Did the Trump transition team conspire with Russia to undermine U.S. sanctions?

As the primary beneficiary of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, it stands to reason that Donald Trump would not want to punish his benefactor, Vladimir Putin. For that reason, we might expect that when President Obama imposed the most recent round of sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the attack on American democracy, Trump would want to reassure his patron that sanctions relief is close at hand. Moreover, for this reassurance to have the greatest value it would need to be conveyed before Russia gave the standard tit-for-tat response to having dozens of diplomats expelled.

That’s probably why David Ignatius raised these questions on Thursday:

According to a senior U.S. government official, [Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T.] Flynn [Trump’s choice for national security adviser] phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act (though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated?

The Associated Press now reports: President-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser and Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. have been in frequent contact in recent weeks, including on the day the Obama administration hit Moscow with sanctions in retaliation for election-related hacking, a senior U.S. official says.

After initially denying that Michael Flynn and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak spoke Dec. 29, a Trump official said late Friday that the transition team was aware of one call on the day President Barack Obama imposed sanctions.

It’s not unusual for incoming administrations to have discussions with foreign governments before taking office. But repeated contacts just as Obama imposed sanctions would raise questions about whether Trump’s team discussed — or even helped shape — Russia’s response.

Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly did not retaliate against the U.S. for the move, a decision Trump quickly praised.

More broadly, Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador suggests the incoming administration has already begun to lay the groundwork for its promised closer relationship with Moscow. That effort appears to be moving ahead, even as many in Washington, including Republicans, have expressed outrage over intelligence officials’ assessment that Putin launched a hacking operation aimed at meddling in the U.S. election to benefit Trump.

In an interview published Friday evening by The Wall Street Journal, Trump said he might do away with Obama’s sanctions if Russia works with the U.S. on battling terrorists and achieving other goals.

“If Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions?” he asked. [Continue reading…]

Putin helps Trump and Trump helps Putin — but no one should be in any doubt about who is the dominant partner in this bromance: it’s the one who’s rather proud of showing off his body; not the one who lives in fear of the day he might show up naked on the nightly news.


How fake news turns 87 U.S. tanks into 2,000 tanks threatening Russia

I’m not really a fan of this expression “fake news.” For one thing, like any other pejorative it can too easily get hijacked by practitioners of the Trump school of political rhetoric.

So, when it comes to a website like Michel Chossudovsky’s Global Research, while it can reasonably be described as a chronic purveyor of fake news, I think it can just as accurately be described as a piece of crap.

Consider, for instance, this piece of “reporting” based itself on a “report” from actor Janus Putkonen’s, “Donbass International News Agency.”

Global Research reposts the article which begins:

The NATO war preparation against Russia, ‘Operation Atlantic Resolve’, is in full swing. 2,000 US tanks will be sent in coming days from Germany to Eastern Europe, and 1,600 US tanks is deployed to storage facilities in the Netherlands. At the same time, NATO countries are sending thousands of soldiers in to Russian borders.

Following Russian intervention in Ukraine, “Operation Atlantic Resolve” began in 2014 and was designed to “reassure NATO allies and partners of America’s dedication to enduring peace and stability in the region,” according to the Pentagon.

So what about these 2,000 tanks?

It seems like the Putkonen system of military analysis works like this: find a report that includes “2,000” and “tanks” in the same sentence and, voila! You end up with 2,000 tanks.

On January 6, Stars and Stripes reported:

The U.S. Army began unloading tanks and other weaponry in the German port of Bremerhaven Friday, marking the arrival of the first wave of gear that will support the rotation of an armored brigade in Europe.

Over the next several days, the equipment will be offloaded and moved by rail, commercial lines and convoy into staging sites in Poland.

The arrival of the military hardware and troops from the Fort Carson-based 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division marks the start of the first full-time presence of a tank brigade in Europe since the last armored units on the Continent were inactivated several years ago.

In all, the Fort Carson brigade will bring 87 tanks, 18 Paladins; 419 multi-purpose and 144 Bradley Fighting Vehicles; as well as some 2,000 additional vehicles and trailers.

Call me a stickler for accuracy, but I’d say there’s a big difference between 87 tanks and 2,000 tanks, but then again, who’s to say what the U.S. Army might be hiding inside its vehicle-borne portajohns.


Obama vs Trump — academic journals vs Twitter

The Associated Press reports: President Barack Obama cast the adoption of clean energy in the U.S. as “irreversible,” putting pressure Monday on President-elect Donald Trump not to back away from a core strategy to fight climate change.

Obama, penning an opinion article in the journal Science, sought to frame the argument in a way that might appeal to the president-elect: in economic terms. He said the fact that the cost and polluting power of energy have dropped at the same time proves that fighting climate change and spurring economic growth aren’t mutually exclusive.

“Despite the policy uncertainty that we face, I remain convinced that no country is better suited to confront the climate challenge and reap the economic benefits of a low-carbon future than the United States,” Obama wrote.

He peppered his article with subtle references to Trump, noting that the debate about future climate policy was “very much on display during the current presidential transition.”

As he prepares to transfer power to Trump, Obama has turned to an unusual format to make his case to Trump to preserve his policies: academic journals. In the last week, Obama also published articles under his name in the Harvard Law Review about his efforts on criminal justice reform and in the New England Journal of Medicine defending his health care law, which Republicans are poised to repeal.

The articles reflect an effort by Obama to pre-empt the arguments Trump or Republicans are likely to employ as they work to roll back Obama’s key accomplishments in the coming years. Yet it’s unclear whether Trump or the GOP could be swayed by scholarly arguments in relatively obscure publications. [Continue reading…]

At tomorrow’s press conference, Donald Trump is sure to be asked for clarification on questions raised by his recent tweets.

On the other hand, “Did you read any of President Obama’s recent articles in Science, the Harvard Law Review, or the New England Journal of Medicine, Mr Trump?” is an unlikely question.

But on the off-chance something along those lines does come up, Trump is likely to wave it off with something like this: “I’m happy for President Obama to write for academics while I work for the American people.”

