(by Michael Isikoff and David Corn) (2018)
This is an absorbing, readable and – remarkably – balanced account of the 2016 US election and the possible effect of Russian or Russian-sponsored hacking and disinformation.
The existence of actual collusion between the Trump campaign and Putin’s apparatchiks relies on a number of guilt-by-association inferences, commercial ties with Russian oligarchs, and meetings attended by the numerous idiots connected with the campaign. Ultimately, the authors leave open the question both of direct collusion, and of the causative links of Russian meddling to Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
Which is not to say there isn’t plenty of circumstantial evidence as to Russian perfidy: after all, disinformation, sabotage and espionage have been hallmarks of Russians since the days of the Cheka*. And Putin embodies the old saw – “Once KGB, always KGB” (res ipsa loquitur). As the book acknowledges, elections are often targeted by foreign intel – the US has been known to do it, too.
Plenty of folks have misread this book as a damning indictment of Trump and his cohort. Respectfully, this is likely to be a symptom of Trump Derangement Syndrome, the epidemic paralysing the brains of liberals and country-club Republicans alike. In fact, the biggest losers emerging from this squalid story are: 1. The US Intelligence Community; 2. Barack Obama, and 3. the Clinton Campaign.
The FBI et al
American power and majesty, unlike with other empires, do not primarily rest on the keeping of secrets, which the Yanks are not good at. So whilst the Russian hackers got access to the Clinton trove of confidential stuff via the extraordinary lapses of the Clinton Campaign (of which, more below), it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Russkies could have got there by subscribing to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. (Especially since the Muscovite trolls were ‘schooled’ in US politics by binge-watching House of Cards.)
FBI head James Comey, it seems, took seriously a bunch of secret reports by former British spy Christopher Steele, who a decade previously had done good work investigating the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko by Russian agents, but was now ex-MI6, described by his business partner as a ‘boy scout,’ and seemingly galvanised by salacious Rick-James-type stories about Trump getting-off watching lesbian marathons in a Moscow hotel suite (when Trump defended that charge on the basis that he – a germaphobe – would never countenance ‘golden showers,’ it struck us as so insane that he might be telling the truth).
Steele’s 3-page memo, and his breathless follow-ups, were raw, unsourced, florid, and described by an intel agent as “pillow talk.” They seem as credible as Tony Blair’s ‘sexed-up’ dossier on Iraqi WMDs. In any case, the FBI did a sloppy job of looking into the Clinton email scandal, dropped the case and then, sensationally, picked it up again and informed Congress – a week out from the election. That smothered Trump’s ‘locker room talk’ imbroglio that pundits said would destroy his campaign, and Clinton’s late lead of 4.7% was shaved to 2.9% – within the margin of error.
Furthermore, though the FBI, CIA and NSA all had solid evidence “that the Russians were mounting an aggressive and wide-ranging effort to interfere in the election”, there seems to have been a turf-protecting approach by the various intel agencies. Operating from silos, a lack of integration, a failure of imagination, and a certain naivety prevailed. By the time a co-ordinated effort was agreed, to present the evidence and response plans to President Obama, it was August – just over 2 months to election day – and the Commander-in-Chief was holidaying on Martha’s Vineyard.
The biggest do-nothing President since Eisenhower had clear and cogent evidence of Russian hacking and disinformation, well ahead of polling day. The intelligence services, Congressional leaders, and the Clinton campaign, all wanted Mr. Obama to do something about it. A range of options were presented: Obama ‘shirt-fronted’ Putin at a G20 summit and warned him not to cross the line.
Previously, the President had warned President al-Assad of Syria not to ‘cross the line’ on chemical weapons ‘or else’: Assad unduly crossed, and nothing stopped him. (By then, of course, the US had bugged-out of Iraq and outsourced middle-eastern policy to Putin, paving the way for ISIS and the rise of the Caliphate).
Same here: when national security officials finally presented their evidence in co-ordinated and compelling fashion, that Putin and his running dogs had ‘crossed the line’, Obama, having mocked Republicans in the 2012 election for daring to suggest Russia remained a substantial adversary, took no action, to the shock of his staff and the exasperation of Clintonites.
And how did the Russian hackers and troll farmers get into the DNC and Camp Clinton in the first place? Through Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta! Chapter 5 of the book succinctly demonstrates how easily one can open the digital gate to the barbarians:
“…for some reason Podesta clicked on the link in the phony [sic] email and used a bogus site to create a new password [no doubt, ‘password’]. The Russians now had the keys to his emails and access to the most private messages of Clinton World going back years.”** Yes, and to secret communications of a former Secretary of State and a leading candidate for President of the United States.
