For almost a year now, Donald Trump has neglected to acknowledge, let alone act on, the still very real Russian threat, and the circumstances in the U.S. that enable it

Since January 6 of this year, when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, National Security Agency chief Michael Rogers, and FBI Director James Comey paid a visit to President-elect Trump at New York City’s Trump Tower, there has been a concerted effort on the part of the United States intelligence community, elected officials, and even members of his own administration, to get Donald Trump to take the threat of Russian “active measures” seriously. And, in today’s Washington Post, there’s an incredibly detailed recounting of the whole thing, which, I think it’s fair to say, paints a fairly terrifying portrait of a President who, despite the copious amounts of evidence he’s been shown, refuses to accept even the possibility that the Russians could have sought to influence the result of the 2016 election. Here, to give you a sense of the article, is a short excerpt.

…Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject the evidence that Russia waged an assault on a pillar of American democracy and supported his run for the White House.

The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president — and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality — have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government.

Rather than search for ways to deter Kremlin attacks or safeguard U.S. elections, Trump has waged his own campaign to discredit the case that Russia poses any threat and he has resisted or attempted to roll back efforts to hold Moscow to account.

His administration has moved to undo at least some of the sanctions the previous administration imposed on Russia for its election interference, exploring the return of two Russian compounds in the United States that President Barack Obama had seized — the measure that had most galled Moscow. Months later, when Congress moved to impose additional penalties on Moscow, Trump opposed the measures fiercely.

Trump has never convened a Cabinet-level meeting on Russian interference or what to do about it, administration officials said. Although the issue has been discussed at lower levels at the National Security Council, one former high-ranking Trump administration official said there is an unspoken understanding within the NSC that to raise the matter is to acknowledge its validity, which the president would see as an affront…

Oh, and here’s something else. Not only did our four highest ranking intelligence officers visit the President-elect on January 6, and warn him about the ongoing threat posted by Russia. They also told him that the CIA had “captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation” to hack the election. In other words, it wasn’t just a theory, even back on January 6. The four highest raining intelligence officers in the United State presented hard evidence to Donald Trump that the Russians had sought to sow discord in the United States, influence the outcome of the election, and erode trust our democratic institutions. And, in spite of this, Trump did nothing. And he’s continued to do nothing.

With all that we’ve learned since the election about the propaganda campaign designed to keep Hillary Clinton from the White House, the Russian troll farms, the hacking of the DNC, the Facebook ad buys, and all the rest of it, the President, in almost one year’s time, has yet to convene even a single meeting to address the very real threat of Russian active measures. In fact, according to senior White House officials, it’s gotten to the point where, in order to avoid Trump’s outbursts, even mentions of Russia are edited out of of his daily intelligence updates, which, by the way, are apparently delivered orally, as he prefers not to read. [From the Washington Post: “Russia-related intelligence that might draw Trump’s ire is in some cases included only in the written assessment and not raised orally, said a former senior intelligence official familiar with the matter. In other cases, Trump’s main briefer — a veteran CIA analyst — adjusts the order of his presentation and text, aiming to soften the impact.”] So, not only does our President refuse to accept the reality of the very real and ongoing threat to our democracy posed by Russian interference, but the people closest to him, it would appear, have given up even trying to discuss it with him… Just think about that for a moment. Our President is apparently so fragile that members of our national security team are downplaying serious, known threats to the United States while in his presence, for fear that he may “go off the rails.”

As for why Trump is refusing to accept the reality of the situation, it’s still not completely clear. It could be that he knows his campaign team colluded with the Russians, and feels as though, if he acknowledges that the Russians were actively meddling, it could bring investigators even closer to his door. Or, it could be that Putin really is holding some type of kompromat over Trump’s head, like that outlined in the Steele dossier, which makes it impossible for him say anything even remotely unflattering about Russia. [Who can forget that time when Putin expelled hundreds of diplomatic employees from Russia and Trump actually thanked him for it, saying that he’d helped our State Department cut its overhead?] Or, it could be possible that Trump is just so incredibly insecure that he can’t accept that possibility that he didn’t win the election on his own, thanks to his dazzling charm and brilliant political instincts. And it’s this last possibility that the Washington post article has me thinking about tonight.

“What if,” I wonder, “Trump didn’t know a damn thing about the collusion, and his refusal to hold the Russians accountable stems completely from a pathological need on his part to be seen as a self-made man, beholden to no one?”