It would be understandable if Obama feels like he’s served his time and is now entitled to a quiet life, but I hope he does the opposite — that he doesn’t withdraw to an ivory tower but instead lends his voice (more than his pen) to active and engaged opposition to what promises to be the worst presidency in American history. Writing for academic journals, however, is preaching to the choir.

Scientific challenges against an anti-science president and an anti-science political party are going to get parried by the same expression of mock humility — “I’m not a scientist, but…” — a line that resonates well in a scientifically illiterate nation.


Putin’s man in the White House

Yesterday, Donald Trump tweeted:

Contrary to Trump’s claim that the DNC “would not allow the FBI to study or see its computer info,” Eric Walker, the DNC’s deputy communications director, told BuzzFeed News via email prior to Trump’s tweets: “the FBI never requested access to the DNC’s computer servers” [Walker’s italics].

Following an intelligence briefing today, Trump released a statement in which he said:

While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.

That conclusion — “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election” — is Trump’s and not the conclusion of the intelligence agencies.

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported on testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee:

Brushing aside Donald Trump’s dismissiveness, the nation’s intelligence chief insisted Thursday that U.S. agencies are more confident than ever that Russia interfered in America’s recent presidential election. And he called the former Cold War foe an “existential threat” to the nation.

Did Russian hacking sway the results? There’s no way for U.S. agencies to know, said James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.

Asked about the possible effect of the disclosure of private information stolen by hackers, Clapper said, “The intelligence community can’t gauge the impact it had on the choices the electorate made.”

Where Trump and the intelligence community are in agreement is that, as Clapper said, Russian hacking “did not change any vote tallies.”

After having become a lonely holdout in sustaining his skepticism about whether any Russian hacking had even occurred, Trump now claims absolute certainty about the hacking’s effect — which is to say, that it had no effect.

The overarching message Trump wants to promote is that Russia had no role in his election.

Until it became an unsustainable viewpoint, Trump insisted that he simply didn’t believe there had been any Russian involvement.

Now that he can’t push that line any further, he’s changed his tack slightly by abandoning his hard denial and instead says Russia’s interference was of no consequence.

What is clear, is that Trump is convinced that if he gives any real ground on this issue, he is going to end up being viewed — or as many of us would say, recognized — as Putin’s man in the White House.


Julian Assange’s non-denial denial on Russian interference in the U.S. election

On Saturday, Donald Trump said he knew “things that other people don’t know” about the hacking, and that the information would be revealed “on Tuesday or Wednesday.”

It’s widely believed that the “revelation” Trump was alluding to would come from Julian Assange in an interview the Wikileaks founder did with Sean Hannity that aired on Fox News last night.

During that interview, Hannity pressed Assange on the question of Russian involvement in the hacking:

Assange: There is one person in the world and I think it’s actually only one, who knows exactly what is going on with our publications and that’s me.

Hannity: Can you say to the American people, unequivocally, that you did not get this information about the DNC, John Podesta’s emails — can you tell the American people 1,000% you did not get it from Russia [Assange interjects “yes”] or anybody associated with Russia?

Assange: We can say, have said repeatedly over the last two months that our source is not the Russian government and it is not [a] state party.

Assange chooses his words very carefully and for him to provide an unequivocal denial of Russian involvement he had no need to rephrase Hannity’s question. He could have simply responded that his source neither is nor was associated with Russia.

It has always been reasonable to assume that Russia would provide Wikileaks with plausible deniability by using an intermediary who was not overtly a state party or having easily identifiable ties to the Russian government and yet Assange declined to say that his source is/was not associated with Russia. The source might not be a “state party” (however Assange defines that expression) and yet, even now, Assange has not ruled out a Russian association.

Some day Assange may find himself on trial and be pressed on questions about what he did or did not know about his sources. As categorical as he might want statements he makes now to sound, he also most likely wants to leave himself wiggle room so that in the future he can still claim, “I didn’t know.” His concern then (and now) being to avoid being accused of knowingly trying to subvert an election by serving as an agent of a foreign power.

As for his professed dedication to truth-telling, it’s noteworthy that in the course of the interview, Assange repeatedly distorts the hacking narrative provided by the U.S. government by saying the Russia has been accused of hacking voting machines — an accusation that on the few occasions it has been made has swiftly been denied by government officials. In this, as he has often done so in the past, Assange shows that prizes the value not only of information but also disinformation.


Nothing happened. It happens all the time

It’s a strange line of argument but surprisingly commonplace: to first vigorously deny something has happened, but to then say that if it did happen it’s perfectly normal.

When it comes to the issue of Russian interference in American democracy — an issue that should be of real concern to every American citizen — the deniers are mostly in the same position as people who deny climate change.

Assuming a stance of assiduous skepticism they plead that insufficient evidence has been presented to prove the case. As often applies to climate deniers, this professed skepticism seems intended to obscure the fact that the skeptic has a deep investment in one side of the argument.

At the conclusion of his latest diatribe against the mainstream media, Glenn Greenwald writes:

Since it is so often distorted, permit me once again to underscore my own view on the broader Russia issue: Of course it is possible that Russia is responsible for these hacks, as this is perfectly consistent with (and far more mild than) what both Russia and the U.S. have done repeatedly for decades.

But given the stakes involved, along with the incentives for error and/or deceit, no rational person should be willing to embrace these accusations as Truth unless and until convincing evidence has been publicly presented for review, which most certainly has not yet happened.

“[W]hat both Russia and the U.S. have done repeatedly for decades” has a vagueness worthy of Donald Trump, but Greenwald’s drift is clear: if the DNC hackings were carried out by Russia, it’s par for the course — nothing unusual, so let’s just move on.

Yet he concedes there are “stakes involved.” Indeed there are, not only because interference by a foreign power played a role in Donald Trump becoming the next U.S. president, but because this puts Greenwald and his close associate and Moscow resident, Edward Snowden, in a very awkward position. Increasingly they look less like independent dissidents speaking truth to power, and more like de facto sympathizers with a hostile power.

