During President Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Associated Press reporter Jonathan Lemire asked him about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump — as he has done many times before — responded with an answer that cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment of massive Russian election-interference.
Here’s the exchange:
LEMIRE: “Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did … who do you believe?”
TRUMP: “So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server — haven’t they taken the server. Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee?
“I’ve been wondering that, I’ve been asking that for months and months and I’ve been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know where is the server and what is the server saying?
“With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coates came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia.
“I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. But I really do want to see the server.
“But I have — I have confidence in both parties. I — I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC? Where are those servers? They’re missing; where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s e-mails? 33,000 e-mails gone — just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily. I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 e-mails.
“So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.
“And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer. OK?”
Naturally, all hell broke loose in America’s elite political and media circles. Tom Nichols, a sometime Federalist contributor, said Trump threatened the very safety of America in saying he doubted his intelligence agencies. A group of liberal law professors, who naturally have an affinity toward bending the law to achieve their desired outcomes, accused Trump of committing treason. Treason is a crime punishable by execution.
Former Obama-era CIA Director John Brennan, who voted for a communist at a time when communists were killing millions and when Russia — in the form of the Soviet Union — really was an existential threat to America, also accused Trump of treason. Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Trump was “un-American.” Former Fox and now MSNBC analyst Ralph Peters said that Trump was a “slave to Putin.” CNN’s Philip Mudd, a former intelligence community official, called for a coup against Trump by the “shadow government.” Meanwhile, a Democratic congressman called for a military coup, and Democrat senators want to haul Trump’s interpreter before Congress to testify under oath.
Mainstream conservatives weren’t deranged, but many were still deeply upset. The Federalist’s Robert Tracinski called Trump’s words at the summit “inexcusable.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board called the events a “personal and national embarrassment.” Fox News’ Brit Hume said the summit did “damage.” Newt Gingrich called the President’s words the “most serious mistake of his presidency.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was quick to say that he put faith in the U.S. intelligence agencies over a former KGB agent. Some Republican senators responded with more ire towards Trump than they ever directed towards the Clinton campaign and Fusion GPS for essentially paying Russian sources to concoct the Steele-dossier. On this front, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) accused Trump of “dignifying Putin with this meeting.”
Just about the only politician who had nice things to say about the Trump-Putin summit was Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who pointed out that there was little benefit for Trump to confront Putin during a press conference, and added that the intelligence agencies are not sacrosanct. The day after the Helsinki summit, under extreme pressure in the Beltway, Trump came out and unconvincingly walked his statements back.
Trump’s Critics Are Wrong, And Trump Had A Point
After all the selective leaking to frame the Trump administration for obstruction, after a U.S. presidential campaign was spied on by the opposing Party’s administration, after years of botched or politicized intelligence assessments, after years of arming bad guys around the world, and after multiple revelations of spying on Journalists, Congress, and American citizens — of course it is appropriate to doubt the U.S. intelligence agencies.
Yes, Russia meddled in our election. But the degree to which Russia interfered — and favored Trump — matters. This affects the Mueller investigation, the amount of power we give the intelligence community to combat this interference, and U.S. foreign policy with the world’s other preeminent nuclear power. And the degree to which Russia interfered is still open for debate.
We can be certain about a few things. First, there was the hugely overblown and even pathetic social media campaign run by a Russian troll-farm. This campaign mostly appeared in non-swing-states, and the majority of its spending occurred after the election. In fact, only $46,000 was spent before Election Day, which should be compared to the Trump and Clinton campaigns’ combined $81 million spent on Facebook ads.
Russia also meddled by launching a massive spear-phishing campaign — in which a hacker sends a fake email that tries to trick people into giving out their log-in information — that surely targeted the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton-campaign. But this “hacking” campaign also targeted Republicans, a fact special counsel Robert Mueller didn’t include in his indictment of 12 Russians that occurred days before the Trump-Putin summit.
Yet Russian spear-phishing and hacking is nothing new, just like Chinese hacking is nothing new. This matters, because if the Russians targeted both sides it sounds more like routine interference—that should still be condemned—than a super-secret spy plot to change the course of American history.
