The spin war President-elect Donald Trump and his subordinates are waging over the question of Russian election-related hacking is raising serious questions about how his administration will function — because they’re sending the message that the White House will refuse to accept facts that doesn’t meet its own propaganda narrative.
In response to the Washington Post and New York Times’s Friday reports on a secret CIA assessment that the Russian government deliberately intervened to help Trump win, the Trump team has pushed back very hard, attacking the agency as a whole and repeatedly questioning whether the Russians were involved in the hackings at all.
To be clear: An anonymously leaked CIA assessment should certainly not be taken for the gospel truth, and indeed there appears to be an interagency dispute over whether Russia’s aims in hacking the email accounts of various notable Democrats here were specifically to elect Trump president (as the new CIA assessment suggests) or whether they could also have been to generally cause chaos and interfere with the US’s election (which is reportedly the FBI’s position). And Reuters reported Monday that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence also has “not embraced” the CIA’s assessment of Russia’s motives.
But there appears to be no interagency dispute on whether the Russian government (or at least entities closely tied to the Russian government) “directed” the hacking. That is a conclusion accepted by 17 different US intelligence agencies and public since October. And yet Trump and his team have repeatedly and publicly tried to cast doubt on just this conclusion, saying again and again that they’re not sold on Russian culpability.
The bigger picture here is that Trump’s actions over the past few days have sent an unmistakably clear signal across the government, and among those who will soon staff it. People who agree with the consensus conclusion of those 17 agencies will likely now feel distinctly unwelcome in the new administration, and fear political pressure to deny evidence and realities that are inconvenient to Trump. That helps ensure that people who have no compunctions about lying to advance Trump’s agenda, will fill top posts. And intelligence agencies will feel pressure to cook their findings.
Overall, the heart of the problem is that Americans in swing states have elected someone president who is accustomed to lying casually without consequence, and has signaled that he will continue to do so in the White House.
That means it’s likely up to those outside the executive branch to keep our politics at least somewhat tethered to reality — specifically Senate Republicans who have some sway. Senate committees can investigate controversial topics, and Senate confirmation hearings provide ample opportunity to ensure Trump is appointing qualified, reasonably honest people and to test whether they’d speak truth to power when they testify on certain issues.
It would be very inconvenient for Trump if credit for his victory was attributed to Russia
Now, Trump’s motivation for pushing back so hard on this topic is quite clear: Trump has long been obsessed with defining himself as a “winner,” and therefore he is very thin-skinned about any suggestion that his election victory is illegitimate.
Signs of this include his absurd overreaction to Jill Stein’s recount efforts even though they were overwhelmingly likely to further confirm his victory, his campaign manager’s annoyance whenever his popular vote loss is mentioned, and his team’s repeated and completely bogus assertions that he won in an electoral vote “landslide” (his electoral vote win is the 46th biggest out of 58 in US history).
Naturally, then, when the Washington Post and New York Times reported Friday on a secret CIA assessment that Russian hackers intervened in the election to help Trump win, the Trump team very quickly decided to attack the CIA for even coming to that conclusion (combining this with, again, that bonus false claim that Trump had won “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history”).
On a call with reporters Monday, transition spokesperson Jason Miller made the subtext text by saying this was part of a “narrative in the news” that amounted to "an attempt to delegitimize President-elect Trump's win."
Also on Monday morning, Trump made an even more bizarre attempt to rewrite history with the claim that hacking “wasn’t brought up” before the election.
Unless you catch "hackers" in the act, it is very hard to determine who was doing the hacking. Why wasn't this brought up before election?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 12, 2016
Of course, it was talked about constantly, not least by Donald Trump himself, who in July openly urged Russia to “find” Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails from her private server.
Trump was also repeatedly asked about the DNC hacks during the election, and refused to endorse the reported conclusions of US intelligence agencies that Russia was behind them. "It could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, okay?" he said at the first general election debate in September.
Then in October, the US Intelligence Community released a statement saying it was “confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations.” But that wasn’t enough for Trump. “Maybe there is no hacking," he mused during the second debate. So this has been going on for some time.
Trump is signaling to his whole administration-in-waiting that this is the party line
What’s perhaps most worrying is that candidates for top jobs in the Trump administration have gotten the message that if they want the gig, they’d better follow Trump’s line here.
John Bolton — who’s reportedly the frontrunner to be deputy secretary of state — has gone on television in recent days making the argument that the hacks could be a “false flag,” that the hacking could have been done by some other country, and that he didn’t trust “politicized” intelligence from the Obama administration.
And Carly Fiorina, a reported contender for director of national intelligence, told reporters Monday that she and Trump spoke about “hacking, whether it’s Chinese hacking or purported Russian hacking” — another apparent attempt to cast doubt on the US intelligence community’s consensus finding.
In one sense, this is no big surprise. Trump is going to hire people who are willing to defend what he says, regardless of how absurd or flatly false it is. So if you’re auditioning for a Trump administration job, you’re going to back up Trump’s latest statements.
But in another sense, it’s extremely troubling. Potential Russian interference in US elections is a very serious matter. And again, the consensus conclusion of 17 intelligence agencies is that the Russian government or entities closely tied to it are behind the hackings. Yet Trump’s team is making it loud and clear that their conclusions will not be accepted, because they aren’t what the president-elect wants to hear.
And while there are often controversies about the alleged politicization of intelligence in administrations — the Bush administration pressured intelligence agencies to find information that would justify war with Iraq, while Obama has been criticized for downplaying the threat of ISIS because it didn’t fit with his message that the threat of terror was declining — it’s startling and likely unprecedented for a president-elect to be going to war with an intelligence agency before he’s even sworn in.
The Senate needs to keep Trump tethered to reality
Despite Trump’s thin skin about the legitimacy of his victory, he is the winner and he is set to be president. The findings of these investigations will not change that.
So to prevent us all from being mired in a fact-free zone for the next four years, the Senate has a responsibility to exercise its independence and prevent the Trump administration from advancing baldfaced lies unchallenged.
First off, the Senate needs to grill top Trump foreign policy appointees — his director of national intelligence, CIA director, secretary of state, secretary of defense, and all their relevant deputies — on the issue of Russian hacking. It needs to ensure those appointees aren’t mere Trump cronies but are respected and independent figures.
Second, the relevant Senate committees (or some special committee) also need to carry out their own bipartisan investigations on the matter. And while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled Monday that he would support investigations, the devil is in the details here. For instance, Politico’s Austin Wright suggests that if the investigation is relegated to the congressional intelligence committees, final reports might never be released to the public.
Third, on future matters where the Trump administration seems set on denying reality, the Senate needs to step in. If Trump’s team remains so hell-bent on twisting the facts for its propaganda purposes, the bar for the Senate to create an independent commission or launching a serious investigation should be lowered. If the administration shows it can’t be trusted to be honest on basic matters, serious, continuous oversight is necessary.
Still, there is only so much the Senate — particularly if Democrats remain in the minority — can do. Trump is who he is, and his appointees will in large part say and do what he wants. The most his critics can do is make sure he pays a political price for it.