Putin runs a kleptocracy. So does Trump.
Both Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson have done business in Russia.
So why is money the one aspect of the Russia scandal people seem to talk about the least? Perhaps because it’s the one area the U.S. intelligence community avoided when it accused Russia of helping Trump win the election.
The Russia story we’ve been hearing raised the intelligence community’s popularity among Democrats and offered a convenient distraction from other national security stories. While many people were fixated on it, for example, this New York Times story by Charlie Savage was largely overlooked:
In its final days, the Obama administration has expanded the power of the National Security Agency to share globally intercepted personal communications with the government’s 16 other intelligence agencies before applying privacy protections … far more officials will be searching through raw data.
Here are 11 principles progressives can follow when they hear about (or talk about) Trump and Russia.
1. Don’t get ahead of the facts
I don’t know yet whether Russia’s government interfered in the U.S. presidential election or not. Neither do you.
The recent report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) bears that organization’s impressive seal. The eagle represents American sovereignty, we’re told, while the arrows represent war and the olive branch represents peace. But the report itself is highly politicized and woefully short on evidence.
That’s why Americans should support a thorough and nonpartisan investigation into Russia’s possible role in the election. Reps. Reps. Elijah Cummings and Eric Swalwell have proposed an independent commission. It’s hard to imagine why anyone, regardless of their politics or preconceptions, wouldn’t support that idea.
In the meantime, Democrats may want to hit the pause button before getting too far ahead of the known facts. When people place partisanship above informed discourse, things can get very ugly very fast.
Case in point: Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager, Robby Mook, wrote recently about what he called “the complex infrastructure that Russia built to infect public discourse with false or stolen information.” It “isn’t going anywhere,” Mook wrote, and “can be unleashed at any time, on any issue, domestic or international.”
But the link Mook provides doesn’t describe anything of the kind. It goes to a Buzzfeed article headlined How Teens in the Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News.
Macedonia isn’t part of Russia. And the teens in question are private entrepreneurs, not government operatives.
2. Don’t Putin-bait
Mook lauds “vigilance” from social media companies, then suggests that covert Russian interference could lead to a lack of military support for breakaway Baltic States.
Do Democrats really want to mislead readers, or suggest that reluctance to engage in armed conflict is the sign of a secret fifth column?
In the immediate aftermath of the election, MSNBC cable TV host and political commentator Joy Reid dismissed Green Party candidate Jill Stein as an untrustworthy “Putinite.”
Stein’s offense? She once attended an RT social event.
3. Don’t spread inaccurate or poorly sourced news
A Clinton campaign official incorrectly said that some of the WikiLeaks emails were forged. That claim was repeated by Reid and several other prominent figures. Another inaccurate story in the Washington Post claimed that Russians had hacked into the U.S. power grid through a Vermont utility’s computer system. (The Post later retracted the report.) And a post-election poll showed that 50 percent of Hillary Clinton voters wrongly believed that Russians had hacked American voting machines.
MTV News correspondent Jamil Smith tweeted that one of Trump’s compliments for Vladimir Putin was “borderline treasonous.” But Article 3, Section 3 of the Constitution defines treason quite clearly. It requires a state of war. Was Trump’s comment disturbing? Yes. Treasonous? No.
Do Democrats really want to start charging their political opponents with treason?
Meanwhile, the same commentators have overlooked stories that challenge the prevailing narrative. For example, few of them remarked on it when Trump-appointed UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said, “the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions” and declared that sanctions against Russia would stay in place.
4. Don’t believe everything you’re told
The DNI report says that 17 intelligence agencies agreed that Russians, acting under Putin’s direction, worked to help Trump win the election. But that claim is an “assessment” – which, in intelligence parlance, means it is an opinion. And some of those agencies like Coast Guard Intelligence, the Energy Department’s intelligence branch, and the mapping experts at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency – probably rely on the CIA and NSA for information and analysis about Russia.
Furthermore, all 17 have a dotted-line relationship to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who manages their budgets and therefore wields considerable influence over them.
Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who once described the young Putin as an “aspiring thug” and is no fan of Donald Trump, dismissed the report as unconvincing. And the official who signed it was James Clapper, who lied to Congress under oath on at least one occasion.
(Clapper said “No, sir” when asked if intelligence services gathered “any type of data at all” on millions of Americans, an answer he later said was “clearly erroneous.” A number of lawmakers think Clapper should face criminal prosecution.)
5. Be wary of labels slapped on media outlets
That wouldn’t matter if the report itself was solid, but it isn’t. It’s a surprisingly slipshod piece of work that devolves in places into a thinly disguised attack on the American left, using Russia’s RT network as a springboard for condemning coverage of the Occupy movement, fracking, and “Wall Street greed.”
Those claims are undercut by the fact that RT has been heavily critical of the Republican Party for years. Its most visible political commentators are personalities like Ed Schultz and Thom Hartmann who have worked for progressive media outlets.
In a related story, The Washington Post recently promoted a badly executed attack piece from an anonymous group called “PropOrNot” that used shoddy methodology to condemn legitimate progressive websites like Counterpunch and Truthout as Russian propaganda outlets.
6. Don’t be hyperpartisan – or hypocritical – regarding national security
Recently, Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after a series of well-timed leaks showed that he had apparently concealed a conversation with the Russian Ambassador from Vice President Mike Pence.