During the Bush era, critics of the war in Iraq and of the neoconservative agenda broadly accepted the view that America’s destructive involvement in the Middle East could ultimately be reduced to a single issue: control of the global oil supply.

Strangely, many of those same critics while now witnessing the power of oil flexing its muscles more strongly than ever seen before, would rather focus their attention on the perennial bugaboos of Washington, the mainstream media, the intelligence agencies, and American power.

The DNC was hacked, Wikileaks fed the media with a steady stream of unstartling emails, Trump wildly distorted their contents, and now the most Russia-friendly president ever is about to take office, leading an administration loaded with individuals tied to the oil industry.

Russia, the world’s number-one oil producer, eagerly awaits improved relations with the U.S. not only in the form of sanctions relief but also as Washington predictably tries to slam the brakes on the transition to renewable energy.

Vladimir Putin, who nowadays sees himself as the most powerful man in the world, has reason to be smiling with glee, while the hacking skeptics apparently think he’s merely the beneficiary of a string of good luck and that broadly speaking this is all just business as usual.

You’ve got to be kidding!

The oil industry, Washington, and Moscow will soon be marching in lockstep, while Greenwald directs his audience to the occasional piece of sloppy journalism.

Those who once warned about their dangers are now themselves wielding the weapons of mass distraction.


Lowlife murders driver, steals truck and mows down crowd of innocent people

In and of itself, the horrendous attack in Berlin was a meaningless act of violence carried out by a callous criminal. He left identification papers at the scene of the crime, possibly a ruse to throw investigators off the trail, but just as likely evidence that he’s an idiot.

Was this an event of such significance and such magnitude that it should alter the destiny of a nation? That’s for Germans to decide. Hopefully they will retain the best marker of sanity: a sense of proportion.

If only the same could be said of the media and politicians. Most likely they will continue to demonstrate their willingness to be manipulated by extremism, all the more so because extremists are already gaining a foothold inside the political system.

Whenever an act of terrorism takes place, there is a real need to make sense of what just happened. Understandably, there is an urgent desire to prevent such events recurring, along with a sense of frustration that literally ending terrorism is an unachievable goal.

A poorly conceived effort to make sense of terrorism more than terrorism itself is what has had an enduring impact on societies and reshaped the world over the last two decades.

During that period, Islamophobia in the West has grown relentlessly and over the last two years that fear has increasingly focused on refugees.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, acutely aware that her political opponents would have no hesitation in blaming the Berlin attack on her immigration and security policies, addressed the issue of refugees in a statement she made about the attack yesterday:

It would, she said, be “particularly difficult for all of us to tolerate” a situation in which the perpetrator had come to Germany as a refugee.” It would be, she continued, “particularly repulsive with respect to the many, many Germans who are engaged daily in providing assistance to refugees and with respect to the many people who really need our protection and who are doing their best to integrate.”

At that time, a suspect was under arrest who was indeed a refugee.

It turned out that the fact of this arrest was not evidence of a rapidly progressing investigation but more likely an indication of the fact that increasingly in Germany and elsewhere, refugees are viewed with suspicion.

The irony, of course, is that a large proportion of these refugees have come to the West in order to escape violence perpetrated by groups such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram.

As Donald Trump enters office, he and leading members of his administration have insisted that they won’t be afraid of using the phrase Islamic terrorism. His answer to what he views as Barack Obama’s anemic security policies is to try and make Americans focus more strongly on Islam when they react to terrorism.

But what the attacks in Europe over the last year or so have revealed much more clearly is an alignment not between Islam and terrorism but between criminality and jihadism.

In the latest issue of the journal, Perspectives on Terrorism, Rajan Basra & Peter R. Neumann write:

On the morning of Wednesday, 31 August 2016, two plain-clothed police officers approached a suspected drug dealer in Christiana, an alternative life-style district in Copenhagen, Denmark. Without warning, the man opened fire at the police with a pistol and ran away. He was eventually tracked down and died from wounds that he received during a police shootout. His name was Mesa Hodzic, a 25-year old Danish-Bosnian, who was known to the police as a drug dealer. Two days later, the jihadist group Islamic State (IS aka ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) claimed responsibility for Hodzic’s actions, proclaiming him a ‘soldier’ of the Caliphate. It turned out that Hodzic was not just a prolific drug dealer, but also a member of a Salafist group who had expressed sympathies for the Islamic State and appeared in its propaganda videos. At first, this appeared like a flagrant contradiction. Were jihadists not meant to be religious, and refrain from drug peddling and ‘ordinary’ crime? Yet his case demonstrates how blurred the lines between crime and extremism have become. Was he a criminal, a terrorist, or both?

Mesa Hodzic was not a unique case. German Federal Police stated that of the 669 German foreign fighters about whom they had sufficient information, two-thirds had police records prior to travelling to Syria, and one-third had criminal convictions. The Belgian Federal Prosecutor said that approximately half of his country’s jihadists had criminal records prior to leaving for Syria. A United Nations report suggests a similar pattern amongst French foreign fighters. Officials from Norway and the Netherlands told us that ‘at least 60 per cent’ of their countries’ jihadists had previously been involved in crime. It is for this reason that Alain Grignard, the head of Brussels Federal Police, described Islamic State as ‘a sort of super-gang’.

Instead of drumming up fear of refugees and an Islamic threat, the evidence is already clear of a discernible path leading from petty crime to spectacular violence.

The worst we can do now is reward those who try and glorify their miserable lives and drench themselves in the blood of other, by ascribing to their actions some religious significance.

Stay informed. Click below to sign up for daily email updates from War in Context:

sign up now


When did conservatives stop believing in personal responsibility?

Here we go again! It’s a clash of civilizations.

I guess the next president of the United States hadn’t been briefed before he got on Twitter. Otherwise he would have been aware that in the attack in Zurich the target of the gunman was a group of worshipers gathered at an Islamic center.

The local police have since found a body which they have identified as the gunman and have ruled out any connection to ISIS in the attack.