I know it’s unlikely, as there seems to be evidence to support collusion, but I’m finding it fascinating to consider the possibility that, when everything else is stripped away, all of this comes down to his narcissism, and his inability to accept that, had it not been for Russian interference, Clinton would have beaten him.

Once the truth is known, I suspect we’ll see that all three were true – that he was indebted to the Russian mob, that he was being blackmailed, and that he suffered from a constellation of psychological complexes that made it impossible for him to intellectually assimilate ideas that didn’t conform to his particular worldview, especially as they involved his comically inflated image of himself as the greatest, most adored, most envied man the word has ever known. And I think that last piece is the most interesting. Everything else is just ordinary Russian organized crime stuff. It’s that last piece, though, that makes it compelling, in the same way that Tony Soprano was compelling more because of his psychological issues than any the horrific crimes we may have seen him commit. And I think that’s what people will remember about Trump. Sure, he colluded with the Russians to win an election, but, more interestingly, he was that guy who couldn’t stop lying about how his inaugural crowd was the largest in American history, when we could all clearly see from the photos, that simply wasn’t the case.

Anyway, as I sit here tonight, rereading this Washington Post report, I’m just struck by all of these phrases, like, “(there’s an) unspoken understanding within the NSC that to raise the (Russia) matter is to acknowledge its validity, which the president would see as an affront,” and “(according to an unnamed senior administration official, Trump finds) “the idea that he’s been put into office by Vladi­mir Putin… pretty insulting,” and it’s all just so amazing to me. I can’t believe that our President’s fragile ego, and his complete inability to hear anything that he might take as an affront, is, to a large extent, what’s driving our politics at the national level. [For instance, Trump would rather visit authoritarian regimes where they praise him, and make him feel good about himself, than our historic allies, who ask difficult questions. And, over time, that will have an impact on global politics.]

And all of this has led us to where we are today, with a president who is unable to acknowledge what all reasonable people know to be true. As Michael Hayden, who served under George W. Bush as CIA director, recently said in an interview, Trump is simply unable say what we need for him to say in order to protect our democratic institutions. “What the President has to say,” according to Hayden, “is ‘We know the Russians did it, they know they did it, I know they did it, and we will not rest until we learn everything there is to know about how and do everything possible to prevent it from happening again’.” Trump, however, according to the former CIA director, “has never said anything close to that, and will never say anything close to that.” And, as a result, we’re just waiting for the Russians to do it again…. Hayden has also said that what the Russians did in 2016 was the political equivalent of the September 11 attacks, exposing a vulnerability that we hadn’t anticipated, and requiring a unified response. A response which never came.

So, on one hand, Putin’s covert propaganda campaign has been a resounding success. He kept Clinton from the White House, and successfully destabilized our nation. And the unified response that the intelligence community wanted never came. But, Putin did’t get everything he wanted. As the author of the Washington Post piece points out, “The annexation of Crimea from Ukraine has not been recognized. Sanctions imposed for Russian intervention in Ukraine remain in place. Additional penalties have been mandated by Congress. And a wave of diplomatic retaliation has cost Russia access to additional diplomatic facilities, including its San Francisco consulate.” …So, could it be that Putin isn’t the brilliant, 3-dimensional chess-playing tactician some of us tend to think of him as, or is he more a moderately lucky gambler, who placed a bet, got Trump into office, but not much more?

This brings me to the second article I want to share tonight, which is all about how Putin (the gambler, not the 3-imensional chess player) pulled this off. The article, titled “What Putin really Wants,” is in the new issue of the Atlantic… If you don’t have time to read it, I’d recommend that you at least listen to this Pod Save America interview with the article’s author, Julia Ioffe. [The interview stats at about the 37-minute mark.]

And here’s a bit of the transcript…

IOFFE: Every new email that’s found, every new link to a Russian, or a meeting, is held up as a kind of smoking gun, with this kind of tacit implication that Trump is going to step down tomorrow. And he’s not going to. He’s stuck with us as long as we’ve got this Republican party. We’re stuck with him for the next three years. As opposed to looking at this like a national security issue, and as a broader political issue. The fact that the Russians were able to get the kind of result that they got, with not a lot of sophisticated stuff, and not a lot of strategic operative genius, is kind of an indictment of our political culture, of our media literacy, of all the things we created, that the Russians didn’t create. So we have to look at ourselves, and think about the fact that the Russians didn’t create Donald Trump. The Russians didn’t create Fox News. They didn’t create Breitbart. They didn’t create InfoWars. They didn’t create the incredibly polarized discourse. They certainly didn’t create the racist backlash to the first black American president. They didn’t create the electoral college. A lot of this stuff was there. They just kind of exploited what we gave them.

