Donald Dossier: Putin Is Back
The Russians are coming! As they try to boost Trump — and Bernie Sanders — we’re no better prepared than 2016.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sequels always need a new twist.
Four years of chatter, rumor, innuendo, dossiers, fever dreams and investigations have yet to turn up hard evidence that President Donald Trump is some sort of Russian plant. Robert Mueller’s investigators even tried to chase down the pee tape, to no avail. But what we do know is that Vladimir Putin — Mini Vlad? — is in the president’s head.
As we are doomed to repeat 2016 forever, last week’s blowup came after a classified briefing in which intelligence official Shelby Pierson told key members of Congress that Putin had “developed a preference” for Trump and was actively working to interfere in the election on his behalf … again.
Trump’s reaction? Shoot the messenger.
He canned Joseph Maguire, Pierson’s boss, and brought in Richard Grenell, the machine-gun-mouthed U.S. ambassador to Germany, as the new acting director of national intelligence. Grenell will keep his ambassadorship, because those sound like two fairly simple jobs. Then Trump claimed the “hoax” that Russia was on his side came from Democrats rather than his own intelligence services … again.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the Russians are said to be fond of Sen. Bernie Sanders (was it his praise of the Soviet Union back in the day?). Sanders willingly accepted the intel, then issued a statement telling Putin to “stay out of American elections,” contrasting himself with the Trump approach. Sanders then romped to victory in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, cementing his front-runner status for the Democratic nomination.
It’s an overused trope to say Trump is now “unshackled” post-impeachment. The truth is he’s been like this for most of his presidency, and all the Very Serious Washington People who tried to rein him in have walked away or been booted. What’s happening now is more like Trump becoming more effective at building a MAGA fortress on U.S. government property.
He is purging those who testified against him in impeachment, declaring himself “the chief law enforcement officer” of the country in a slight to the Department of Justice and bringing back close aide John McEntee (who was fired for racking up huge gambling debts) to make sure administration personnel are sufficiently Trumpian.
Nowhere is that more important to Trump than the intelligence agencies, with whom Trump has been at war since before he entered office — when he refused to acknowledge the Russian help that he felt delegitimized his 2016 triumph.
So now he has an acting intelligence head in Grenell who downplayed Russian meddling in 2016 and has a background as a political hand, not in intelligence. It’s unclear how long he’ll be in the post. Trump floated the idea of killing two birds with one stone and appointing U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, one of his chief impeachment defenders, as DNI to head off a bloody Republican Senate primary in Georgia. But Collins quickly declined the opportunity and said he would continue his campaign against appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
It was another congressional Trump fanatic who started the dominoes: Rep. Devin Nunes, who’s used his post on the Intelligence Committee to try to undermine both the Russia and Ukraine probes.
According to accounts in The New York Times and Washington Post, Nunes tipped Trump off after Pierson gave a classified briefing to members of the House Intelligence Committee from both parties letting them know of the Russia finding. Trump was reportedly mad his intel leaders didn’t brief him first, in addition to believing their conclusions were wrong and would be weaponized against him.
While it’s no real surprise that Russia would be at it again considering its smashing success in 2016 in goading America to tear itself apart, the Sanders-boosting in the Democratic primary is new. It also could provide an opening for Sanders foes such as Mike Bloomberg to attack Sanders not as a Russian agent, but as an agent of chaos in the canny eyes of Moscow.
There are lots of chilling new ways the Russians could meddle, but we really are no better prepared now for precisely what they did in 2016. The benefit of all those investigations is that everyone is more willing to cry “Russia!” at every bump in the Twitter night — playing right into their hands. Big tech platforms are no better at rooting out disinformation than four years ago. There’s no reason to think the media wouldn’t report on stolen emails or documents again.
What to do? Just breathe deep and avoid sharing racist memes or clicking on shady email attachments for the next 254 days. Easy.