That’s why when most people talk about election interference, they are talking about the three things that actually might have had an impact: 1) The DNC documents released by Wikileaks; 2) the John Podesta emails released by Wikileaks; or 3) former FBI director James Comey’s dunderheaded announcement to re-open the Hillary Clinton investigation just 11 days prior to the 2016 election. The reality is that more evidence is still needed to prove Russian involvement in all three of these instances.
Comey’s Intervention 11 Days Before The Election
Comey’s re-opening of the investigation could have been to front-run ticked-off FBI agents from leaking to the media after former FBI number-two Andrew McCabe seemed to be sitting on evidence of new Hillary emails being found on mega-creep Anthony Weiner’s computer. That would have nothing to do with Russia.
Alternatively, Comey has himself said that he reopened the investigation because of a Russia-planted and fake communication between Obama’s Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Hillary Clinton, where Lynch promised to not charge Hillary for her home-brew server. Comey, concerned the revelation — fake as it was — would undermine the Department of Justice, reopened the investigation and then quickly closed it to make things look kosher. Of course, he has hinted that he only did this because he was sure that Hillary would win.
So Comey’s intervention may involve Russia, but it also involves FBI incompetence and Comey’s constant habit of covering his own self at the expense of others, and the country. And how are we sure that the supposedly Russian-planted message between Lynch and Clinton really was a fake? (More investigation needs to take place here, but the Wall Street Journal’s Holman W. Jenkins has done a great job highlighting it so far).
The Podesta Emails
When it comes to Podesta’s emails being stolen, Mueller’s recent indictment of 12 Russians — released just before the Trump and Putin summit and clearly meant to undermine the meeting and shape its agenda — pins this on a specific Russian military-intelligence unit, and rehashes information from the intelligence community’s previous reports that appeared in late 2016 and early 2017. The mainstream leftist media has glowingly reported Mueller’s indictment, but there have been problems from the get-go with the intelligence community’s initial assessment.
For starters, just because Mueller indicts 12 Russians doesn’t mean he has the right people, or concrete proof of anything (not that we should need the concrete proof in foreign affairs that is afforded American citizens in criminal trials). As Andrew McCarthy quipped, Mueller could indict all of Russia to boost his investigation’s statistics. Indicting Russians is a political exercise.
Next, Mueller’s indictment mentions Guccifer 2.0, who released materials not damaging to the Democrats, such as opposition research on Sarah Palin, from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is a totally different thing than the DNC hack. There are still questions about Guccifer 2.0 stemming from the metadata, or fingerprints, left on the files he released.
It should also be said that former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s IT-guy, criminal, and possible Pakistani spy, Imran Awan, had access to the same information that Guccifer 2.0 released. The Daily Caller’s Luke Rosiak has done a wonderful job covering this story, but most of the media has ignored it. Right now, the computers in question have disappeared, and Department of Justice prosecutors dropped what seems like an open-and-shut case against Awan. Note that Trump refers to the missing computers and the soft-touch investigation of Awan and his family in the quote above.
The DNC Document Theft
Then there’s the leaking of DNC documents to WikiLeaks. Trump is right to want to see the DNC server. The truth is that the DNC, on multiple occasions, flat out refused to allow the FBI to examine the server. DNC people are still being deceptive and refusing outside access to the DNC’s server. And the only organization allowed to see the server was Crowdstrike, a private cyber-security contractor. Crowdstrike’s owner had ties to the Clinton campaign, and the company surely had an incentive to report whatever its client wanted it to report. Trump is right to not admit that the intelligence community is exactly right in their assessment, because as soon as he does this there’s no more need to see that server.
Finally, don’t forget that the intelligence assessment that Russia did all this hacking — to elect Trump no less — was put together by a very small team of people handpicked by Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Brennan and Clapper are not only Democrats, they are political hacks. Brennan is the guy cited above who just implied Trump should be executed.
There is also evidence that Brennan pushed for the Russia investigation against Trump to start in the first place, using an unsubstantiated dossier created by the Clinton campaign. Clapper, meanwhile, has his own record of leaking classified material to undermine the newly-formed Trump administration, lying to Congress on multiple occasions, and saying deranged things about the President.
