Baby Boomers – America’s Old Farts – remember duck-and-cover in grade school and watched that Dr. Strangelove movie in high school (1964) and on Election Day that year watched as Lyndon Johnson buried Barry Goldwater. Madmen in power can and probably will end the world. Goldwater had said that “extremism in defense of liberty is no sin” and the nation disagreed with him. His extremism could get us all killed. Johnson’s Daisy Ad that aired only once sealed the deal – global thermonuclear war was a bad idea – or maybe the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis sealed the deal. Kennedy and Khrushchev worked things out. The Soviets pulled their nuclear missiles out of Cuba. We pulled our nuclear missiles out of Turkey. The world didn’t end.
That was because, after years of threats of massive retaliation by both sides, plausible threats as both sides had thousands of nuclear weapons by then, both sides informally adopted Mutually Assured Destruction as national security policy – build even more bombs and make even more threats, but in a balanced way, because no one would be foolish enough to use those new nuclear weapons. If they did, the world really would end. The problem was solved. What we developed, they matched. What they developed, we matched. And it was all so horrible neither side would dare use any of it.
No one did. So the world didn’t end. Only the Soviet Union ended, in economic collapse. It had all been too expensive for them. Vladimir Putin has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy and brought deep shame on all Russians, and he would, somehow, bring back those glory days – but now Russia has an economy roughly the size of Italy’s and about as dysfunctional and corrupt. He’s not going to rebuild a nuclear arsenal of any kind, or the appropriate delivery systems – new massive submarines and new missiles and whatnot. He cannot afford that.
That doesn’t matter. He can afford a small army of computer wizards who can create ways to bring down America and the West. His small army of computer wizards hacked the Democrats and destroyed Hillary Clinton with what they released. The trolls and sly nuggets misinformation on Facebook and elsewhere did the rest. Putin destroyed Hillary Clinton, but that was a minor matter. The United States, with Israel, planted the logic bombs, the computer code that kind of exploded and slowed down and often stopped the centrifuges Iran was using in their nuclear program. Russia and China and North Korea have hacked the Pentagon and various America businesses – not very successfully, so far – or so the American public has been told.
Something is up. The nuclear arms race is over, or irrelevant. There’s no need for kids practice duck-and-cover anymore. This is a different arms race. But it’s still mutually assured destruction and now we’ve made that policy explicit. The New York Times was told all about it:
The United States is stepping up digital incursions into Russia’s electric power grid in a warning to President Vladimir V. Putin and a demonstration of how the Trump administration is using new authorities to deploy cybertools more aggressively, current and former government officials said.
In interviews over the past three months, the officials described the previously unreported deployment of American computer code inside Russia’s grid and other targets as a classified companion to more publicly discussed action directed at Moscow’s disinformation and hacking units around the 2018 midterm elections.
Our guys did shut down Moscow’s disinformation and hacking units on Election Day – to show they could and as a warning that they’d better cut that out – but that’s small potatoes. This is the big stuff. Shut down the systems that keep daily life going here and we’ll do the same there:
Advocates of the more aggressive strategy said it was long overdue, after years of public warnings from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI that Russia has inserted malware that could sabotage American power plants, oil and gas pipelines, or water supplies in any future conflict with the United States.
But it also carries significant risk of escalating the daily digital Cold War between Washington and Moscow.
Of course it does, but that’s the point, and that’s now on the record:
The administration declined to describe specific actions it was taking under the new authorities, which were granted separately by the White House and Congress last year to United States Cyber Command, the arm of the Pentagon that runs the military’s offensive and defensive operations in the online world.
But in a public appearance on Tuesday, President Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, said the United States was now taking a broader view of potential digital targets as part of an effort “to say to Russia, or anybody else that’s engaged in cyberoperations against us, ‘You will pay a price.'”
That’s as explicit as possible, as are the details:
Since at least 2012, current and former officials say, the United States has put reconnaissance probes into the control systems of the Russian electric grid.
