Things are getting curiouser and curiouser as we plunge down the rabbit hole of Russia’s hacking of the Clinton campaign’s emails. The Washington Post now reports, and the New York Times chimes in, that the CIA now believes—with “high confidence”—that Russia intervened in the 2016 election specifically to help Donald Trump get elected.
This is a new thing. When reports of the hacking first came to light, U.S. intelligence analysts traced the source to Russia but wouldn’t pin the deed on the Russian government. Then, on Oct. 7, Gen. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and Jeh Johnson, secretary of homeland security, issued a statement, based on the unanimous assessment of the intelligence community, that “the Russian government directed” the hacks—in fact, judging from the “scope and sensitivity” of the hacks, “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities”—and that the hacks were “intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
Even then, the assessment fell short of tagging Vladimir Putin as taking active measures to boost the prospects of any one candidate. That’s where the new twist changes matters: The CIA and other agencies now say that Russia’s senior-most officials intended to assist Trump.
In an otherwise detailed report, the Post did not say whether this new element is based on new intelligence or new orders from the top on how much to reveal in public. The Times reports that the new conclusion is based, at least in part, on the fact that the Russians hacked into the Trump campaign’s emails too, but did not provide those documents to WikiLeaks (through its trusty middlemen). But it could easily have been inferred (and was inferred by some), back in October, that whoever hacked Clinton’s emails could also easily have hacked Trump’s. Did the CIA find firm evidence of those hacks more recently?
A question also remains as to whether the hacks affected the election’s outcome. If Russia hadn’t done the hacks (a common act of political espionage that’s been going on for many years), or hadn’t passed them on to WikiLeaks (this is the significant new wrinkle in the 2016 campaign), would Hillary Clinton have won?
In a column written a few days after the election, I allowed that Clinton lost for several reasons, but argued that, in a very close race (she would have won with just another 100,000 votes in three states), any single cause of defeat could be crucial and that, therefore, yes, “Donald Trump’s win, to some degree, came about because of a cyberwarfare campaign launched by the Russian government.”
The new reports strengthen that inference, which is one reason Trump and his aides are so eager to beat them down—along with the previous reports (electorally irrelevant but politically significant) that Clinton won the national popular vote by 2 percentage points (almost 3 million votes). First, Trump himself tweeted, without the slightest evidence, that he would have won the popular vote as well, were it not for the millions of ballots cast “illegally.” Then, just Friday night, when news of the CIA’s report appeared on the Post’s website, Trump’s transition team released this formal, though unsigned statement: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” adding, “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’ ”
A few things should be noted. First, in the months leading up to George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, the CIA came under heavy pressure from Vice President Dick Cheney to find evidence of Saddam’s WMD—and, eventually, the CIA complied. Second, the officials who caved are not “the same people” who sit in Langley today. Third, the intelligence community (then consisting of 16 agencies) did not unanimously agree on WMD; a few of them dissented on various points in footnotes. Fourth, the election ended one month ago, which is not “a long time” by any measure—and, some may say, won’t be over still until the Electoral College casts its ballots on Dec. 19 and the Congress counts them on Jan. 6.
Finally, on a peripheral point (but one that reflects Team Trump’s desperate attempt to crush any news that might delegitimize his victory), by no stretch does Trump’s margin (306-232 electoral votes) stand as “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history.” Both of Barack Obama’s victories were more lopsided (365-173 and 332-206), as were both of Bill Clinton’s (370-168 and 379-159). In fact, in only six of the 17 elections since the end of World War II did the winner receive fewer electoral votes than Trump.
But back to the CIA. Trump has long had a problem with that particular three-letter agency. The jab in the transition team’s statement wasn’t unusual. During the campaign, Trump said he wouldn’t bother with hearing intelligence briefings, because the CIA gets everything wrong anyway. (And indeed, since the election, he’s reportedly been getting just one briefing a week, while Vice President–elect Mike Pence has been getting six a week.) Trump has also, most recently in an interview with Time magazine, dismissed the broad intelligence community’s finding—which was no doubt included in one of the briefings he sat through—that Russia directed the hack of Clinton’s campaign. (He has said it could have been Russia, China, or some kid in New Jersey.)
