama apparatus, a politicized intelligence community leadership, a bipartisan foreign policy establishment, and a mainstream media treated with increasing skepticism and derision by the American people are doing their level best to knock the legs out from under Trump largely because he wants to shift U.S. policy from a sterile and counterproductive antagonism toward Russia to cooperation on common concerns. At the top of those concerns—as identified in the DNI report itself!—is joint U.S.-Russian action against the Islamic State.
As Trump tweeted, “Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad!” Or maybe he needs to add smart people in an American version of the defunct Soviet nomenklatura that has built generations of lucrative careers on East-West confrontation, not to mention arming and training Islamic radicals in successive “regime change” wars like Libya and Syria.
Do the DNI report and Congressional calls for new sanctions to poison the well against Trump’s agenda constitute a desperate last stand? Or will they manage to pull it off, crippling Trump before he can even get started?
We shall soon see. The confirmation fight over Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson will be an early indicator.
Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow. He is the author of the book Operation Elbe, which describes joint US-Russia anti-terrorist efforts.
Jim Jatras is a former U.S. diplomat and foreign policy adviser to the Senate GOP leadership. He is the author of a major study, “How American Media Serves as a Transmission Belt for Wars of Choice.”