Flynn was a horrible person, and his bigotry toward Islam would have made us less safe. But unanswered questions remain: Did Flynn break the law? If so, shouldn’t he be prosecuted? Have the leakers held back any information that might have helped him? Why, as Bloomberg national security columnist Eli Lake notes, were so many national security precedents broken in Flynn’s case? You can’t celebrate the leaks that brought Flynn down without also supporting Edward Snowden, who also performed an important public service.
Flynn’s phone call was not the only story to be leaked by anonymous sources. As Amanda Taub and Max Fisher recently observed in The New York Times, a “wave of leaks from government officials” has “drawn comparisons to countries like Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, where shadowy networks within government bureaucracies, often referred to as ‘deep states,’ undermine and coerce elected governments.”
Edward Snowden was a whistleblower. Taub and Fisher are describing something very different: the selective use of government power against individuals and political movements.
7. Whatever you call it, recognize that the “deep state” is not your friend
The phrase “deep state” has now entered the national conversation. Taub and Fisher maintain that the federal government’s subterranean apparatus has “not quite” reached the levels of those in Egypt or Pakistan, adding:
“But the echoes are real – and disturbing.”
Like past intelligence moves against the leaders of those nations, the DNI report and the leaks look like political attacks on a president.
“Yes,” some people are probably thinking, “but the president is Trump and we need to stop him.”
Here’s the problem: The network of U.S. government relationships, which the Times considers “not quite” a deep state, is dangerous. Although it includes some good people, it has been trying to crush the American progressive movement for generations with secret surveillance and covert intervention.
That network also includes many of the national security officials and neoconservative thinkers who lied to the American people and led us into the disastrous Iraq War. And it includes the defense contractors who will get even richer if we remain in a state of permanent conflict with foreign nations like Russia.
But if the phrase “deep state” makes you uncomfortable, you can use the one Dwight D. Eisenhower coined at the close of his presidency: the military-industrial complex.
8. Don’t trade long-term harm for short-term political gain
That’s why it’s shortsighted for Democratic commentators to make comments like this one, from Talking Points Memo founder and blogger Josh Marshall: “Let’s hope there’s a deep state, and if there is that they have their shit together.”
That’s why it was misguided (in a likable sort of way) when a famous Buddhist teacher told me recently, “I’ve been reading the news and I think I love the intelligence agencies.”
Don’t. They have their own agenda, and it ain’t peace and love. If you’re glad Michael Flynn is gone, push for meaningful whistleblower protections so that the Flynn leakers – or the next Snowden – can’t be targeted by the government for exposing unlawful behavior.
Democrats should also note that the prevailing Russia narrative targets Trump, and Trump alone, while ignoring his party. That, too, may not be an accident. Republicans has been rigging American elections for years, more blatantly than Russia’s ever done. Dems should be wary of a tactic that wounds Trump while elevating the rest of the militarily hawkish GOP – a party that shares Trump and Putin’s ideology of unfettered predatory capitalism and the “deep state’s” predilection for war.
9. Remember, you could be next
The current leak campaign against Trump offers a glimpse into the playbook that might be used against a future progressive president, if she or he dares to move against the military-industrial complex.
Recent Democratic presidents, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, supported many of the national security state’s ambitious military and budgetary ventures. But a new wave of progressives lacks that enthusiasm.
In a famous debate exchange during last year’s Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton mentioned her close relationship with Republican Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who she had earlier called “a friend.”
“I’m proud to say Henry Kissinger is not my friend,” Sanders said in response.
What if progressives someday help elect a president who agrees with Sanders? Kissinger, although reprehensible, is venerated by the military-industrial crowd. By cheering on “deep state” Trump attacks, Democrats may be summoning a demon that will one day turn on them.
10. Keep in mind that we need to work with Russia
Nobody benefits from escalating tensions with Russia (except the aforementioned financial interests). Russia continues to wield considerable influence in the Middle East, and it still commands the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons outside the United States. We will need to keep talking to Russia, come what may.
We can condemn Putin’s tactics and still understand that we need to negotiate with him.
But negotiation becomes tougher politically when liberal commentators on MSNBC characterize Russia as “an adversarial, aggressive power” and suggest conspiratorially that it might start a war to throw the 2016 election. (It didn’t.)
11. Fight oligarchy, not each other
These Russia claims may turn out to be true or they may turn on the ones who are peddling them. It’s like the saying goes: sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.
Here’s a better way to fight Trump: No less an authority than Simon Johnson, former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), wrote a Project Syndicate essay headlined “Trump’s Extreme Oligarchy.”
Johnson concluded that Trump’s “American oligarchs” will “offer various strange justifications that deflect attention from the essentials of their policy: lower taxes for…people like them, and higher taxes – not to mention significant losses of high-paying jobs – for almost everyone else.”
We have no hard evidence of a secret conspiracy between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. But we know there’s a common thread that binds them: greed.
It’s greed that we know we must fight: the greed of plutocrats like Trump and his cabinet, and the greed of national security contractors who would heighten international tensions for their own gain.
But progressives and Democrats shouldn’t fight each other. That may be what the “almost deep state” wants, but it’s not what the country needs. We can build a unified movement around the corruption that’s already been uncovered in Trump’s “swamp cabinet” and the money-crazed GOP.
Impanel that commission, because we deserve the truth. But until we have the truth about Russia’s ties to Trump – from reputable, public and trustworthy sources – let’s fight President Trump with the weapons we already have at hand: the weapons of truth, accountability and justice.
Those weapons will never hurt the hands that hold them.