It was just another Monday in America. The dust had settled. All sixteen of our intelligence agencies say Russia worked hard to make sure Hillary lost the election. That had come up before, but it seems that these folks told key members of Congress in a secret session in October that this was actually a certainty. Mitch McConnell and the other Republicans said that this could not be made public – they’d scream holy hell – that would be unfair – that would be partisan meddling in the election.
Fine – no one would know – but Friday, news of that leaked. Presumably, Putin would have had no problem with Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. This was all about Hillary – she’d pissed off Putin a few years ago. But this had helped Trump win. That’s what everyone knew by Monday.
That made Monday odd. Russia said they did no such thing, and now Trump is pissed. He did win big, legitimately, damn it! He now says all sixteen of our intelligence agencies are a bunch of “hacks” – he doesn’t trust them at all. He’ll take the word of the Russian government over the word of all sixteen of our intelligence agencies any day of the week. He won’t take their Presidential Daily Briefings either. He’s “smart” – he doesn’t need them.
So, is it time to shut down the CIA and the NSA and Army Intelligence and all the rest? Trump has lauded InfoWars – Alex Jones’ outfit that thinks that Sandy Hook was a hoax and 9/11 was an inside job and all the rest. Is that the alternative? Trump does show up on Alex Jones’ radio show now and then, saying Jones does fine work – but Alex Jones is nutty. He won’t do. Do we just trust the Russians’ assessment of the world? Trump seems to trust them.
That’s a problem for a lot of Americans, but particularly for Reagan Republicans – and that would be pretty much all Republicans, before Trump came along. Ronald Reagan defeated the “evil empire” that was the Soviet Union. He tore down the Berlin Wall with his bare hands. He stuck it to the Russians. They deserved it. The Soviet Union collapsed under its own absurd weight of course, just after they gave up on their effort to remake Afghanistan into something they wanted it to be. Their military collapsed, their economy collapsed, but no matter – Ronald Reagan was strong. Russia was the enemy. He won because he was strong. They lost. The Cold War ended. That’s the sort of thing Republicans do.
Trump doesn’t get it, and late Monday there was this:
President-elect Donald Trump has picked as his secretary of state Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, setting up a possible confrontation with members of his own party in the Senate, according to a person involved in the transition.
Since Tillerson’s name emerged as a candidate for the post, leading Republicans have expressed reservations about his years of work in Russia and the Middle East on behalf of the multinational petroleum company.
GOP advisers have warned that a growing number of Republican senators may be unwilling to vote to confirm Tillerson because of his ties to Russia. While Senate Democrats cannot filibuster Trump’s Cabinet picks, Republicans have only 52 votes in the Senate, leaving them in potential jeopardy if Democrats unite in opposition to Tillerson. It will take at least 50 votes to confirm a nominee, plus Vice President-elect Mile Pence casting a tie-breaking vote.
The work on behalf of the multinational petroleum company – the only thing the man has ever done – is a worry – but the Russia thing is heresy:
At least four Republican senators have already publicly expressed their concerns with Tillerson’s Russia ties. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) called the fact that Putin awarded Tillerson the Kremlin’s Order of Friendship in 2012 “unnerving,” while Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) questioned Tillerson’s judgment on CNN on Monday noting, “I don’t see how anybody could be a friend of this old time KGB agent,” referring to Putin.
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) also tweeted over the weekend that “being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a Secretary of State,” while a spokesman for Sen. James Lankford (Okla.) said he “has a lot of questions about Mr. Tillerson and his ties to Russia.”
Of the four, only Rubio sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which first must approve Tillerson’s nomination before it can head to the floor.
That means that the Tillerson nomination will get through committee and go to the full Senate for a vote, where it may die, but there’s a plan for that:
The Trump team is planning an aggressive public relations campaign to win confirmation for Tillerson and dispel what it sees as a false narrative about his ties to Russia, a person involved in the transition said. Former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and James Baker are planning to go public Tuesday morning with their support for Tillerson, as is former defense secretary Robert Gates. Former vice president Richard B. Cheney also is supportive and may advocate for his confirmation.
Gates was the first person to raise Tillerson as a secretary of state possibility with Trump during a meeting at Trump Tower, the transition official added. Trump did not know much about Tillerson but started chewing over the idea. He invited Tillerson for a meeting and the two global deal makers hit it off. They recognized similarities in each other, and the more they talked, the more they liked each other, the transition official said.
Rice, who has served on the board of Chevron, then became a strong advocate for Tillerson. She and Trump spoke about Tillerson by phone Monday as Trump made his final decision.
This is a Big Oil thing. Chevron once named an oil tanker after Rice and Cheney ran Halliburton, the oil-field services firm that ended up providing everything from mess halls to latrines to telephone poles for our forces in Iraq for those eight years – so that may help with worried Republicans – but this is going to be difficult:
Weighing whether to lift economic sanctions on Russia will be one of the first things on Tillerson’s plate – given Trump’s desire to smooth relations with the Kremlin. International economic sanctions, imposed after Russia annexed Crimea and gave support to insurgents in Ukraine’s eastern provinces, have fallen heavily on financial institutions and ExxonMobil.
