Donald Trump made bombshell news yesterday at his joint press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki when he said that the Russian president’s case that the Russians did not intervene in the 2016 election was as strong as the finding by American intelligence agencies that Russia did. John McCain has said it was “one of the most disgraceful performances by a U.S. president in memory,” and the mainstream media have echoed that view. Some have accused Trump of treason.
Not to take Trump’s side here, but his abandonment of U.S. intelligence agencies has exposed some hypocrisy on the liberal Democratic side: their support for the security state and their inability to acknowledge the long history of American interference in foreign elections. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky on the PBS News Hour last night injected that realism.
I would say that President Trump has a healthy dose of skepticism towards our intelligence community and I share some of that. James Clapper [then director of National Intelligence] came before the Senate and lied. He said they weren’t collecting our information. That’s the biggest boldface lie that we’ve had in decades and no one did anything about it… They [Clapper and former CIA director John Brennan, who also faulted Trump] had the power to snoop on any American, to snoop on any person in the world. And believe you me they were scooping up everybody’s information…
I’m not saying they [the Russians] didn’t interfere with the election. In all likelihood they did. There’s a guy named Dov Levin from Carnegie Mellon who looked at this from 1946 to 2000, and he found 81 times in which the US intervened in elections, about 36 times for the Soviet Union. None of it makes it right, but any country that can spy does and any country that can intervene in foreign elections does. Yes, we’ve been involved in Russia in their elections, we’ve been involved in the Ukraine elections. And we say it’s for democracy. But we don’t support the Russian party. We support the pro-western party. And we paint ours as if ours is always just on the up and up. But we get involved in foreign countries’ elections.
And so yes, we have elevated this Russian thing to a degree that we are simply deranged by it… Did the Russians get involved in it? Yes. What I would tell Russians is exactly what I have told their ambassador and others: if you thought it would help things, it’s actually backfired. Because there can be no rapprochement with Russia, no engagement with Russia, because of the meddling in the election.
Here is an interview from 2016 with Levin about that study.
How often do other countries like Russia, for example, try to alter the outcome of elections as compared to the United States?
LEVIN: Well, for my dataset, the United States is the most common user of this technique. Russia or the Soviet Union since 1945 has used it half as much.
Finally, here’s a choice bit from top Obama aide Ben Rhodes’s new memoir, The World As It Is, about a documented instance of the U.S. interfering in a foreign election: the Ukraine. Rhodes reports a conversation in 2014 with a staffer at the National Security Council about a phone call documenting US interference– and notice where Rhodes’s outrage is. Not the American interference. “Russia has reached a new low”!
The intercepted call was between Toria Nuland, our assistant secretary of state for Europe, and Geoff Pyatt, our ambassador in Kiev. Nuland was a hawkish Foreign Service officer, anti-Russian, a savvy veteran of Dick Cheney’s staff who served as Hillary Clinton’s spokeswoman at State. In the recording, she and Pyatt sounded as if they were picking a new government as they evaluated different Ukrainian leaders. “I don’t think Klitsch should go into government [I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s a good idea],” she said about one Ukrainian politician. “I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience,” she said about another Ukrainian, who soon became prime minister [Arseniy Yatsenyuk]. At the end of the call, complaining about a lack of European pressure to resolve the crisis, Nuland said, “Fuck the EU.”
I was stunned. The Russians had almost certainly intercepted the phone call. That was hardly surprising–in these jobs, you have to assume that any number of governments could be listening in if you’re on a non-secure phone. What was new was the act of releasing the intercepted call and doing it so brazenly, on social media–the Russian government had even tweeted out a link to the YouTube account. Doing so violated the unspoken understanding among the major powers–we collect intelligence on one another, but we use it privately, for our own purposes. A Rubicon had been crossed–the Russians no longer stopped at hacking information; now, triggered by the threat of Ukraine sliding out of their sphere of influence, they were willing to hack information and put it into the public domain.
“I don’t know what we can say about this,” I said. “What have we said so far?”
“State hasn’t commented.”
We ended up noting that the Russians were the ones who had published the video and calling it “a new low in Russian tradecraft.”