WASHINGTON — Watching Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a gruff, 50-year veteran of the spy world, answer congressional questions Thursday, you couldn't help wondering if perhaps this time Donald Trump has met his match.
To recall a quip made years ago by a prominent Washington lawyer, Clapper is not a "potted plant." He has served Republicans and Democrats alike with the same grumpy dislike of political criticism.
The showdown between Clapper and Trump over allegations of Russian hacking will shape public perceptions of the next president in the two weeks before his inauguration. We'll learn more about what Russian hackers did during the 2016 campaign. We'll also learn more about Trump and whether he will bring his Russophilia into the White House.
Blaming U.S. media
After last week's briefings of Trump and President Obama, the real circus will come this week, when members of Congress receive their own classified reports. Democrats would be wise if they kept their mouths shut and let GOP Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham do the talking.
Trump's post-election line on Russian hacking has been to blame U.S. intelligence agencies and the news media. Bashing the "elitist" media has been a standard GOP tactic since Richard Nixon's day. But Trump at times has actually seemed to be siding with Russia and other anti-American critics and against U.S. intelligence agencies.
The standard response of a president-elect to any allegation of foreign meddling in the U.S. election, you'd think, would be to call for an investigation. Instead, Trump called the allegations of Russian hacking "ridiculous," claimed it was the Democratic National Committee's own fault if its cybersecurity was poor, needled the CIA for its Iraq WMD mistakes, and otherwise sought to belittle the intelligence agencies.
Weirdest of all was Trump's embrace last week of Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks and a person many U.S. officials, Republican and Democrat, see as having damaged U.S. national security by leaking classified documents about nearly every area of foreign policy.
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When Assange sought to pooh-pooh Moscow's role with a careful denial that his source hadn't been "the Russian government" or a "state party," he got three "Pinocchios" from The Washington Post's Fact Checker. But Trump treated him like a new friend. He approvingly tweeted Assange's claim that U.S. media coverage was "very dishonest" and added: "More dishonest than anyone knows."
Then, in one of those "who, me?" reversals that are a Trump specialty, he tweeted Thursday: "The dishonest media likes saying that I am in Agreement with Julian Assange — wrong. I simply state what he states, ... The media lies to make it look like I am against 'Intelligence' when in fact I am a big fan!"
We'll soon see how supportive of U.S. intelligence Trump really is. But in recent months, his approach to the hacking story has been worryingly similar to Russia's own response: It's all lies, circulated by a dishonest media. Nobody can believe anything.
This sort of information fog is precisely what Moscow seeks to spawn in its own propaganda campaigns. The Russian goal is "to corrode democratic norms and institutions by discrediting the electoral process and to tarnish the reputations of democratic governments in order to establish a kind of moral equivalence between Russia and the West," wrote Thorsten Benner and Mirko Hohmann last month in Foreign Affairs.
Anyone who thinks that the Russian hacking charges are simply an attempt to belittle or discredit Trump should study Russia's current covert-action campaign in Europe. Benner and Hohmann quote Bruno Kahl, the chief of Germany's intelligence service, who told a newspaper there that "cyberattacks are taking place that have no purpose other than to elicit uncertainty." The head of French information security similarly warned last month that Western countries face "the development of a digital threat for political ends and for destabilization."
This Russian political assault has been hiding in plain sight. Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist, wrote last July when news surfaced that the DNC had been hacked that Hillary Clinton was seen by Moscow "as a tough and uncompromising adversary," that the U.S. elections were "the most sensitive" problem facing the Kremlin, and that only President Vladimir Putin could decide what to do.
And what did Trump say back then about Russian hackers? "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing" from Clinton's private server. He egged on a foreign intelligence service to help his campaign, then claimed they didn't do it, then blamed U.S. intelligence for faulty reporting.
And the question is: Why?