ExxonMobil, which has a profitable operation on Sakhalin Island in eastern Russia, had begun a drilling program in the Arctic’s Kara Sea, where Exxon made a find, and had agreed to explore shale oil areas of West Siberia and deep waters of the Black Sea. If sanctions are lifted, Tillerson told analysts this year, the Black Sea drilling would probably be the first to be restarted.
While ExxonMobil complained privately to the Obama administration about the sanctions, the company has abided by the law.
“They understand the situation. We understand the situation,” Tillerson said of the Kremlin when asked at an oil analysts’ meeting this year about whether Exxon would resume work in Russia if sanctions were lifted.
Okay – Trump lifts all sanctions – drilling resumes. Everybody is happy, except some folks in Crimea and the Ukraine, but there’s another problem:
Tillerson will have to deal with climate issues because the State Department is the lead agency in international climate negotiations. Unlike Trump, Tillerson has said that he believes that climate change is real and has favored a revenue-neutral carbon tax of more than $20 a ton.
But environmental groups charge that Exxon knew about the harmful effects of fossil fuels as much as 40 years ago and failed to inform investors and the public, possibly in violation of securities laws. The New York and Massachusetts attorneys general and a range of non-governmental organizations are locked in battle over the charges.
That may be hard to straighten out, and there’s this:
Human rights experts are also unhappy about Tillerson’s nomination, noting that ExxonMobil does business in countries ruled by autocrats or dictators including countries in the Middle East, Equatorial Guinea and Kazakhstan.
“I don’t think that companies’ role is to play politics,” said Pavel Molchanov, oil analyst at the investment firm Raymond James. “They’re there to invest in resources. Saying that he personally has some special feelings toward Russia just because Exxon has invested there is probably overstating the case.”
Not many are happy with this nomination, and the Washington Post reports this:
Although Trump maintains enthusiastic backing in many corners of the party, key members of the Senate and House have been outspoken in challenging his views of Russia and its interference in the U.S. election, warning of potential conflicts of interest arising from Trump’s far-flung business interests if he does not fully divest from his company, and criticizing the tough approach that he has taken to some companies, including his threat to impose a stiff tariff on firms that move jobs overseas.
That’s three things – the Russians messing with our election, the obvious conflicts of interest with his business empire – and his massive revolving debt with major foreign and domestic banks – and those damned tweets slamming Boeing and Lockheed and others. Still, there’s one big issue:
No other issue has so clearly divided Trump and top Republicans lawmakers as has his dismissal of U.S. intelligence agencies that attributed the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other political targets to Russian operatives. The tensions were exposed over the weekend: Trump belittled the CIA after a Washington Post report that the agency believed that Moscow favored Trump in the election, and several Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), joined with Democrats to call for an investigation into the matter.
“The Russians are not our friends,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Monday, voicing his support for an inquiry.
McConnell stopped short of endorsing a special select committee investigation, as some lawmakers have suggested, but said that the Senate Intelligence Committee is equipped to take on the matter.
“This simply cannot be a partisan issue,” he said.
McConnell also appeared to break with Trump in his assessment of the CIA, saying that he has “the highest confidence” in the intelligence community and that the CIA is “filled with selfless patriots, many of whom anonymously risk their lives for the American people.”
McConnell, meanwhile, declined to defend Tillerson against accusations that he is too close with Russia, telling reporters that he would not comment on a hypothetical “phantom nominee.”
That’s cold. Trump may have just nominated McConnell’s wife to be Secretary of Transportation but he himself knows Trump has gone too far with the Russia thing, and Slate’s Fred Kaplan explains why:
During the Cold War, the Russians referred to this sort of spying as “active measures,” and the Americans engaged in it too. Both sides rigged elections in smaller countries around the world, either to protect governments serving their interests or to overthrow those that weren’t. This was done mainly by funneling money, spreading propaganda, assassination; the techniques were many.
The 2016 election marks the first time that the United States has been on the receiving end of such a campaign—and the first time that it’s been hurled forth in the cyber realm. Does that make us hypocritical? Maybe. Does that make our outrage less valid?
Putin may well see the hacks as acts of revenge. A former KGB officer with a paranoid worldview who regards the implosion of the Soviet Union as the 20th century’s greatest geopolitical catastrophe, Putin blames the United States for plotting that implosion. He also blames the United States – and specifically Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama’s secretary of state – for prodding democratic activists in Ukraine to move away from Russia and toward the European Union. By contrast, Trump has expressed admiration for Putin, has never criticized Putin for anything, has raised doubts about whether he’d defend NATO allies from a Russian invasion – and some of Trump’s associates have business interests in Russia. If Putin had the power and desire to help tilt the election one way or another (as it now seems he did), it is clear which way he’d help to tilt it. Even if Putin’s premises and justifications were true, would that make the hack less objectionable? No. As almost everyone except Trump is acknowledging, it was an attack on our democracy, on our nation.
