Back-to-back newspaper stories have brought up the central question that motivated me when I began this blog two years ago: Is the president of the United States an agent of a foreign power?
First came the blockbuster January 11th story in The New York Times revealing that the FBI grew so concerned about the president’s behavior after his dismissal of FBI Director James Comey that they began an extraordinary investigation into whether the president was working on behalf of Russia against American interests.
That was followed by a report in The Washington Post about the “extraordinary” measures the president has taken to hide the details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump reportedly grabbed the notes of his own interpreter and instructed the linguist not to tell other administration officials what he had discussed with the Russian leader.
The common thread in both of these extraordinary stories is what a criminal investigator might call Trump’s “consciousness of guilt.” The president is behaving as though he has something to hide when it comes to Russia and is acting to cover up a crime.
The president fired James Comey because his agents were investigating the president’s ties to Russia, as he told NBC’s Lester Holt. An early draft of Comey’s dismissal letter also referenced Russia. And why would Trump keep the details of his conversations with Putin secret from his own administration unless he had something to hide?
Last evening, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro put this remarkable question to the president when he called in to her show: “Are you now or have you ever worked for Russia, Mr. President?”
Trump’s answer is a “non-denial denial” — something that sounds like a denial but isn’t. Missing from this answer is the word “No.”
“It’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked” goes in the pantheon of other famous non-answers like Nixon’s “I am not a crook” Mark McGwire’s “I’m not here to talk about the past” and Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Here’s the thing about espionage: Trump can be an asset of Russia and still believe he’s not. In spy terms, this would make him an unwitting
agent asset — someone who is unaware that he or she is being exploited by an intelligence operative as a means of attack by an adversary. It’s like a chess piece that thinks it’s moving around on the board as it wishes, unaware it is being guided by an unseen hand.
Putin, after all, is a master manipulator, who spent 16 years in the KGB “studying studying the minds of the targets, finding their vulnerabilities, and figuring out how to use them,” as Fiona Hill, senior director for Russian and European Affairs on Trump’s National Security Council wrote in her aptly titled book Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. (Hill, not surprisingly, was one of the ones kept in the dark about Trump’s conversations with Putin.)
Trump’s enormously fragile ego make him ripe for exploitation. You get a glimpse of how this works in a Washington Post story about phone conversations between Trump and Putin.
The Russian president complains to Trump about “fake news” and laments that the U.S. foreign policy establishment — the “deep state,” in Putin’s words — is conspiring against them, the first senior U.S. official said.
“It’s not us,” Putin has told Trump, the official summarized. “It’s the subordinates fighting against our friendship.”
We also see it in a photo op at the 2017 G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany. ,
… the Russian president leaned in to Mr. Trump, gestured to the journalists in the room, and asked: “These are the ones insulting you?”
“These are the ones. You’re right about that,” Mr. Trump responded.
What we don’t see or hear are the conversations taking place where Trump is getting fed actual Kremlin talking points. Since Trump doesn’t read and doesn’t study history how did he come to believe that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan to fight terrorism or that Montenegro was going to start World War III?
Let’s not forget all the president’s policies that support Russia’s interests and undermine America’s: his attacks on NATO, his abrupt decision to withdraw troops from Syria, and his inability to protect the United States from a repeat of Russia’s 2016 attack on our democracy. If Putin had given Trump a checklist of items he wanted take care of, the end result wouldn’t look much different.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the president of the United States, most likely without realizing it, is acting as an asset of a foreign power.
It may have taken most people a long time to come around to this ugly reality (if they’ve come around at all) but it’s been plain as day to intelligence officials ever since the presidential campaign.
“In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation,” Michael Morrell, former acting director of the CIA, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in August 2016.
James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said the same thing when he pointed out how Putin’s dealings with the president showed what a great case officer the Russian president was.
The back-to-back explosive stories over the weekend are another signal flare being sent up from inside the Trump administration. The stories, which both involved events in 2017, may have been meant to invite a congressional subpoena to the FBI agents or Trump’s translator. With the Democrats in control of the House, they may get their chance.