Now think back to what Hayden was saying about how this attack was like 9/11, in that it also exploited weaknesses that we’d been unaware of. It really is a great analogy, isn’t it? Only, in this case, of course, we didn’t do anything to stop it from happening again, because our President would see that as an affront to his self-image.

One last thing… If someone hasn’t developed one already, we need a good K-12 media literacy curriculum in this country, and we need to make it mandatory, and we need to do it now.

[The image and quote from the top of this post come from the Washington Post.]

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  1. anonymous
    Posted December 14, 2017 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Funny you should post this now. I just received the following note from Bloomberg reporter Jennifer Epstein‏.

    “White House confirms that President Trump spoke with Vladimir Putin today.”

  2. Kim
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    According to the WaPo article, the Trump administration had a plan to return the Russian spy houses on the east and west coasts that had been shut down. This has been confirmed by the State Dpt. Thankfully Congress stopped it.

  3. Jean Henry
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    “I can’t believe that our President’s fragile ego, and his complete inability to hear anything that he might take as an affront, is, to a large extent, what’s driving our politics at the national level.”
    And yet we knew that would be the case.
    I take some small comfort in the fact, revealed in this weekend NYT Magazine Trump portrait, that Trump is now leading a relatively isolated existence, due to John Kelly’s hard ball military management. Trump is being spoon fed information meant not to outrage him but to bolster him, but he is also being cut off from any real decision making capacity. This is ‘managing up’ at its most extreme. (‘Managing up’ is a common set of strategies used to deal with volatile personalities in superior positions, or in dealing diplomatically with mad foreign autocrats) I don’t trust Kelly and co to run the country well, but they may prevent us from some of the worst impacts. And I suspect that, behind the scenes, the NSA and other intelligence agencies are working on the Russia question. At this point Trump is a monarch. An embarrassment of a monarch but societies survive those all the time, so long a governance continues.

    Please do not confuse this as me saying it’s all ok. I don’t like the people in power, but I think they understand national security and I think some of them, especially Generals, are doing there best to manage Trump himself as a national security threat. The fact that I’m relieved that we have an effective junta in place in the Executive branch demonstrates just how dangerous I think Trump untethered could be. He can’t even get in front of an open mic with a teleprompter script without endangering us.

    As for how to manage the dangers presented by our vulnerability to propaganda, I think there’s lots of work to do. And it’s not just in k-12. That the Young Turks is VC funded by hardcore conservatives (as I pointed up on the previous post comment thread) should give us pause. We talk about Russian influence and Trump all the time, but how hard is the left looking at it’s vulnerability to propagandist messaging meant to divide us. How much have we explored Bernie bro denialism etc etc? Where are the articles dissecting the kind of messaging the Russians put out there to divide us and demotivate us from voting on the left. And how much have the GOP learned about how to do it to us from them?

    This idea that the left are more informed and so less vulnerable to propaganda is simply wrong. If we are to protect ourselves in the future, we have to stop believing that people on the left are better, smarter and kinder and neither racist nor sexist. We have to stop believing that they are less willing to sexually abuse and harass us as well… Those beliefs disarm us. A lot of people who do shitty things do not have bad intentions. They simply lack self-vigilance. They don;t hold themselves accountable.

    The left needs to hold itself accountable. Our outrage may be justified but it’s also a vulnerability. If someone confirms our belief system we automatically trust them. That makes us marks for manipulation. We have to prioritize going towards uncomfortable truths and messy narratives with gray areas and less good/evil polarity. I don’t see that happening. I hope it does sooner rather than later.

  4. M
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday and thanked him for remarks he made “acknowledging America’s strong economic performance”. That’s how tone deaf and compulsively hungry for praise our president is.

  5. Josh Chamberlain
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Blaming our media literacy more than Putin is like saying we would have avoided getting harassed if only we had dressed more modestly

  6. nick
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    “…There is no doubt that Russia played a role in the 2016 presidential election. Almost every week, new disclosures help clarify the nature of that role.