Even before more details become known, I’m willing to draw some tentative conclusions. The gunman was a gun-owner (Switzerland has a high level of gun ownership) and he hated Muslims.

The attack in Zurich occurred at 5.30pm before the attack in Berlin at 8.15pm in which 12 people were murdered and 48 injured. If the gunman was motivated by revenge of some type it wasn’t for an atrocity that had yet to take place.

Earlier in the day, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey G. Karlov, was murdered by Mevlut Mert Altintas, a 22-year-old off-duty or former Turkish police officer.

How are these events all tied together — apart from in a Trump tweet and by virtue of having occurred on the same day?

They all involve confusion around the meaning of personal responsibility.

With the assassination of Karlov, Altintas certainly wasn’t carrying out an act of random violence and yet whether the career diplomat (an expert on Korea) and representative of the Russian state shares personal responsibility for Russia’s policy on Syria is open to question. It seems most likely he became a target of choice because his public appearance provided the gunman with an opportunity.

In Berlin and Zurich it’s even clearer that the individual victims were given death sentences by their attackers who saw them as indistinguishable from the vast collective (Westerners and Muslims) that each was taken to represent.

If a change in thinking is called for — and indeed it is — it should focus on the promotion of personal responsibility.

Acts of violence that can inflame passions and irrationality across whole societies, must be seen for what they are: the actions of individuals.

Just as gun-owners across Switzerland are not responsible for the murderous intent on one man in Zurich, likewise millions of refugees across Europe are not responsible for the grotesque violence of a 23-year-old Pakistani refugee initially suspected of having carried out the attack in Berlin. Indeed, the latest report quotes a police source who said: “we have the wrong man.”

But this is the paradox in the get-tough approach to counter-terrorism: Because justice cannot be served on individuals who so often die while carrying out their acts of violence, the reactive impulse to throw a counterpunch often results in wild strikes that land far from the mark.

The violence that grabbed the headlines yesterday is the responsibility, first and foremost, of the three men who carried out the the attacks.

This shouldn’t be turned into a showdown between a self-proclaimed civilized world and an ill-defined adversary.


China says U.S. is ‘appropriately handling’ seizure of marine research robot — a lesson for Trump?

Reuters reports: China and the United States are using military channels to “appropriately handle” the seizure by the Chinese navy of a U.S. underwater drone in the South China Sea, China said on Saturday, and a Chinese state-run newspaper said it expected a smooth resolution.

The drone was taken on Thursday, the first seizure of its kind in recent memory, about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay off the Philippines, just as the USNS Bowditch was about to retrieve the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), U.S. officials said.

“It is understood that China and the United States are using military channels to appropriately handle this issue,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a brief statement sent to Reuters, without elaborating. [Continue reading…]

Given Donald Trump’s focus on attending victory rallies and his lack of interest in receiving intelligence briefings, it’s possible that this brief diplomatic incident escaped his attention. At least we can surmise at this point that the president-elect did not deem this matter tweet-worthy.

Nevertheless, I have to wonder whether the Chinese had the intention of providing Trump with a teachable moment so that he can understand that it’s possible to deal with a small provocation without starting World War III.

Let’s hope this isn’t the last time we hear a foreign power saying that the U.S. is appropriately handling an unexpected situation.

But given that even before Trump has entered office he has rocked U.S.-Chinese relations, his destabilizing influence on global affairs seems much more likely to grow before or if it can be held in check.

I spoke too soon!

Literally as I was writing this, Trump tweeted this:

I don’t know if Trump corrects his tweets, so just in case, here’s a screenshot:


I guess Trump could be coining an expression that means an action unworthy of a president. Much more likely, it just means that early on a Saturday morning he doesn’t have any staff nearby to tell him how to spell unprecedented.

As for the substance, Trump is incorrect in claiming that China’s action is unprecedented. Moreover, from China’s point of view it is the U.S. surveillance operations which are the provocation as it has previously made clear.

In 2002, the same U.S. ship was involved in a flare of tensions between the U.S. and China. As the Associated Press reported at the time:

Chinese patrol planes buzzed an unarmed U.S. Navy ship several times while it was conducting what the Pentagon called routine military surveys in the Yellow Sea, and Beijing demanded that it cease “illegal operations” inside China’s 200-mile economic exclusion zone.

The incidents happened over a period of weeks starting in early September. After Chinese officials lodged private protests at least twice, the United States responded Thursday with a note that asserted its right to conduct such activities inside any nation’s economic exclusion zone.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said, “We think it violates the international maritime law, and we have made several representations to the U.S. side.”

The report also said:

This was not the first time the Bowditch’s work has rankled the Chinese. On March 23, 2001, just nine days before the EP-3 collision, a Chinese warship chased the Bowditch out of the Yellow Sea.

That collision being between a Chinese fighter plane and a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea — an incident that caused much of the world to hold its breath as it waited to see whether an inexperienced and brash American president, George W. Bush, would over-react.

Who could imagine that 16 years later, Bush would, in retrospect, look like a seasoned statesman compared to the man who is about to enter the White House!?

Of course, Bush’s test with China was a prelude to a much greater test six months later whose consequences still reverberate around the world.

The prospect of Trump facing a similar test are too horrific to imagine.

Stay informed. Click below to sign up for daily email updates from War in Context:

sign up now


Russian interference in American democracy

In responding to assertions attributed to CIA analysts who say that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election in order to help Donald Trump win, the president-elect is following the standard business practice employed by oil companies and the tobacco industry in order to deflect criticism: first come the categorical denials whose purpose is to trample on the questions and belittle the questioners; then comes the cloud of uncertainty whose purpose is to promote a sense of equality in the face of the unknown.

Whereas other practitioners of this strategy often take years to move from stage one to stage two, Trump makes the leap within a few sentences. Having first dismissed the CIA’s claim as ridiculous, Trump then pleaded ignorance.