This bodes ill for White House–Langley relations in the months ahead. Not that the CIA or the wider intelligence community has always been right over the decades, but a president has to get facts and analysis about the world from someplace other than his instincts and cable news, so where will—where does—Trump get his? What are the roots of this hostility toward the intel agencies? I suspect some of it might come from (or be reinforced by) retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser and longtime campaign agitator. Flynn was fired from his last government job as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The man behind his dismissal was James Clapper, director of national intelligence. Even before the firing, the DIA has long been the junior, more tactical cousin to the CIA, a source of internecine bitterness and rivalry. Finally, as DIA director, Flynn fiercely disagreed with the CIA and the other intel agencies over several issues, most raucously his claim that Iran was behind the Benghazi raid. With Flynn just a few steps from the Oval Office, and otherwise running meetings of Cabinet secretaries in the National Security Council, will this warped contrarianism persist when Trump is president? (This may be the biggest challenge for retired Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s pick for secretary of defense: to counter Flynn’s influence.)
There’s another potentially looming rivalry—the ancient, off-and-on struggle between the CIA and the FBI. It’s intriguing at least that the FBI did not weigh in on the interagency assessment leading to the Oct. 7 statement, by Clapper and Johnson, about Russian government hacking. FBI Director James Comey reasoned that he didn’t want to intervene in a matter that could influence the election—a position that didn’t seem to sway him from announcing a new investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails just 11 days before the election, a bit of timing that probably also helped Trump win.
Meanwhile, President Obama has ordered all the U.S. intelligence agencies, including the FBI, to conduct a “full review” of Russia’s role in the election—and to finish the report before Inauguration Day. Though he didn’t say so, it’s obvious that if the agencies don’t finish by then, Trump as president will order their report and all the working papers destroyed.
So what now? Let’s say this report confirms the Washington Post’s account of the CIA’s conclusion. No one will call for a new election. First, there’s no legal protocol for doing such a thing. Second, not even the CIA is inferring—nor is there any way for anyone to infer—that the Russian hacking caused Trump to win. Third, if even one intelligence agency files a dissenting footnote to the report, the Republicans will pounce on that, as they have on no other footnote, to justify Trump’s legitimacy as a clean winner of the election.
Nonetheless, there are embarrassments to go around. The Post reported that, well before the election, senior Obama officials briefed the CIA’s analysis to leading members of Congress and asked them to take a bipartisan stand against this blatant foreign interference into our election process. All the Democrats in the group were keen to do this, but two Republicans—including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—refused, saying the conclusion wasn’t definitive. As a result, Obama stepped back from applying pressure on Russia, out of concern that it would look like he was using intelligence for partisan political purposes—and, in any case, that pressuring Russia, especially with some counter cyberattack, could escalate the conflict.
This is one of the most baffling parts of the Post account. Obama is famously resistant (some have said he’s “allergic”) to escalating conflicts, especially if the conflict doesn’t threaten vital U.S. interests. But the United States has few interests more vital than assuring that a foreign power doesn’t tilt a presidential election toward a candidate that it favors. Obama and his White House aides are said to have mulled what to do about this Russian hack for “months.” I’d say they waited too long.
Will this story affect Trump’s decisions in the coming weeks? He is known to be sympathetic to Russia’s position on a number of issues, not least the future of NATO and the conflict in Syria, where Trump prefers to join forces with Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to defeat ISIS rather than continue aiding the Syrian rebels. Rex Tillerson, Exxon-Mobil’s chief executive officer, is said to top Trump’s list of choices for secretary of state. Exxon-Mobil has joint ventures with Russia’s top oil firm, Rosneft, and Tillerson himself was, in 2012, awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship decoration. Will this new twist in the tale of Russia’s role in the American election dissuade—or, in an act of fury, further sway—Trump to nominate Tillerson? And if he does, will even Republicans in Congress start probing the unseemly connections?
The Trump presidency hasn’t even begun, and the skullduggery is mounting all around.