Think of the Russia scandal as a big iceberg.
The iceberg’s tip, that is the portion of the scandal you can see from news accounts, is populated with the numerous contacts over the years between Donald Trump’s surrogates and Russian business interests. But hiding beneath this ostensibly entrepreneurial quest to make many millions of dollars — and rubles — lurks the immensity of the rest of the iceberg and what matters most about the scandal. This is something few people recognize and even fewer have been able to confront because it is almost too big to comprehend: Vladimir Putin’s determined quest to upend the Western liberal order and Trump’s acquiescence with that vision, which in all likelihood has included collusion by Trump surrogates with the Kremlin on cyberattacks against Democrats during the election in return for Russia withholding kompromat (compromising material) about the future president.
The Western liberal order is the politics and policies that have dominated America and Europe since the end of World War II. Putin’s interference with an election that Trump won by hook and by crook is a not exactly subtle extension of Putin’s years-long effort to tear down the liberal order, while Trump’s praise for the Russian autocrat and cheerleading for his cyber-intelligence apparatus to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails has a substantially greater context when the scandal is viewed as a whole:
Trump, on the verge of locking up the Republican presidential nomination, was confident that the Kremlin had his back because it had been assisting his campaign and cultivating him (as well as setting him up to be a Manchurian candidate of a sort) for an astonishing five years.
It does not matter that Trump is a fool who lacks the curiosity or intellectual capacity to more fully understand what underlies Putin’s motivation.
That motivation is to threaten a Second Cold War by disrupting and undermining Western political, military and financial alliances if the U.S. continues to interfere with Putin’s efforts to turn the clock back to the imperialist 19th century when the world was divvied up into spheres of influence determined by grand bargains in which ideological differences mattered less than sovereignty.
In a contemporary context, Putin’s 19th century mindset goes something like this: So America is a democracy. Big deal, but spare us the histrionics and flaunting of your supposed superiority because Russia doesn’t happen to be a nation built in your image. Don’t like our expansionist designs and human rights violations? Well, your hands aren’t exactly clean either, bucko, so stop treating us like a vassal state. Why don’t you just accept our differences and then we can move onward and upward for our greater glories.
The similarities between Putin and Trump are compelling. Both, more than anything, want acceptance. Both crave power. Both harbor grudges. (Putin’s quest stems in part from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the U.S.’s post-Cold War triumphalism and most recently the Olympics doping scandal.) Both despise Barack Obama. Both use lying as a weapon in fashioning an alternate reality to justify their agendas. Both admire foreign despots. (Recall Trump famously remarking that Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi might have been “bad guys, [but] at least they killed terrorists.”) And as we now know, both share a similar foreign policy vision. Trump has been praising Putin since 2007 and you might say that he doesn’t just admire Putin, he emulates him.
There are, of course, Russia connections in Trump’s Cabinet.
Putin pal Rex Tillerson at State thumbed his nose at Obama’s Russia sanctions as CEO of ExxonMobil; Wilbur Ross at Commerce led the 2014 rescue of Bank of Cyprus, a favorite conduit for Russian money laundering, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice in the 2016 with Russian Ambassador Sergey I. Ksilyak. Then there is the late, lamented National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s brazen contacts with Kislyak after the election, as well as all the contacts by Trump campaign bigs before the election, which were the subject of intercepted communications among Russian officials, some of them within the walls of the Kremlin.
Despite voluminous evidence to the contrary, Trump has continued to deny that his campaign had any contact with Russian officials and has framed Flynn’s ouster as a matter of trust, not his Kislyak contacts, which the then president-elect almost certainly sanctioned. His administration’s claims that Russia-related disclosures are the result of “fake news” from a bought mainstream media and a “false narrative” cooked up by the Obama administration to make excuses for the Democratic election defeat have worn increasingly thin.
The new revelations that Sessions repeatedly lied during his confirmation hearings when asked about contacts with Russians now take the scandal into a new realm, and Republican leaders joined Democrats on Thursday in calling on Sessions to recuse himself. Sessions did exactly that later in the day a few hours after Trump said he should not do so.
Trump has been played by Putin like a cheap violin, and behind Putin’s meddling in the election and efforts to fit Trump for puppet strings was an effort to discredit a foundation stone of the Western liberal order — that Washington’s way of electing its leaders is superior to Moscow’s way.
It is just that as president, Trump is now a very dangerous fool.
It needs to be said — and said loudly and emphatically — that in a test of Good vs. Evil, the U.S. and West have not acquitted themselves particularly honorably since World War II, let alone before. Even if many of Putin’s moral equivalencies are false, there is some truth in his assertions of American hypocrisy, especially as they apply to regime change no matter the cost. (Can you say Vietnam and Iraq? How about Iran, Nicaragua, Egypt, Libya, Laos, Panama and Afghanistan, to name a few more?) And while we are piling on, Obama’s Russia policy, like much of his foreign policy, was a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas and moveable lines in the sand.
