National security has been the focus of virtually all of my professional life. I was in Washington on 9/11 and saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon. I arrived in Iraq shortly after the 2003 US invasion and spent several years living in Baghdad and writing about what had quickly become a bloody civil war. I covered the Bush administration’s decision to surge troops into Iraq in 2007 and the Obama administration’s decision to surge troops into Afghanistan in 2009. I’ve written about US spying efforts abroad and foreign spying efforts inside the US.
But I’ve never covered anything quite like Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee’s servers and the email account of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, moves designed to steal and then release information damaging to the Democratic presidential nominee.
Think about it this way: In a best-case scenario, Russian President Vladimir Putin has managed to persuade tens of millions of Americans to question the integrity of the US political system and the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s narrow win. In a worst-case scenario, the Kremlin just handed the White House to the most jarringly pro-Russian presidential candidate in American history.
Imagine I had told you, in 2013, that this would happen — that Russia would successfully hack into a political party’s servers and use the revelations to try to change the course of an American presidential election. Imagine you didn’t know which party benefited, so there was no reason to downplay the event’s horror, or shrink from its implications. How much of a freakout would you have predicted across America? What sort of response would you have expected? How angry, specifically, would you have expected Republicans — a traditionally Russo-skeptic party — to be?
And yet there may be no response. Nor is it even obvious what the response should, or would, be. Part of me thinks we should consider this to be a case of espionage (stealing the documents in the first place) paired with an unusually sophisticated propaganda effort (leaking the sexiest material slowly to dominate the news cycle in the final weeks before the election). Part of me thinks we should consider this to be an act of war, no different than if Putin had launched a cyberattack that took down the electrical grid or the banking system. And part of me thinks it’s something new entirely — a hybrid that is more than mere spying but less than an outright assault.
I’m at even more of a loss when it comes to thinking about what the US should do in response. Russia doesn’t have real elections, so there’s no Putin rival for Washington to quietly try to help win the presidency. The US could try to embarrass the Russian leader by releasing details of the tens of billions of dollars that he and his closest allies are believed to have squirreled away in a labyrinth of offshore bank accounts. Putin controls Russia’s media, though, so it’s not clear if that information would reach many Russians. Given Putin’s sky-high approval ratings, it’s not also clear if many Russians would care. And not even Russia hawks think Obama would — or should — retaliate with military force.
I’m left with a pair of depressing conclusions: Putin got the president he wanted, and he’ll likely escape without any serious retribution for his direct attack on American democracy — in fact, he’s likely to get the most pro-Russian president, and pro-Russian administration, in recent American history. His operation will have been an extraordinary success, and so the US won’t be the only Western power that Putin targets: German politicians are already warning that Russian hacking threatens their upcoming elections.
There’s a reason Putin would want Trump in the Oval Office
During the campaign, Trump startled national security experts in both parties by extravagantly praising Putin while glossing over his invasions of neighboring countries, his killings of opposition figures and journalists, and his support for the murderous regime of Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad.
During the primary, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough asked Trump about his apparent admiration for Putin, who "kills journalists, political opponents and invades countries." Trump replied, "He's running his country, and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country."
Trump also talked about reducing the American commitment to NATO or opting not to come to the aid of members of the alliance who were invaded by Russia if they hadn’t spent enough on their own defense. Either step would effectively mean the end of NATO, something Putin has been trying to bring about since he first took power more than 15 years ago.
Trump has blown off the daily intelligence briefings all of his predecessors dutifully attended, explaining, “I'm, like, a smart person,” and appointed a national security advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who did paid appearances on Russian state television and once sat next to Putin at a celebratory dinner in Moscow. Trump has spent months rejecting the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russia’s hacking operations; last week, he said the culprits could be China or “some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
The CIA and FBI, meanwhile, believe that Putin helped ensure that Trump won the White House in the first place. Trump has angrily rejected their conclusion, going so far as to take the unprecedented step of publicly mocking the CIA for being “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
Making Trump’s comments about Putin all the more unsettling are the lingering question about the self-proclaimed billionaire’s financial ties to Moscow. Evelyn Farkas, formerly a top Pentagon official on Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, outlined some of them in an essay last week for Politico:
We know, per Donald Trump Jr., that Russia makes up a significant amount of the family business. What we don’t know is how much Russian money is involved, and what Russian money. How did Trump get out of debt? To whom does he owe money? Who provides the collateral for his loans? Is he beholden to Russian oligarchs and banks who are under the thumb of the Kremlin and Russian security services?
Remember: She’s talking about the president-elect of the United States. Farkas, a woman who once served at the highest levels of the US government, is explicitly suggesting that the next inhabitant of the Oval Office may do Putin’s bidding because he owes the Russian leader and his allies money. And Trump refuses to put those concerns to rest through financial disclosure.
This isn’t the stuff of conspiracy theory or Hollywood. George W. Bush once said that he had looked Putin in the eye, “was able to get a sense of his soul,” and felt that the Russian leader was a rational counterpart that the US could do business with. But Bush must have misread what he saw: In the waning months of Bush’s presidency, Putin invaded and then annexed portions of neighboring Georgia, a close US ally. He ignored Bush’s demands for a withdrawal, and the regions remain under Russian control.
Obama took office looking to “reset” relations with Russia and find common ground whenever possible. It hasn’t gone well: Putin backs Assad in Syria, meddles in eastern Ukraine, openly threatens other European nations, and recently pulled out of a landmark nuclear pact.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s highest-ranking military officers, say that Putin’s Russia — not China, ISIS, or North Korea — poses the biggest threat to the future security of the US.