In order to foster an all-embracing sense of uncertainty, in his interview aired on Fox News yesterday, Trump said: “there’s great confusion. Nobody really knows…. They’re not sure. They’re fighting among themselves. They’re not sure…. if you read the stories, the various stories, they’re disputing. And certain groups don’t necessarily agree. Personally, it could be Russia. It — I don’t really think it is. But who knows? I don’t know either. They don’t know and I don’t know.”

If Trump has actually read the news reports he’d know that there is a consensus in the intelligence community and the FBI that Russia interfered in the election.

What is in dispute is not the fact of the interference but its purpose.

News reporting is currently reducing this dispute to a binary question about whether Russia was trying to install Trump as president, but for those willing to speculate about Russian objectives the analysis needs to be a bit more subtle.

What should not be in dispute is the claim that Russia had a preference for Trump. As the New York Times reports:

American officials cite broad evidence that Mr. Putin and the Russian government favored Mr. Trump over Mrs. Clinton.

After demonstrators marched through Moscow in 2011 chanting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” Mr. Putin publicly accused Mrs. Clinton, then the secretary of state, of instigating the protests. “She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” he said.

More generally, the Russian government has blamed Mrs. Clinton, along with the C.I.A. and other American officials, for encouraging anti-Russian revolts during the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. What Americans saw as legitimate democracy promotion, Mr. Putin saw as an unwarranted intrusion into Russia’s geographic sphere of interest, as the United States once saw Soviet meddling in Cuba.

By contrast, Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin have had a very public mutual admiration society. In December 2015, the Russian president called Mr. Trump “very colorful” — using a Russian word that Mr. Trump and some news outlets mistranslated as “brilliant” — as well as “talented” and “absolutely the leader in the presidential race.” Mr. Trump called Mr. Putin “a strong leader” and further pleased him by questioning whether the United States should defend NATO members that did not spend enough on their militaries.

Russian television, which is tightly controlled by the government, has generally portrayed Mr. Trump as a strong, friendly potential partner while often airing scathing assessments of Mrs. Clinton.

And yet, there is skepticism within the American government, particularly at the F.B.I., that this evidence adds up to proof that the Russians had the specific objective of getting Mr. Trump elected.

A senior American law enforcement official said the F.B.I. believed that the Russians probably had a combination of goals, including damaging Mrs. Clinton and undermining American democratic institutions. Whether one of those goals was to install Mr. Trump remains unclear to the F.B.I., he said.

The official played down any disagreement between the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., and suggested that the C.I.A.’s conclusions were probably more nuanced than they were being framed in the news media.

There is little reason to doubt that Russia has always had a strong preference for Trump and yet when the DNC hacking was instigated, everyone — including the Russians — must have seen a Trump victory as a long-shot.

So, discussion about Russian intentions needs to take account of the strong likelihood that its goals evolved. As the Washington Post reported in July, “It may be that the Kremlin wishes to disrupt and discredit the U.S. political process without seeking any particular result.”

And yet through a combination of the effect of multiple factors — leaked emails, relentless attacks on Hillary Clinton’s integrity, the lack of a compelling Democratic Party message, and then a decisive last minute assist from the FBI — Donald Trump won the election.

This is the outcome Russia wanted and helped bring about.

And if there is any remaining doubt that it will be duly rewarded for its efforts, the first serving is about to get dished out this week in the form of Rex Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon Mobil, whose appointment as Secretary of State is already being praised by the Kremlin even before it has been announced.

Stay informed. Click below to sign up for daily email updates from War in Context:

sign up now


What Donald Trump chooses to ignore

This is part of what Donald Trump said in an interview broadcast on Fox News today:

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: According to The Washington Post, the CIA has concluded that Russia intervened in the election to help you win the presidency. Your reaction?

DONALD TRUMP, R-PRESIDENT-ELECT: I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it… No, I don’t believe that at all.

WALLACE: You say you don’t know why. Do you think the CIA is trying to overturn the results of the election —

TRUMP: No, I don’t think —

WALLACE: — somehow to weaken you in office?

TRUMP: Well, if you look at the story and you take a look at what they said, there’s great confusion. Nobody really knows.


WALLACE: You’ve said repeatedly you don’t believe the intelligence community’s analysis that the Russians were involved.

TRUMP: Take a look. They’re not sure. They’re fighting among themselves. They’re not sure.

WALLACE: But the question is, these are the folks you’re going to have to rely on to know what’s going on in the world?

TRUMP: Of course, we’re going to make changes, you know, at the top. I mean, we’re going to have different people coming in because we have our people, they have their people. And I have great respect for them.

But if you read the stories, the various stories, they’re disputing. And certain groups don’t necessarily agree. Personally, it could be Russia. It — I don’t really think it is. But who knows? I don’t know either. They don’t know and I don’t know.


WALLACE: President Obama just ordered a full review of Russia’s involvement, hacking in the election. And Democrats are now calling for hearings.

Do you think this is part of an effort to undercut you?

TRUMP: Well, it could be. I think President Obama’s been terrific. He’s been very respectful of the process and everything else. So, I saw that.

But — and I want it too. I think it’s great. I think — I don’t want anyone hacking us. And I’m not only talking about countries. I’m talking about anyone, period.

But if you’re going to do that, I think you should not just say Russia, you should say other countries also, and maybe other individuals.

In summary, Donald Trump thinks that the CIA’s claim that Russia intervened to help him win the election is ridiculous. He doesn’t believe it at all.

But he also thinks Russia could have hacked the election and says “I don’t know.”

Tucked inside this contradictory mix of disbelief and doubt is Trump’s overriding conviction: that if he is ever compelled to publicly acknowledge that Russia played an instrumental role in his victory, a fatal blow will have been struck at the legitimacy of his presidency.

No wonder he chooses to get as few intelligence briefings as possible.

Trump is more concerned about avoiding hearing information he doesn’t want to hear than he desires to be apprised of current threats to the national security of the United States.

In an era during which both politicians and the public have become hyperfocused on overstated threats from terrorism, what is actually now in jeopardy is American democracy itself.

Fortified borders and expanded military forces will provide no protection if opponents of democracy are already exerting their influence at the heart of government.