Think of that virus we or the Israelis planted – no one admits anything – to mess up Iran’s nuclear program by causing all their centrifuges to mysteriously fail:
A threshold has been crossed. Stuxnet marked the first time that a nation-state destroyed physical objects – the critical infrastructure of another nation-state – through strictly cyber means. Russia’s hack against Hillary Clinton’s campaign appears to have marked the first time that a nation-state tried to tilt a presidential election – or at least an American presidential election – through strictly cyber means. The consequences – for future elections, for the prospects of democracy, and for Russian-American (or East-West) politics – depend, in part, on what we do about it.
Doing nothing, of course, won’t do. Doing something is merely difficult. Kaplan reviews the options. They’re complicated, but what are America’s options with Trump? We elected a president who knows nothing about governing – he’s never worked in government before – and knows nothing about diplomacy or even what issues are bubbling up all over, every day. He won’t take those daily Presidential Daily Briefings from his ears and ears in the intelligence community. He has said he doesn’t trust those people, and anyway, he’s “smart” – he doesn’t need them. And his proposed secretary of state never worked in government before and knows nothing about diplomacy – and they both think Putin is a fine fellow and our friend, or should be.
The Electoral College isn’t going to fix this. They can’t. The Electoral College has been no more than a quaint formality since… well, since forever. And if the electors reversed things now there’d be hell to pay. We’d know what a real constitutional crisis looks like. We might not survive it.
So we’re stuck, and Paul Krugman tries to come to terms with that:
Mrs. Clinton received almost three million more votes than her opponent, giving her a popular margin close to that of George W. Bush in 2004.
So this was a tainted election. It was not, as far as we can tell, stolen in the sense that votes were counted wrong, and the result won’t be overturned. But the result was nonetheless illegitimate in important ways; the victor was rejected by the public, and won the Electoral College only thanks to foreign intervention and grotesquely inappropriate, partisan behavior on the part of domestic law enforcement.
The question now is what to do with that horrifying knowledge in the months and years ahead.
That grotesquely inappropriate, partisan behavior was the Comey letter. The head of the FBI informed Congress that there were more Clinton emails on a stray laptop. They might be nothing, they might be duplicates of what they already had, but you never know. Fox News then reported that Clinton was about to be indicted, and then retracted that, but Trump and his folks never retracted the same claim – it was over – Hillary was going to jail. Two days before the election, James Comey said okay, we looked at these. There was nothing there – sorry for the false alarm. He was as bad (or as good) as the Russians.
It doesn’t matter now. The damage was done, but what happens now? The options are few:
One could, I suppose, appeal to the president-elect to act as a healer, to conduct himself in a way that respects the majority of Americans who voted against him and the fragility of his Electoral College victory. Yeah, right. What we’re actually getting are wild claims that millions of people voted illegally, false assertions of a landslide, and denigration of the intelligence agencies.
Another course of action, which you’ll see many in the news media taking, is to normalize the incoming administration, basically to pretend that everything is okay. This might – might – be justified if there were any prospect of responsible, restrained behavior on the part of the next president. In reality, however, it’s clear that Mr. Trump – whose personal conflicts of interest are unprecedented, and quite possibly unconstitutional – intends to move U.S. policy radically away from the preferences of most Americans, including a pronounced pro-Russian shift in foreign policy.
In other words, nothing that happened on Election Day or is happening now is normal. Democratic norms have been and continue to be violated, and anyone who refuses to acknowledge this reality is, in effect, complicit in the degradation of our republic.
That leaves only this:
This president will have a lot of legal authority, which must be respected. But beyond that, nothing: he doesn’t deserve deference, he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.
And when, as you know will happen, the administration begins treating criticism as unpatriotic, the answer should be: You have to be kidding. Mr. Trump is, by all indications, the Siberian candidate, installed with the help of and remarkably deferential to a hostile foreign power. And his critics are the people who lack patriotism?
Will acknowledging the taint on the incoming administration do any good? Maybe it will stir the consciences of at least a few Republicans. Remember, many, though not all, of the things Mr. Trump will try to do can be blocked by just three Republican senators.
So there is hope:
Politics being what it is, moral backbones on Capitol Hill will be stiffened if there are clear signs that the public is outraged by what is happening. And there will be a chance to make that outrage felt directly in two years – not just in congressional elections, but in votes that will determine control of many state governments.
Now, outrage over the tainted election past can’t be the whole of opposition politics. It will also be crucial to maintain the heat over actual policies. Everything we’ve seen so far says that Mr. Trump is going to utterly betray the interests of the white working-class voters who were his most enthusiastic supporters, stripping them of health care and retirement security, and this betrayal should be highlighted.
But we ought to be able to look both forward and back, to criticize both the way Mr. Trump gained power and the way he uses it.
He won’t like that, but he really cannot shut down Saturday Night Live and CNN and MSNBC and the Washington Post and New York Times, yet. He’s not Vladimir Putin, yet. He’s just a fan, so Krugman offers this:
Personally, I’m still figuring out how to keep my anger simmering – letting it boil over won’t do any good, but it shouldn’t be allowed to cool. This election was an outrage, and we should never forget it.
But we will. This was our first Russian Monday. There will be many more.