But now the American strategy has shifted more toward offense, officials say, with the placement of potentially crippling malware inside the Russian system at a depth and with an aggressiveness that had never been tried before. It is intended partly as a warning, and partly to be poised to conduct cyberstrikes if a major conflict broke out between Washington and Moscow.
The commander of United States Cyber Command, Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, has been outspoken about the need to “defend forward” deep in an adversary’s networks to demonstrate that the United States will respond to the barrage of online attacks aimed at it.
And what he says goes:
Mr. Trump issued new authorities to Cyber Command last summer, in a still-classified document known as National Security Presidential Memoranda 13, giving General Nakasone far more leeway to conduct offensive online operations without receiving presidential approval.
But the action inside the Russian electric grid appears to have been conducted under little-noticed new legal authorities, slipped into the military authorization bill passed by Congress last summer. The measure approved the routine conduct of “clandestine military activity” in cyberspace, to “deter, safeguard or defend against attacks or malicious cyberactivities against the United States.”
Under the law, those actions can now be authorized by the defense secretary without special presidential approval.
And everyone is happy with that:
Two administration officials said they believed Mr. Trump had not been briefed in any detail about the steps to place “implants” – software code that can be used for surveillance or attack – inside the Russian grid.
Pentagon and intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction – and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.
That’s the odd part of this warning to Putin. Everyone kept Trump in the dark. They know he likes Putin, or at least he admires Putin, and Trump has, time and time again, said the he believes what Putin says, not what they say. They don’t want Trump to call this off, because this sort of thing is an insult to Putin, a good man. Nor do they want him to tell Putin all about what this is about, because Trump wants Putin to know he’s being treated unfairly. This is Bolton’s massage to Putin, not Trump’s.
But it’s still mutually assured destruction:
How Mr. Putin’s government is reacting to the more aggressive American posture described by Mr. Bolton is still unclear.
“It’s 21st-century gunboat diplomacy,” said Robert M. Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas, who has written extensively about the shifting legal basis for digital operations. “We’re showing the adversary we can inflict serious costs without actually doing much. We used to park ships within sight of the shore. Now, perhaps, we get access to key systems like the electric grid.”
And that’s better than nuclear bombs – more damage, no fallout – but this puzzles Kevin Drum:
This was obviously an “official leak.” But why? To make sure that Russia knows how vulnerable they are? Or to send Russia into a tizzy looking for malware?
He’s not sure:
If the intelligence community is willing to talk to the Times, they obviously aren’t concerned about Trump’s blabbing. Nor are they concerned about the fact that he might cancel the operation if he learns about it, since he’ll obviously learn about it once Fox & Friends discusses the Times piece.
Drum senses something else is going on here:
This is really a way of making sure the American public knows about the cyberwar program. Trump could still stop it, but he now knows that his cancellation would be leaked and he’d look like a Putin stooge – not something he can afford more of right now. This is not a subtle form of bureaucratic battle. This is hardball of the most explicit kind. The intelligence community – including Trump’s own NSC – pretty obviously wants to make sure there’s no chance of Trump not getting the message.
Maybe he did get the message. He didn’t tweet out that this was so very unfair to Putin, a good man, and to Russia, our friends. He tweeted out that the New York Times had just committed treason:
President Donald Trump has lashed out at The New York Times, saying it engaged in a “virtual act of treason” for a story that said the U.S. was ramping up its cyber-intrusions into Russia’s power grid…
The Times, in its official public relations account, called Trump’s accusation “dangerous” and said it had told officials about the story before it was published and no security issues were raised.
In fact, John Bolton, his own national security advisor, had given them that quote about how this was a warning to the Russians. So Trump was changing the subject:
In a pair of tweets sent Saturday night, Trump asserted the story wasn’t true and denounced reporters as “cowards.”