Donald Trump, the man who is about to be their commander in chief, sees things very, very differently.
Polls show Republicans now prefer Vladimir Putin to Barack Obama. Think about that.
I spent several years covering former Defense Secretary Robert Gates during his tenure running the Pentagon for Bush and Obama. Gates came of age during the height of the Cold War, at a time when Russia was the focus of US intelligence-gathering efforts and when learning the Russian language was a key skill to master if you were an ambitious young analyst looking to rise through the ranks of the CIA. Gates didn’t repeat Bush’s mistake; he told an interviewer that he looked Putin in the eye “and saw a stone-cold killer.”
I was thinking about that quote when reports surfaced that Gates had spent two days at Trump Tower and held at least one lengthy meeting with the president-elect. It was Gates who first recommended that Trump consider Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state; Trump ultimately gave Tillerson the job despite a torrent of bipartisan concern about the businessman’s own ties to Putin, which included receiving one of Russia’s highest honors after teaming with a state-owned energy company on a multibillion-dollar Arctic oil deal.
Gates is a paid consultant to Exxon, and stands to gain financially if Trump lifts the punishing economic sanctions on Russia that caused that deal to collapse. But Gates is also a man of deep honor and integrity, and I simply don’t believe that he’d recommend Tillerson if he believed the Exxon boss would threaten US national security, regardless of what it would mean for his own pocketbook. The fact that we’re even asking that question about an official with as long and sterling a record of public service as Gates is another dispiriting reminder of how much life in Trump’s America has already changed.
Here’s another. A new YouGov/Economist poll found an enormous surge of pro-Putin feelings in the aftermath of Trump’s win. In July 2014, Republicans had a -66 net favorability view of Putin; in December 2016, that number is just -10. (Democrats have, unsurprisingly, moved in the opposite direction.)
Russia’s relationship with the US didn't improve between 2014 and 2016. If anything, Putin took an even more hard-line position toward the US, stepping up his support for Assad, annexing the Crimea region of Ukraine, and blocking American-led efforts to end the civil war in South Sudan and other conflicts. What's changed is the rise of Donald Trump, a politician who speaks of Putin with undisguised admiration.
Here is Republicans and Democrats on Vladimir Putin since July 2014. pic.twitter.com/s4I6FY5cbt— Will Jordan (@williamjordann) December 14, 2016
GOP voters have also warmed to WikiLeaks, an organization many Republican leaders once derided for harming US national security through its release of classified American diplomatic cables and military records: in the summer of 2013, Republicans held a negative view of the organization by a 47-point margin; today, GOP voters view it favorably by a 27-point margin. That’s a post-election swing of a whopping 74 points.
Republicans once prided themselves on their rock-solid opposition to the Soviet Union and blasted Obama for trying to “reset” relations with Russia. That party now likes Putin more than it likes Obama, viewing a murderous foreign strongman (-10) more positively than it sees a twice-elected American president (-64).
Writing about what was once the unthinkable
Let’s run a depressing thought experiment.
It’s the fall of 2017, and Russian forces have just swept into Estonia, a NATO member and strong US ally. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Pentagon’s other top brass remind President Trump that the US is treaty-bound to send troops to help beat back the Russian advance. Trump flatly refuses.
The new president may have legitimate reasons: a belief, perhaps, that he could use his personal relationship with Putin to persuade the Russian leader to withdraw without further bloodshed. Trump might also decide that Putin is so hell-bent on conquering Estonia that trying to stop him could send the two countries down a slippery slope toward full-blown war, a price he doesn’t think America should pay.
This is the truly depressing part: Regardless of Trump’s reasoning, US allies around the globe and a significant chunk of the American public would see it as proof that Putin had hacked the US electoral system to help get a friendly president into office — and was now reaping the rewards.
It’s easy to imagine the situation spinning out of control. In one scenario, Trump sits back as Estonia is swallowed up by Russia, setting the stage for a new world order that bears little resemblance to today’s — or to the one that has kept the peace in Europe for decades. NATO collapses, and US allies like Britain and Germany opt to strike their own deals with Putin rather than wage a battle they know the US won’t join. Putin slowly but methodically expands his control over Eastern Europe, fulfilling his lifelong dream of reconstituting the former Soviet Union.
If I let my mind go to a dark place, it’s possible to think of an even scarier option: The nation’s generals, convinced that Trump’s refusal to stand up to Putin threatens the future of the US, take matters into their own hands and carry out the first military coup in American history. That would mean the end of American democracy as we have known it.
To be clear, I don’t think either of those two scenarios is going to come to pass. NATO has survived political crises of all stripes, and Trump is pliable enough that key advisers like his pick for defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, could persuade him that it’s in America’s self-interest to preserve the alliance. A coup seems even less likely. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, the author of a futuristic story called “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” recently wrote at Vox that there are no “absurd ‘coup-like’ inclinations” among the nation’s active or retired generals.
I never thought we’d arrive at a place as a country where there would even be a need to discuss the possibility of a coup, no matter how remote. Yet that’s exactly what I find myself thinking and writing about. The age of Trump is an age of thought experiments and conspiracy theories, of trying to imagine the unimaginable and accept the unthinkable. Russia helped choose the next American president and is likely to not just get away with it but be rewarded for it. We’re in uncharted waters now, and the shore is receding further and further out of sight.