When the history of our time is written, Vladimir Putin’s deft use of cyber warfare and disinformation as a weapon will end up being a bigger story than terrorism. While the Kremlin’s cyber armada has attacked other countries, nothing compares to its assault on our democracy, a direct hit scored because of Donald Trump, who as Putin’s rent boy put his improbable presidential campaign at Russia’s disposal because he saw climbing into bed with the U.S.’s greatest enemy as a course to victory, allegiance to America be damned.
If all of this seems too preposterous to be true, it is because the scope of what Putin and Trump have done is so huge as to boggle the mind.
But it is true — sickeningly true — and evidence of that sickening truth is accumulating steadily as Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller and investigative reporters peel away the layers of Trump’s lies, exposing a conspiracy shocking not just because of its magnitude, but the eagerness of Trump, ever willing to do wrong in the service of power and greed, to engage in something so profoundly vile.
By offering up his campaign, including his own family members and top aides, the avaricious Trump enabled Putin to home in on the biggest target of all — voters whose support for Hillary Clinton was soft enough that barrages of Russian sourced and expertly-aimed fake news and hacked emails, backed by Russian propaganda disguised as real news, moved them into the Trump column and this profoundly unqualified narcissist into the White House.
While sending Trump packing remains an abstraction with so few congressional Republicans having the guts to stand up to his treason, I am uncharacteristically optimistic that he will be taken down for two reasons:
First, the size of the Putin-Trump conspiracy.
Conspiracies with only a few closed-lipped actors have a much better chance of succeeding, but there are literally dozens of people in and beyond Trump’s inner circle who participated in or have intimate knowledge of how the Putin-Trump conspiracy worked.
It will only take a few of them to buckle under Mueller’s steely grip and conclude that ratting out a man for whom loyalty always is a one-way street is preferable to doing prison time. And while Trump can pardon family members and close aides in the face of federal prosecution, they remain vulnerable to criminal charges at the state level, where Trump has no power to pardon.
Second, Trump’s proclivity for unforced errors.
When Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, his impetuousness and inattention to the consequences of his actions — trademarks of his presidency — quickly led to the appointment of Mueller, who possibly is the only person on the planet with the investigative chops to bring him down.
Had Trump not fired Comey, it is possible that his nascent investigation would have collapsed under the weight of Republican pressure and claims that Democrats were sore losers and were sitting on the “real” story behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, which has spawned thus far unfounded conspiracy theories that it was an inside job.
The case of Oliver North is instructive.
The Marine lieutenant colonel was a National Security Council staffer in the Reagan White House who lied under oath and altered official records concerning Reagan’s secret sale of weapons to Iran to fund the anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
North seemed to be headed for prison until a joint House-Senate investigative committee decided that his information was “vital to the public interest” and granted him immunity before the FBI could build a case against him. North testified before the committee at a widely watched televised hearing and declared he was merely doing his patriotic duty to great huzzahs, effectively undercutting the FBI’s criminal case.
There is an element of hypocrisy in all the handwringing over Russia’s rude intrusion in the 2016 presidential election. This is because it is, from an historical perspective, merely a resumption of the post-World War II propaganda war between the U.S. and Soviet Union.
As Jim Rutenberg notes in a compelling article in the New York Times Magazineheadlined “R.T., Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War,” Stalin understood that propaganda was the best weapon to counter the immense Marshall Plan, which beyond food relief and the rebuilding of cities and industries was a $13 billion effort (a staggering 143 billion in today’s dollars) to advance democracy.
In 1947, Stalin formed the Communist Information Bureau to coordinate anti-American messaging among European Communist parties and their newspapers, pamphlets and posters. That message was that the Marshall Plan was an American plot to subjugate Europe.
The U.S. fired back by enlisting journalists, Hollywood filmmakers and Madison Avenue ad agencies, who under the aegis of the U.S. Information Agency produced hundreds of gauzy news features and documentaries that promoted Western values like representative democracy and free trade.
All of that, of course, is tame compared to what Putin’s hackers unleashed in the Trump-Clinton election in coordination with Russian government-run news services. But that only serves to make even more alarming the widespread disinterest in taking steps to prevent a repeat in the 2018 off-year and 2020 presidential elections.
Other than minor actions such as the FBI questioning a former White House correspondent for Sputnik, a Kremlin-run news service, and the Justice Department requiring RT America, a Kremlin-run network available on Comcast, Cox, Charter, Fios and DirecTV, to register as a “foreign agent” under a World War II-era law originally devised for Nazi propaganda, there has been no groundswell of concern that Russia’s subversive role in Trump’s election may have been merely a warmup.
Not surprisingly, Trump has shown no interest in how to prevent future election interference.
Comey has testified that Trump never asked him about how to prevent future Russian attacks. The National Security Council has neither asked for nor received classified briefings on Russian interference, while many key jobs at the Department of Homeland Security remain unfilled eight months into the Trump presidency.
And all the while the man whom Putin foisted on America and the world continues to insist it’s all fake news and a witch hunt.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on September 17, 2017, on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.