What did the president-elect know and when did he know it?
Not to go full Watergate, but it’s a fair question, considering Donald Trump’s persistent defense of Vladimir Putin, some of his advisers’ close ties to Russia, the credence he’s given to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and his stubborn refusal to credit US intelligence findings that Russia hacked Democrats’ e-mails and peddled “fake news” to influence our election in Trump’s favor.
On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before a Senate committee that Russia cybermeddled and spread disinformation (the latter of which Clapper said is ongoing), and President Barack Obama got a classified report outlining the evidence. Friday morning, hours before getting his own classified briefing, Trump called the focus on Russian hacking a political “witch hunt” against him, and crowed that his ratings for hosting “The Apprentice” surpassed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (“But who cares, he supported Kasich & Hillary,” he tweeted sarcastically) and that the editor of Vogue, a Clinton supporter, came to invite him to lunch.
On one level, it’s not surprising Trump has disputed the intelligence. He won the Electoral College convincingly but lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. Trump claims, erroneously, that he won a “landslide” (his Electoral College victory ranks 46th out of 58 elections) and has asserted without evidence that “millions of people” voted illegally for Hillary Clinton. Apparently, he is sensitive about his legitimacy, and the finding that Russia put its finger on the scale for him must be galling.
What is surprising — even by the high bar Trump has set for surprising discourse — is that the president-elect doubled-down on dissing the intelligence agencies on whom he’ll depend in two weeks, and endorsed statements by Assange, an anti-US hactivist whose agenda has often aligned with Russia’s.
Rewind to 2010, when Assange put out a half-million purloined Defense Department documents and began to release 250,000 confidential State Department cables. Trump denounced WikiLeaks’ actions as “disgraceful” and “espionage,” suggesting the “death penalty or something” as suitable punishment.
Fast-forward to July 2016, when WikiLeaks released e-mails exposing Democratic Party collusion to boost Clinton over her primary opponent, prompting embarrassing resignations. Private security firms swiftly tracked digital fingerprints to Russian hackers, and Trump openly goaded them to go after his opponent: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.” Without explaining his change of heart, Trump later dismissed Russian involvement, saying the culprit could have been a 400-pound hacker “sitting on their bed.” In October, US intelligence concluded with high confidence that Russia’s leaders directed the hacking, but Trump persisted that the United States had “no idea.”
He won the election, but he wouldn’t let it go. From Palm Beach, Trump mocked the CIA: They were wrong about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction so why trust them? When Obama sanctioned Russia for hacking and expelled 35 purported Russian spies, Trump sided with Putin, praising him for not retaliating (yet): “I always knew he was very smart!” This week, Trump trolled the US intelligence community on Twitter: “The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!” (US officials deny any delay, and told the Washington Post they intercepted senior Russian officials celebrating Trump’s win.)
Last week, Trump said cryptically that he knows “things that other people don’t know.” Pressed for what he might know that intelligence agencies don’t, he replied, “You’ll find out on Tuesday or Wednesday.”
The days came and went and the only revelation was a sympathetic Fox News interview with Assange, after which Trump approvingly tweeted Assange’s claims that “a 14-year-old” could have hacked the e-mails and that “Russians did not give him the info!” After Republican leaders condemned Assange (but avoided criticizing the president-elect), Trump fired off a head-spinning, black-is-white tweet, accusing the “dishonest media” of “lies to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence’ when in fact I am a big fan!”
So what’s in it for Trump to defend Russia, trust the word of anti-US hactivists, and discredit intelligence professionals on whose guidance he’ll soon rely? Quite simply: We don’t know. Maybe it’s just wounded manhood, Trump bristling at any implication he might not have otherwise won (though it’s impossible to prove Russian interference changed people’s votes). Is he indebted to Russia in some way? His son Donald Jr. said in 2008 that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets.” We don’t know if he’s beholden to Russian lenders, investors or others, and since Trump refuses to release tax returns or financial disclosures, we won’t have those answers without serious investigative journalism.
Classified briefings for Congress and a public report are expected soon, and pressure may rise for a select committee to investigate. But if Russia’s goal was to sow uncertainty in our democracy, cast doubt on the next occupant of the White House, and have some hidden cards in their dealings with the next president, then Putin already has the upper hand.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.