Trump’s insistence that no one really knows whether Russia intervened is a position that will nevertheless resonate in many quarters both because of widespread skepticism about the reliability of the CIA and because of the simple fact that the agency has thus far refrained from making clear exactly how much (or how little) it knows.

Nevertheless, no one should confuse the non-disclosure of evidence with its non-existence.

President Obama’s order that a report be completed before he leaves office, nevertheless suggests the possibility that President Trump will feel compelled to acknowledge the report’s findings.

If he doesn’t, it’s unlikely the report will show up on Wikileaks.

Even so, the more earnestly Trump buries the report’s conclusions, the more reasonably we can assume they must be explosive.

And the more explosive the facts are, the more likely that sooner or later they will become public knowledge.

* * *

Stay informed. Click below to sign up for daily email updates from War in Context:

sign up now


Making Twitter secure for Trump is more difficult than modifying a Blackberry for Obama


It was a rough day at the NSA when President Trump asked for his Twitter account to be made secure.

“It just really bothered a lot of people — nobody wanted to put anything out there that wasn’t completely secure,” said NSA technical director Richard “Dickie” George in an interview with CNNMoney.

George’s role was to review the president’s neural pathways and write and engineer diagrams for securing the commander in chief’s brain.

In response to Trump’s request, the NSA set up a lab where dozens of experts planned surgery for several months on a high-profile patient: the soon-to-be presidential Trump brain. The course of treatment was to manipulate the organ’s structure to weed out potential threats to secure communication.

The effort turned out to be fruitless. There would be only one possible solution, the NSA concluded: delete Trump’s Twitter account.

“This isn’t a flaw in the technology,” George said, “It’s a problem with the user: we can’t fix his brain.”

(As they say in Hollywood: based on a true story.)


Trump is more dangerous than ‘the Blob’

With the ascent to power of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration and following 9/11 the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, foreign-policy realists succeeded in promoting the virtues of the national interest — to the detriment of internationalism.

For some years, progressives, antiwar activists, and traditional conservatives have found common cause in opposition to interventionism.

In some ways, Donald Trump’s election is part of that trend.

For that reason, an academic such as John Mearsheimer who sees himself as being outside the foreign policy establishment, sees potential promise in a Trump presidency but he fears the power that remains entrenched in Washington, that has been referred to derisively as “the Blob” by President Obama’s close adviser, Ben Rhodes.

Mearsheimer warns:

The foreign-policy community, which has deep roots and cuts across both of the major political parties, will go to enormous lengths to tame the new president and make sure he sticks with liberal hegemony.

Should it prevail, there will be more terrorism, more failed attempts to spread democracy, more lost wars, and more death and destruction across the greater Middle East.

But there’s a glaring problem with this analysis: it makes no mention of the fact that even before he takes office, it’s clear from his own campaign statements and from the first appointments he has made, that Donald Trump and his administration are Islamophobic to the core.

It’s not without reason that Trump’s election was instantly being celebrated by jihadists across the world.

“This guy is a complete maniac. His utter hate towards Muslims will make our job much easier because we can recruit thousands,” Abu Omar Khorasani, a top ISIS commander in Afghanistan, told Reuters.

Never since 9/11 must the United States have appeared as such an appealing target for terrorism.

Trump is a ticking time-bomb and it seems like just a matter of time before a terrorist plot, either executed or thwarted, sets him off.

And what happens then?

How is a president who gets triggered by a mild rebuke from the cast of Hamilton going to react to some barbaric act provocation?

Where will Trump’s famous counterpunch land? And how much or little will the president actually understand before he feels driven to take what he proudly brands as “decisive action”?

That’s what most of us have reason to fear and what the terrorists eagerly await, confident as they must be that Trump’s overreaction will have the potential to cause even more harm than Bush and Cheney’s overreaction to 9/11.

But to listen to Mearsheimer and some other realists, you’d think that we should be more concerned about the debatable influence of “the Blob” than we are about Trump’s reactivity.


Trump’s disavowal of the alt-right movement is meaningless

CNN reports: Donald Trump has never been one to shy away from speaking — or more accurately, tweeting — his mind.

But critics say it took him too long to publicly disavow a shockingly racist speech Saturday by a white nationalist leader whose rallying cry mirrored Adolf Hitler’s.

“Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory,” Richard Spencer shouted from the podium of the annual convention for his think-tank called The National Policy Institute. Spencer calls himself the founder of the “alt-right” movement, a label that’s been applied to far-right extremists advocating for white nationalism.

The scene, taking place less than a mile from the White House, was reminiscent of Nazi-era Germany, with several members of the audience cheering with the straight-arm Hitler salute.

At times speaking in German, Spencer’s 30-minute speech included the unmistakable marriage of Neo-Nazi hate and Trump’s campaign slogan.

“It is only normal again when we are great again,” Spencer said.

A Trump transition spokesman released a short media statement Monday evening, but it took Trump until Tuesday to publicly disavow the group in his own words. And it came only when pressed in a meeting with New York Times reporters, editors and executives,
Of course I disavow and condemn them,” Trump said when asked about the group.

But Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League, says Trump needed to do it sooner.

“There seems to be a pattern in the Trump administration of waiting until the last moment. And we just don’t have the luxury for that. When there are Nazi salutes in D.C., it’s important to condemn it at the moment,” Segal said. [Continue reading…]

Let’s wind the clock back and imagine that Trump had condemned and disavowed Spencer and the alt-right movement within the first few hours of the Washington video going viral — the swiftness of his statement would still have meant nothing more than a growing awareness that he needed to distance himself from a long-standing and increasingly toxic relationship.

If Trump really had a problem with alt right, he wouldn’t have chosen Steve Bannon as his chief strategist and closest adviser.

Neither of them can now credibly distance themselves from ties they have long nurtured.

If Bannon actually had a problem with the movement, he wouldn’t have anointed his publication, Breitbart News, as “platform for the alt-right.”