The Clinton response to this – ignore the emails, concentrate on Russian / Trump interference – show her to be “ingrained…not to take responsibility, but to deflect” – which sums up the meretricious nature of the candidate. In fact, if you used the description: ‘glib, sloppy, crafty, unscrupulous, boorish, negligent, hypocritical, vain, vindictive, devious, self-obsessed and egomaniacal,’ you could be talking about either Clinton or Trump. Indeed, this book conveys the strong impression that the 2016 Presidential nominees were very much alike.
And the wash-up? There isn’t and can’t be credible evidence that the digital invasion flipped the result – unless you assume Trump voters wear tin hats and willingly take their instructions from Moscow. The Varnished Culture suggested in July 2016 that Trump could win because he was articulating the rage of the American people, and add a fairly unlikeable opponent (with indifferent support from her President) who had a sense of disbelief that she could lose, the result is explicable even without bringing-in the theory of malign revenge by Putin on the woman who had compared him to Hitler and supported economic sanctions against his nation.
The authors have little faith in any of the principals in this saga, but ultimately leave it to Robert Mueller, ex-FBI Director, who had “one supreme passion in life: making criminal cases and putting malefactors behind bars.” (We all know how that turned out.)
And another thing:
One wise thing said after the election – where the votes were fairly even, narrowly favouring Clinton, but Trump scooped the Electoral College – was that whereas Clintonites and most pundits took Trump literally but not seriously, many voters took him seriously but not literally. Most Presidents put on an act, pre and post election: Trump just takes that to the max. Freddy Gray in The Spectator referred to Trump’s “addiction to Twitter, his rolling-news attention span, the backlit narcissism of his reality-TV presidency.“*** Trump knows he creates a firestorm every time he opens his mouth and thumbs out a tweet – it’s his strategy. And for the past 3 years the Democrats have bitten the baited hook, every time.
It is TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome). People just can’t accept that he won. Angus McIntyre posted this on election day as the result was crystallising: “Just stress-ate 3 quarts of ice-cream, a bag of frozen peas & an entire tube of Crest toothpaste. Also, 2 sachets of silica gel & my phone.” At least Angus was amusing. What about Dianne Feinstein? The Senator announced she would vote against any Trump nominee for the Supreme Court, irrespective of his or her qualifications (Imagine if Trump had nominated someone like Ruth Bader Ginsberg – who, to her credit, attended Brett Kavanaugh’s swearing-in, implying what she thought of the Kafkaesque disgrace posing as the Judge’s confirmation hearing.)
In a way, this describes why there was so much noise about Russian interference after the election – because no-one predicted the result. Mueller opened a can of worms but it lead to no charges. Yet the Democratic Leadership now brings impeachment proceedings based on Trump’s phone call to the Ukraine President (or, more accurately, hearsay about the phone call). The hypocrisy is breathtaking, and the ‘process’ (compared, say, to the Watergate inquiry, which was at least prima facie bipartisan) has already been lashed by that well-known Trump supporter The Washington Post. (Naturally, Trump, having tagged the Mueller probe a ‘witch hunt,’ now calls the Ukraine thing a ‘lynching,’ doubtless knowing this will send the ACLU and others batshit-crazy.)
The accepted interpretation of the law against soliciting ‘money or other value’ re an election is that such doesn’t include information, so Trump’s prurient interest in dirt on Joe Biden’s son, Hunter – unlike ‘Sloppy Joe’s’ apparent boast that as VP he’d threatened to withdraw aid to Ukraine unless they sacked the prosecutor looking into Hunter’s alleged corruption – couldn’t amount to ‘high crimes or misdemeanours’ – and if it did in Trump’s case, a conviction in the Senate – by a 2/3rds majority under Republican control – is only going to stand if no-one turns on a fan.
What it will do is what nobody dreamed possible – get the country to start feeling sorry for The Donald (‘he lowered your taxes, raised employment, and hurt your feelings’), and vote him back in 2020. Nice one, Nancy! No wonder you fought like a steer to avoid the farce of a ‘Trumped-up’ impeachment charge.[*See “KGB” by John Barron.] [**Russian Roulette, p. 67.] [*** 28/9/2019.]