    On the subject of Russian social media influence, however, the rhetoric far outpaces the reality. During recent congressional hearings, Senator Dianne Feinstein called it “a cataclysmic change” that marks “the beginning of cyber warfare”. Hillary Clinton recently claimed that it belonged to a broader Kremlin-coordinated offensive that amounted to a “cyber 9/11” – in other words, the digital equivalent of a terrorist attack in which nearly 3,000 people died.

    Putting aside the irony of American politicians complaining about election interference, given our own rich history of manipulating and dismantling democracies around the world, this language is untethered from the facts. The latest disclosures center on the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked company known for running propaganda operations for the Russian government. According to statements provided to Congress, the Internet Research Agency distributed more than 131,000 messages on Twitter, uploaded more than 1,000 videos to YouTube, and published posts that may have reached as many as 126 million users on Facebook.

    These numbers may seem large, but they’re not. The volume of content flowing through social media feeds is immense: on Facebook, Americans saw a total of 33 trillion posts from 2015 to 2017. And the amateurish quality of the Internet Research Agency campaign seriously compromised its effectiveness – a quarter of its posts were never seen by anyone. As for Twitter, the company reports that Russia-linked election tweets made up less than 1% of all election-related tweets between September 2016 and November 2016.

    This doesn’t exactly add up to a “cyber 9/11”. But it’s not just that Russian social media influence wasn’t especially “cataclysmic”. It’s also that the Internet Research Agency used the platforms precisely the way they’re designed to be used.

    The tragedy of 9/11 has long been weaponized to justify mass surveillance and state repression. The myth of the “cyber 9/11” will almost certainly be used for the same ends.

  7. Erin
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    “…we need a good K-12 media literacy curriculum in this country, and we need to make it mandatory, and we need to do it now.” This. Exactly this.

    And it would be cool if we could manage to actually educate kids – with a strong emphasis on reading comprehension, how to examine and interpret evidence, and how to think critically.

  8. nick
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    chapo trap house>pod save america. give it a shot folks, it’s good.

  9. Jean Henry
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    nick– unbearable. I cant believe people listen to podcasts of dudes holding forth without any accountability. It’s my worst nightmare. That’s like the stoner dude porch conversation you leave in your twenties to go up to your room and read a book. Like most of us don’t have to listen to overly certain alpha males bullshitting and back slapping their way into positions of authority every fucking day at work.

  10. Jean Henry
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    “Blaming our media literacy more than Putin is like saying we would have avoided getting harassed if only we had dressed more modestly”
    Josh– that sounds rational but it’s false equivalency on every level.
    1) No one is excusing Putin
    2) In a Democracy, part of our civic duty is to not only be informed but to hold the fourth estate accountable to standards of truthfulness (and for the 4th estate to hold itself accountable). Democracy also requires an informed and adequately educated population. This was set forth in our charter as a nation. The stated reason for such principles was to avoid tyranny. Our government is designed to resist tyranny and the engaged citizenry and the press are critical actors in this. That’s our responsibility.
    3) Propaganda is a con. It is designed to solicit our consent by appealing to our sense of identity and our allegiances and our fears. As such, it is more akin to seduction, albeit predatory and duplicitous seduction, but not sexual assault or even harassment, which by their nature, imply non-consensual acts. Americans chose to buy what the bots were selling. And re-distribute it widely. We allowed an enemy to divide us against ourselves. We were fooled, not assaulted.
    4) To the minimal degree that the two are comparable, if you don’t think women are thinking about how to protect themselves from abuse, and prepare their children to do the same, you are kidding yourself. There are means to defend ourselves. Modes of dress are not one of them. Because that strategy doesn’t work. How a woman dresses or appears has almost no relation to her vulnerability to abuse. In fact many predators in interviews stated they target women who appear insecure and vulnerable (the very young, the very old and the shrinking violets), not the sexually provocative or assertive.

  11. Meta
    Posted December 18, 2017 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper just called President Trump a Russian asset on CNN.

    “(Vladimir Putin) knows how to handle an asset and that’s what he’s doing with the President.”

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  1. […] don’t have the time right now to put this in the proper context, but I wanted to pass along this video of our President, moments before leaving the United States […]

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