At his meeting with staff at the New York Times yesterday, Trump said of Bannon: “If I thought he was a racist, or alt-right, or any of the things that we can, you know, the terms we can use, I wouldn’t even think about hiring him.”

No one in the room had the guts to vigorously challenge him even though Bannon’s ties to alt-right have long been explicit and unambiguous — as Sarah Posner reported in August:

“We’re the platform for the alt-right,” Bannon told me proudly when I interviewed him at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in July. Though disavowed by every other major conservative news outlet, the alt-right has been Bannon’s target audience ever since he took over Breitbart News from its late founder, Andrew Breitbart, four years ago. Under Bannon’s leadership, the site has plunged into the fever swamps of conservatism, cheering white nationalist groups as an “eclectic mix of renegades,” accusing President Barack Obama of importing “more hating Muslims,” and waging an incessant war against the purveyors of “political correctness.”

“Andrew Breitbart despised racism. Truly despised it,” former Breitbart editor-at-large Ben Shapiro wrote last week on the Daily Wire, a conservative website. “With Bannon embracing Trump, all that changed. Now Breitbart has become the alt-right go-to website, with [technology editor Milo] Yiannopoulos pushing white ethno-nationalism as a legitimate response to political correctness, and the comment section turning into a cesspool for white supremacist mememakers.”


The presidency and the pretense


In August, French president François Hollande said Donald Trump’s excesses “make you want to retch.”

Following her election defeat, Hillary Clinton says we now owe Trump an “open mind.”

Keep an open mind and keep a sick-bag close at hand.

No doubt there are millions of Americans and others around the world who think it’s too late to view this man with an open mind. He has a history.

At least in spirit I’m with those who’ve taken to the streets, chanting “Not My President” — and I hope they all voted too.

As Rachel Maddow correctly pointed out on Tuesday night: anyone who voted for a candidate who couldn’t win was also in effect saying, I don’t care who becomes president.

But votes cast, miscast, or not cast at all — it’s too late to undo what’s done.

Come January 20, like it or not, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the next president.

To a greater degree, perhaps more than ever before, how this president performs will be deeply affected by how he is perceived. His actions will, to an extent, be molded by our judgments.

In one regard, Donald Trump will be exactly like every other president as he enters office: He will at the outset be faking it.

The inauguration is the beginning of the pretense. Donald Trump’s challenge is whether he can eventually leave office without forever having appeared to be an impostor.

Although Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama might seem to be engaged in a charade with their current conciliatory tone, there is good reason not to view this as mere capitulation.

In spite of Trump being almost universally perceived as disruptive, to a degree rarely acknowledged, he generally plays by the rules — at least when he’s in the spotlight.

This was evident in the debates where it was Hillary who exerted much more power. She dictated whether they would or would not shake hands. She ignored the moderators while he tended to sulkily submit to their commands. Trump acts out but then usually bows to authority.

As Trump takes on the presidency, our only hope is that he is shaped by the office more than he shapes it in his name.

Whether this happens may have less to do with his intentions than it has to do with our ability to take him seriously. (But one small step that might help America and the world come to terms with the concept of President Trump would be for him to delete his Twitter account.)

He just won the biggest prize he could ever imagine and he did so without displaying a shred of personal responsibility.

Treating him the right way now has nothing to do with believing he deserves to have reached this position of power. As Hillary said, we owe him an open mind — but not in the charitable sense of saying he’s deserves a chance to succeed.

If Trump doesn’t grow into the office and learn how to act and look presidential, we won’t be rewarded with the opportunity to gloat at his failure. On the contrary, we will suffer the consequences of that failure as the presidency metastasizes and becomes thoroughly Trumpified and America becomes even more deeply disfigured through his influence.

Already, Trump followers are on the rampage, acting out because they think their leader didn’t just win an election; they think he toppled the establishment and took over the system. They think Trump now rules America and that they can now live by his rules.

If the rest of us refuse to grant him his honeymoon we are in effect encouraging him to likewise go on the loose and act out as the misfit-in-chief.

There are those who argue that it’s already time to be mounting resistance — that we have no reason to question who he is or what he represents — but I would argue that it’s too soon to judge his presidency; that if we judge it prematurely we will share responsibility in creating a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not imagining this is going to turn out well. On the contrary, I would say: don’t underestimate how bad it can get.

The growth of a president hinges on his ability to understand and adapt to the limits of power.

If we refuse to grant Trump the honor of the title of his office, then instead of him being encouraged to follow the example of those who preceded him, he will indeed become an exceptional president in the worst possible way.

It turns out that insisting Trump was unfit for office was a foolhardy argument to make. It rested on the assumption not only that he was indeed unfit but for that very reason would never actually become president — but now he has.

What was presented by his opponents as unthinkable is now fact and we have to creatively adapt to this reality.


How Trump became president


In one of the many autopsies of the election, Thomas Frank refers to the “tens of millions of good people” who voted for Trump — 59,692,974 to be precise.

Frank’s hinted sentiment — that Trump supporters should not be viewed too harshly because they’re mostly under-educated men and women who could easily be led astray — is commonplace among commentators who don’t want to risk undermining their own strongly professed affiliations with “working Americans.”

It’s the same sentiment one hears expressed so often by people who have little if any personal experience of manual labor and who nevertheless speak passionately about the tragic effects of lost manufacturing jobs — as though life behind the production lines was dignified by the virtues of honest toil and the wholesomeness of Made in the USA labels.

The problem with seeing Trumpism through the impersonal lens of economic determinism is that it tends to marginalize the cultural issues at play and the personal choices made.

But before drilling any further into the question of what led to this election outcome, let’s keep in mind some basic facts:

Donald Trump is about to become the 45th President of the United States because he won the support of just 25% of the electorate.

The outcome of this election, like every other democratic election, was determined by the way each vote was cast.

More than anything else, Trump’s power derives from the abnegation of power by the 103 million eligible voters who chose not to exercise their democratic rights — the Americans who put Trump in power by acting as though they possessed none.