“Do you believe that the Failing New York Times just did a story stating that the United States is substantially increasing Cyber Attacks on Russia? This is a virtual act of Treason by a once great paper so desperate for a story, any story, even if bad for our Country,” he wrote…
In a second tweet, Trump added about the story: “ALSO, NOT TRUE! Anything goes with our Corrupt News Media today. They will do, or say, whatever it takes, with not even the slightest thought of consequence! These are true cowards and without doubt, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”
No, that must be someone else:
The New York Times’ response also noted that the paper described the article to government officials before publication. “As our story notes, President Trump’s own national security officials said there were no concerns.”
It didn’t matter. There were other tweets:
A poll should be done on which is the more dishonest and deceitful newspaper, the Failing New York Times or the Amazon (lobbyist) Washington Post! They are both a disgrace to our Country, the Enemy of the People, but I just can’t seem to figure out which is worse? The good news is that at the end of 6 years, after America has been made GREAT again and I leave the beautiful White House (do you think the people would demand that I stay longer? KEEP AMERICA GREAT), both of these horrible papers will quickly go out of business & be forever gone!
Perhaps so – probably not – but the story here is that his own national security advisor and the intelligence community decided long ago that, as a matter of national security, don’t tell him what they’re doing to keep the nation safe – because he’ll just blab it all to Putin. They leaked a story to the New York Times to warn Putin that he’d better watch out – we could flip the switch and turn off his nation too – and to warn Trump that they were onto him. They’d stop Russia from messing us up, even if he wouldn’t. They’d just ignore him – for the good of the country.
Let him tweet:
Happy Father’s Day to all, including my worst and most vicious critics, of which there are fewer and fewer. This is a FANTASTIC time to be an American! KEEP AMERICA GREAT!
That’s harmless enough, but Axios has a list of the twenty-four times Trump has accused somebody of “treason” – so far. The companion piece is everything Trump says he knows “more about than anybody” – so far.
That’s a parallel problem. In those cases it’s also best to ignore him, but as Peter Baker’s New York Times team reports, that is never easy:
As President Trump prepares to kick off his bid for a second term this week, he is anxiously searching for a way to counter Democrats on health care, one of their central issues, even though many of his wary Republican allies would prefer he let it go for now.
Since he announced his previous run four years ago, Mr. Trump has promised to replace President Barack Obama’s health care law with “something terrific” that costs less and covers more without ever actually producing such a plan.
Now he is vowing to issue the plan within a month or two, reviving a campaign promise with broad consequences for next year’s contest. If he follows through, it could help shape a presidential race that Democrats would like to focus largely on health care.
While the president has acknowledged that no plan would be voted on in Congress until 2021, when he hopes to be in a second term with Republicans back in charge of the House, he is gambling that putting out a plan to be debated on the campaign trail will negate some of the advantage Democrats have on the issue.
And his own party is saying no, no, no, don’t go there:
Nervous Republicans worry that putting out a concrete plan, with no chance of passage, would only give the Democrats a target to pick apart over the next year. The hard economic reality of fashioning a plan that lives up to the promises Mr. Trump has made would invariably involve trade-offs unpopular with many voters.
So, don’t defend Putin, and don’t say you know more about health care than anybody else in the world, and don’t say that in a week or two you’ll have a plan that fixes everything, because that’s absurd, and so he did just that:
“Obamacare has been a disaster,” Mr. Trump told ABC News in an interview aired on Sunday evening. His own plan, he insisted, would lower costs. “You’ll see that in a month when we introduce it. We’re going to have a plan. That’s subject to winning the House, Senate and presidency, which hopefully we’ll win all three. We’ll have phenomenal health care.”
No, you’ve already lost that argument:
Democratic leaders have argued that they won control of the House in last year’s midterm elections in large part on the healthcare issue, and they have been pressing the point in recent weeks. Over the weekend, 140 House Democrats, more than half of the party’s caucus, held events or online town halls to talk about health care, their largest coordinated action in districts since winning the majority.
