President Obama has announced sanctions against Russia for “cyber operations aimed at the U.S. election.” The announcement pits the accused perpetrator, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, against the Democratic Party (his alleged victim), the Obama administration (his prosecutor), and U.S. intelligence agencies (the police). If this were a legal case, it would be DNC, CIA, and Obama v. Putin. But the story has taken an odd turn. The American president-elect, Donald Trump, has entered the case, along with his advisers. They’re not joining the prosecution. They’re serving, in effect, as Putin’s lawyers. And to exonerate their client, they’re putting America on trial.
The Trump-Putin legal team says the sanctions are too harsh. In multiple interviews, Trump’s principal representatives—incoming White House communications director Sean Spicer and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway—have called the sanctions disproportionate. A day after Obama announced his decision, Trump praised Putin as “very smart” for not retaliating in kind.
Trump and his aides also dispute the evidence against Putin. Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, says it’s all hearsay. He claims that the cops, various U.S. intelligence agencies, have told contradictory stories. Spicer says the evidence isn’t “conclusive” and warns against a “rush to judgment.” Everyone on Trump’s team complains that the CIA hasn’t given Trump its putative evidence against Putin. They neglect to mention that Trump, as president-elect, could ask for it, but he doesn’t. “I’m sure he could get that intelligence briefing—right?—if he wanted to,” CNN’s Kate Bolduan asked Conway in an interview on Friday. Conway changed the subject. (This week, according to Conway, Trump has finally “agreed” to be briefed.)
On New Year’s Eve, a reporter asked Trump why he doubted the intelligence agencies’ case against Russia. “I know a lot about hacking, and hacking is a very hard thing to prove. So it could be somebody else,” Trump replied. “And I also know things that other people don’t know. And so they cannot be sure of this situation.” That’s a clever position to adopt if you’re trying to persuade the public that your client is innocent. First, assert secret knowledge. (Conway and Spicer have defended Trump’s assertion.) Second, suggest that charges of hacking are categorically unverifiable, based on your self-implied expertise.
But the best defense is good offense, and that’s what Trump and his advisers are mounting. They’re borrowing a tactic from sexual assault cases: blame the victim for inviting the attack. In Conway’s CNN interview, Bolduan said the story was “about a foreign country hacking.” Conway shot back: “This is really about the DNC’s breach. They didn’t have the proper security.” Two days later, Spicer made the same argument about a joint FBI–Department of Homeland Security report on the Russian hack. Appearing on This Week, Spicer claimed that the report was about the DNC’s “lax IT support,” not about hacking. ABC’s Jonathan Karl had to remind Spicer of the report’s title: “Russian Malicious Cyber Activity.”
Trump has also attacked the credibility of the cops. Because the CIA was wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it can’t be trusted to investigate Russia, he argues. That’s not true—Trump, not the CIA, is repeating the Iraq mistake—but it’s a shrewd talking point. Meanwhile, Trump, Spicer, and Conway accuse the government of bias. They suggest that charges and sanctions against Russia are political, because Obama didn’t complain until “after Hillary lost.” (Republicans have both bets covered: Previously, they had said it would be underhanded to implicate Russia before the election.) In several interviews, Conway and Spicer have accused Obama of punishing Russian hacking more harshly than Chinese hacking—suggesting, according to Spicer, that the sanctions are “political retribution.”
In high-profile criminal defense cases, these are common tactics. They’ve worked for O.J. Simpson, William Kennedy Smith, and other defendants. So it’s not surprising to see them deployed by Putin’s legal team. What’s odd is that this team consists of the incoming American president and his aides. Trump seems genuinely concerned that the U.S. government is persecuting Putin. “It’s a pretty serious charge,” Trump said on New Year’s Eve, when he was asked about the intelligence agencies’ case against Putin. “I think it’s unfair if they don’t know.”
Why would Trump take on Putin as a client? What’s the connection? The conspiratorial answer is money: some combination of debts and business connections, with a hint of blackmail thrown in. I don’t buy that. There’s a simpler explanation: Trump is grateful to Putin for his flattery and his help. And Trump’s advisers feel bound to Putin because, willingly or not, they fought on the same side in the election. They feel threatened by the same enemies: Obama, Hillary Clinton, Democrats, and the CIA. They see any attack on Putin as an attack on them.
I’m not claiming there’s some secret dossier on these people. I’m just looking at their public statements. Two days before Christmas, Trump tweeted, “Vladimir Putin said today about Hillary and Dems: ‘In my opinion, it is humiliating. One must be able to lose with dignity.’ So true!” A week later, Trump tweeted, “Russians are playing @CNN and @NBCNews for such fools - funny to watch, they don’t have a clue!” Trump’s plea to Russian hackers six months ago—“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails”—was more than a joke. He identifies more with Putin than with Democrats or the American media.
When Spicer dismisses the Russia sanctions as “political retribution,” that’s a revealing statement. It implies, contrary to Spicer’s denials, that Putin hurt Obama’s party in the election. It also suggests that Spicer sees Obama as a partisan adversary, not as the American president. In every interview, Spicer treats the prosecution of Putin as an attack on Trump. On This Week, Spicer deflected questions about Russian hacking, saying it was unfair to “make Donald Trump admit to certain things. When are we going to start talking about the other side of this, which is, what did Hillary Clinton do to influence the election? Is she being punished in any way?” That’s how Spicer sees the election: Trump and Putin on one side, and Clinton on the other. It’s wrong, in his view, to punish Putin but not Clinton.
The Trump team’s anxiety extends not just to Democrats, but to career intelligence officers. “We are not in favor of foreign governments interfering in our elections,” Conway told Bolduan, batting away questions about Russia. “But we’re also not in favor of our intelligence interfering with elections after the fact.” Our intelligence interfering with elections? After the fact? What does that mean? Does Conway see post-election inquiries as a threat to democracy? Or does she see them as a threat to Trump? Does she understand the difference?
Three weeks before they enter the White House, Trump and his advisers remain stuck in the mentality of the campaign. They see Obama, Clinton, and the Democratic Party as their adversaries. They distrust the CIA. They think Putin has gotten a raw deal, and they view any investigation of his role in the election as an attack on Trump’s legitimacy. They will do what they can to protect Putin, block further inquiries, and, in Trump’s words, “move on.” Don’t let them.