Instead of getting carried away with broad explanations that revolve around the failings of neoliberalism, let’s consider the individual choices at work as millions of Americans left their mark next to the name Trump; and let’s not just treat Trump voters as hapless dupes who got hoodwinked by a conman.

Trump drew the bulk of his support from white, rural America.

Vice News made an honest effort to offer a snapshot of that support in the voice of one man, Don Bowman, surrounded at home by his family in Oxford, Ohio.

What’s interesting about Bowman is that he isn’t just a randomly chosen Trump supporter who fits the right demographic profile — a guy willing to cater to a journalist’s urgent need to gather a few soundbites about the Trump “movement.”

In learning about this particular man, we aren’t limited to considering what he has to say in front of a camera. We can also learn about his personal history and the culture that shaped his thinking, thanks to the writing of his son, J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy.

In the Vice interview, Bowman says this about Trump:

People are tired of what’s going on, and sometimes it’ll take a guy that’s not your normal guy — I call it misfit — and use him to turn this thing around.

What this guy’s saying is real. He’s not afraid to say what he wants to say, and I realized little by little the Republican Party and the foundation I looked up to as a conservative party is as out of whack as the Democratic Party.

My party has sold out to the establishment and the elites and it’s become so far off track that after it’s all said and done, I said, you know what, as crazy as this guy says things, he’s got something that resonates with me, and it is: we need to get back to the foundation of what this country started as.

Do I think he’s our savior? No. But I think he can be used — at least he’s got enough guts to stand up and say: hey, we’ve got to change the way we’re going, because if we don’t, we’re done.

That’s why people will go for a guy like Trump. He may not say the — but at least, he’s willing to say something and stand up for somebody. And our politicians, both sides of the fence, have forgotten who they’re serving here.

People wanted change but they didn’t know what else to do, because this, the political establishment that we have — Republican and Democrat — has went buzzerko — they’re not for the people. Now I believe, and this is my opinion, this is the most important election in the history of our United States. And I believe that if this doesn’t get right now, we’re done.

Trump’s mantra is “what’s going on?” and believe me, he isn’t quoting Marvin Gaye.

Bowman talks about “what’s going on,” repeating the call and response that ricochets between Trump and his followers.

In an artful dodge, Trump poses this as a question, but that’s not for the purpose of initiating a process of inquiry. It’s a nod and wink — I know what’s going on and you know what’s going on. No need to be explicit.

The guy who spent years challenging Barack Obama’s legitimacy, tapping into broad currents of white prejudice that couldn’t accept a black man in the White House, has long made clear what’s going on and who Americans need to get their country back from — an allegedly foreign-born president, the foreigners streaming across the borders, and the foreign countries stealing American jobs.

What’s going on? is the alarm call that points towards everything that threatens the dominion of white American conservative culture.

When Bowman says: “we need to get back to the foundation of what this country started as,” I’m pretty sure he’s not harking back to 1776. The past he’s mourning, the past he wants to bring back to life is Norman Rockwell’s white America, unpolluted by immigration, homosexuality, secularism, and political correctness, where government stayed off people’s backs and the business of business thrived — a time when there was no disputing to whom this country belonged.

In 2008, Sarah Palin used the crass expression “real America” and thus immediately turned America/American into contested terms. Trump’s skill has been in using much vaguer language whose target audience nevertheless harbors no doubt: he’s speaking to us. Trump closed the sale by convincing his audience: I’m your guy. I know who I’m serving.

Nostalgia is mostly an exercise in myth-making — a way of beautifying the past by sweeping away its ugly features — so it’s worth viewing Bowman’s nostalgia in the context of some of the details of his own life, as recounted by his son. This isn’t Norman Rockwell’s America.

Dad gave me up for adoption when I was six. After the adoption, he became a kind of phantom for the next six years. I had few memories of life with him. I knew that he loved Kentucky, its beautiful mountains, and its rolling green horse country. He drank RC Cola and had a clear Southern accent. He drank, but he stopped after he converted to Pentecostal Christianity. I always felt loved when I spent time with him, which is why I found it so shocking that he “didn’t want me anymore,” as Mom and Mamaw told me. He had a new wife, with two small children, and I’d been replaced.

The past that’s easiest to cherish and idealize is a past never known. And as Vance recounts how members of his family viewed each other, there’s less sense of what they were holding on to and much more of what they longed to escape.

Bob Hamel, my stepdad and eventual adoptive father, was a good guy in that he treated [my sister] Lindsay and me kindly. Mamaw didn’t care much for him. “He’s a toothless fucking retard,” she’d tell Mom, I suspect for reasons of class and culture. Mamaw had done everything in her power to be better than the circumstances of her birth. Though she was hardly rich, she wanted her kids to get an education, obtain white-collar work and marry well-groomed middle-class folks — people, in other words, who were nothing like Mamaw and Papa. Bob, however, was a walking hillbilly stereotype. He had little relationship with his own father and had learned the lessons of his own childhood well: He had two children whom he barely saw, though they lived in Hamilton, a town ten miles south of Middletown. Half his teeth had rotted out, and the other half were black, brown, and misshapen, the consequence of a lifetime of Mountain Dew consumption and presumably some missed dental checkups. He was a high school dropout who drove a truck for a living.

We’d all eventually learn that there was much to dislike about Bob. But what drove Mamaw’s initial dislike were the parts of him that most resembled her. Mamaw apparently understood what would take me another twenty years to learn: that social class in America isn’t just about money.

Implicit in warnings about the rural poor having been “left behind” is the idea that they were once keeping up. But their experience of exclusion has been multi-generational — indeed it stretches all the way back to the experiences of the earliest migrants and before.

Trump embraces Americans who feel excluded but he does this by allowing them to disown that feeling by projecting it on others. He helps the rejected become the rejecters.

If this was simply a cynical exercise in manipulating popular support, he might not have carried it off so successfully, but I get the sense that Trump’s insatiable hunger for adulation flows from his own experience of feeling unwanted — of being a man who would be ignored if he didn’t force himself on others; a man driven by a compulsion that has grown so large he’s now about to take control of a whole nation.