In particular, Democrats hammered the Trump administration for asking a court in March to overturn the entire Affordable Care Act, which among other things would eliminate protections for patients with pre-existing conditions. Mr. Trump has repeatedly said he favors such protections but has not explained how he would achieve them if the Obama-era law were invalidated.
“The Trump administration is currently suing to eliminate the law that guarantees health care coverage for Americans with pre-existing conditions,” said Representative Ted Lieu of California, a leader of the Democratic committee that organized the weekend activities. “That action speaks for itself. If Trump wants to be serious about health care, he needs to stop the lawsuit and his other actions that seek to sabotage the ACA.”
And there’s talk of Medicare for all now too. People like that idea. And it is an idea, not the promise of an idea later. It might be time to walk away from all that, but Trump won’t walk away:
Given the Democratic advantage, many Republicans say they should not focus their energy on health care but instead emphasize immigration and other issues where they are stronger. But the president and his team counter that even if they cannot win on health care, it would be ridiculous to simply cede the territory if they could at least narrow the gap.
The president feels compelled to have something specific to counter Medicare for all.
He feels compelled to defend Putin too, but it may be best to just ignore him:
Midway through his third year in office, many remain skeptical that Mr. Trump will produce the plan he is now promising to unveil in a month or two.
“He can’t deliver the impossible,” said Len M. Nichols, the director of the Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics at George Mason University, “so he avoids specifics and postpones actually reckoning with a serious legislative proposal of his own.”
He can’t even delver what’s necessary, as the Washington Post reports here:
Senate Republicans and the Trump administration are struggling to reach an agreement on a path forward on critical budget and spending issues, threatening not only another government shutdown and deep spending cuts but a federal default that could hit the economy hard.
GOP leaders have spent months cajoling President Trump in favor of a bipartisan budget deal that would fund the government and raise the limit on federal borrowing this fall, but their efforts have yet to produce a deal. And the uncertain path forward was underscored a few days ago at the Capitol, when a budget meeting between key Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and senior White House officials left out Democrats, whose votes will be imperative to avoid a shutdown and an economy-shaking breach of the federal debt limit.
It seems that on these matters the Republicans can’t get their own president to sit down and pay attention to things. They’ll worry about the Democrats later. They have a more immediate problem:
Trump and Congress face a trio of difficult budget issues. Congress must pass, and Trump must sign, funding legislation by Oct. 1 to avoid a new shutdown. They need to raise the federal debt limit around the same time, according to the latest estimates. Failure to do so would force the government to make difficult decisions about which obligations to pay, and could be considered a default by investors, shaking markets and an economy already showing some signs of alarm.
And by year’s end, they also need to agree on how to lift austere budget caps that will otherwise snap into place and slash $125 billion from domestic and military programs.
Senate Republicans and the administration thus far have not agreed on how to proceed on any of the issues, making it all but impossible for them to enter into substantive negotiations with Democrats.
They need to deal with the one guy messing everything up:
Tensions between key Senate Republicans and White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney have been on display for months, and GOP lawmakers and aides partially blame that frayed relationship for the halting pace of talks. Mulvaney was a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus before he joined the administration, first as White House budget director before becoming acting chief of staff, and he has advocated dramatic spending cuts opposed by lawmakers of both parties.
Mulvaney has been slow to come around to the need for a bipartisan budget deal that would raise domestic and military spending caps, even after McConnell met privately with Trump last month and got the president’s blessing to proceed with such a deal, said a senior GOP Senate aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
“The problem with Mulvaney is sometimes he forgets he’s a staffer now, so he’s looking to execute on his own vision instead of the president’s, and that slows down the process,” the aide said.
That might be fixed if the president had “a vision” in these matters, but Mick Mulvaney is just ignoring him, as is John Bolton on our cyber cold war with Russia, and everyone is trying to ignore him on health care.
Is anyone paying attention to him at all?