All that does not forgive Putin’s quest, including U.S. election meddling, which according to a fascinating New Yorker article, had its antecedent in the 1984 reelection campaign of Ronald Reagan.
When Putin went to work for the KGB in 1975, Yuri Andropov was its chairman. (Putin was to become chairman of the KGB’s successor, the Federal Security Service, as he leapfrogged through the Russian bureaucracy en route to the presidency.) In April 1982, Andropov ordered his foreign intelligence operatives to carry out aktivniye meropriyatiya (active measures) to influence events to prevent Reagan’s reelection in 1984.
According to New Yorker writers Evan Osnos, David Remnick and Joshua Yaffa, these measures included intelligence gathering, using front groups and other techniques honed during the First Cold War, trying to infiltrate the headquarters of the Republican and Democratic National Committees, popularizing the slogan “Reagan Means War!” and discrediting the president as a corrupt tool of the military-industrial complex. No matter, Reagan won all but one state in an historic landslide.
By comparison, meddling in the 2016 election was a piece of cake.
The political landscape was rife with soft targets vulnerable to hacking and spreading of dezinformatsiya (false information). Discrediting the official version of events (read Hillary Clinton) was easy at a time when the trust of the mainstream media was especially low and there were conspiracy theories everywhere, a number of them being aggressively peddled by Trump himself such as Obama’s place of birth and the origins of climate change.
How do we know that Trump was confident that Putin had his back? Because of the Christopher Steele dossier.
In early January, just days before Trump’s inauguration, the Obama administration scrambled to preserve and distribute the substantial intelligence it had uncovered on Trump’s Russia ties. This included leaving as long a paper trail as possible across a broad swath of government agencies.
In conjunction with that effort, James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence, released a bombshell report concluding that Putin had orchestrated a campaign to harm Clinton’s election prospects and enhance Trump’s. While the declassified report was short on specifics, the conclusion was the consensus view of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. It was underpinned by a 35-page dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Steele.
Beyond Steele’s sterling reputation, his dossier was believed to be so accurate by those intelligence agencies that the FBI was prepared to pay Steele to keep digging, an arrangement that was interrupted when the dossier became the subject of news stories and denials from the Trump White House and Steele had to go underground.
In summary, the dossier stated that:
The Russians had been “cultivating, supporting and assisting” Trump for years and had personal and financial kompromat on him that could be used as blackmail. While the more salacious aspects of the dossier, including Trump’s alleged romps with Kremlin-financed prostitutes in a Moscow hotel in 2013 got most of the news media attention, their stories almost always overlooked the big picture.
Putin has been fabulously successful at home. There is no dissent to speak of. Opposition candidates seldom make it onto the ballot. Thirty Russian journalists have been murdered in the past decade and a half. Television and most other media dutifully comply with the Kremlin line.
Putin’s success abroad is more problematic. While Russia has locked down Crimea following its 2014 invasion and its intervention in Syria has helped Bashar al-Asad to crush the nascent democracy movement, breaking the string of more or less successful revolutions in the Middle East, and Trump now is president of its historic nemesis, Trump’s success probably had more to do with the toxicity of Clinton than any grand Kremlin scheme.
The timeframe of the Steele dossier begins about five years ago and ends some weeks before the election, but the working theory among U.S. intelligence officials is that the results of the Russian initiative to compromise Trump was an accidental success. “What do we do now?” the New Yorker authors quote a befuddled Russian embassy official in Washington as asking Moscow after the election.
Why would Attorney General Sessions lie about meeting twice with the Russian ambassador? Why are there so many unforced errors by the White House as the scandal is dragged into the light of day, bone by bone, from the dark cave where it has been hiding?
As the estimable Josh Marshall notes, this is how big scandals work — what is at the center is so big that it requires concealment.
Putin may not have necessarily exposed the failings of American democracy by exploiting Trump but rather its strength.
For that to be borne out, the investigations by U.S. intelligence agencies will have to be allowed to run their course. Fervent Trump supporters now head the primary Senate inquiry and Justice Department reviews. With Sessions recusing himself, the Republican Congress will now have to get out of the way and accede to the appointment of a special prosecutor as it did in the Watergate scandal.
As I have written, there is an arc to presidential scandals, and at some point in each of them there is a standoff as the scandal teeters on the cusp between going super nova or becoming a mere historic footnote. That is where the Russian scandal is today, and there would be no greater victory for Vladimir Putin in his quest to upend that liberal Western order — not to mention a huge victory for Donald Trump’s fraught presidency — if it just faded away.