Now, in a leak to The New York Times meant to undermine Trump, it is being reported he was shown “incontrovertible” evidence of Russian hacking during the transition period in early 2017. Here, Comey, Brennan, and Clapper presented to Trump evidence that Russia’s spies had some of the DNC’s emails on their networks, and that a human source within the Kremlin said Putin had ordered the interference.
But the New York Times report is problematic, and raises more questions. At what time did Russian spies possess the DNC’s emails? As for the human source, this is likely old news, already reported by The Washington Post last year. Back in August 2016, Brennan personally presented this same information to Barack Obama. Because of the nature of the source, the NSA did not attach a high degree of confidence to it. And the Obama administration didn’t officially blame Russia — even after Brennan’s source — until October of 2016.
Besides all this, the most troubling aspect of this leak should be the leak. At the very least, if the source isn’t feeding us disinformation for the Kremlin, this leak endangers our source within the Kremlin.
This Isn’t Just About Trump’s Legitimacy
All this matters much more than the legitimacy of Trump’s election. In the quote above, Trump is spot-on when he says that a significant effect of the Mueller investigation has been worse relations with Russia. In fact, relations haven’t been this tense for a very long time. Sanctions have ratcheted up, Trump’s energy policy threatens Russia’s sway over Europe, and American forces in Syria recently killed dozens of Russian mercenaries.
Increased tensions between the world’s two great nuclear powers isn’t something to be taken lightly. But why are many elected officials — especially Democrats — so against Trump sitting down for a chat with Putin? America needs Russian cooperation on North Korean sanctions, in just one example. And why do so many of our unelected officials and talking-heads, including those in the intelligence community, seem to have a problem with Trump trying to have better relations with Russia? Maybe there are budgets, think-tank positions, and even weapons-programs reliant on Russia being seen as a Cold War-era enemy.
But the republic is also on the line if unelected bureaucrats can be this unaccountable and wield this much power. Brennan, Clapper, and Comey (“the Three Stooges”) need to be held to account. Fortunately, if Trump takes the Stooges on as he did in Helsinki, he will win every time. Trump, for all his foibles, has withstood heavy public scrutiny — including of his personal life — because he was elected. Clapper and Brennan have not endured any scrutiny, and Comey has received very little. The more the unelected Three Stooges talk, especially Brennan and Clapper, the more the American people will be creeped out.
Here’s A Prediction
Trump’s approval rating, after taking a slight hit, will rise after this summit. The more the Democrats howl about impeachment, the greater Republicans’ chances will be in the midterm elections (consider how Democrats led by Bill Clinton went from being projected to lose 20+ House seats to gaining seats in the late 1990s).
As for Republican politicians, there will be a direct relationship between a GOP member of Congress’ support for the president and their election success. Those who stand by Trump will keep their seats, and the minority who constantly criticize him at every turn but say nothing about the Democrats’ corrupt Steele dossier, which used Russian sources to interfere in our election, will get shellacked at the polls (only talking about tax reform won’t cut it, sorry).
This isn’t about carrying water for Trump. The Republican Party is supposed to be the party of limited government. If politicians don’t have any problem with out-of-control intelligence bureaucracies, they don’t belong in the Republican Party.
Meanwhile, Trump is well on his way to reelection in 2020. The American people know that guys like Comey, Clapper, and Brennan have total distain for them. But let’s hope that reform of our intelligence bureaucracies comes sooner than later. People in Middle America don’t trust the intelligence agencies, and rightly so. Politicians are wrong to treat these agencies as a sacred cow.
America can still be America without the intelligence bureaucracy we have today, or even with our intelligence-gathering back in the control of the Pentagon. The standalone intelligence bureaucracy is, after all, far younger than our republic, and has a terrible track-record.
Trump undermined those intelligence agencies, but he didn’t undermine America. People in Middle America get that. And people in Middle America will continue to wonder why intelligence officials they have never heard about — nor have they ever voted for — have so much power.