Frida Ghitis: Intel report detailed Russia's efforts to subvert US presidential election, but Trump does not seem to understand danger
In fact, she says, in his campaign Trump amplified the fake information Russia released to damage Clinton's candidacy
Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
US intelligence agencies released on Friday an alarming report about a hostile foreign country’s efforts to subvert America’s system of government, and the incoming president does not seem to understand the danger of the situation.
In a just-declassified document, the country’s top intelligence experts declared that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to influence the US presidential election. “Russia’s goals,” they concluded, “were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability.”
This is an extraordinary accusation, and the intelligence chiefs are fully aware of that. It is not a run-of-the-mill spying operation: It was a plot aimed at corroding the foundation of America’s system of government and – as the report puts it – upending “the US-led liberal democratic order.”
That means that Russia’s objectives, despite Trump’s victory, have not been fully achieved.
If that were not enough reason for alarm, Trump’s reaction shows he either doesn’t comprehend the seriousness of the matter, he does not care or, perhaps, as some have suggested, he’s not committed to America’s democracy.
In fact, it seems that the President-elect is only able to view the issue through his self-interest. Somehow, he cannot look beyond the impact this has on his image as the winner of the election. That self-centered view is in sharp contrast with Republicans (and Democrats) in Congress who have managed to rise above partisanship to face up to what has just happened.
While Republican Sen. John McCain called Russia’s actions “an act of war,” and House Speaker Paul Ryan, also a Republican, acknowledged that Russia “clearly tried to meddle in our political system,” Trump is caught in his solipsistic house of mirrors.
Just before receiving a classified briefing on the intelligence, the President-elect gave a telephone interview to The New York Times in which he belittled the significance what occurred and called the commotion surrounding the findings of Russia’s hacking and other activities a political witch hunt by Democrats embarrassed by their election loss.
After he was briefed by the intelligence chiefs, he accepted the possibility of a Russian hack, but grudgingly and with no appearance that he grasped the magnitude and significance of what occurred. He released a statement saying he and the intelligence briefers had a “constructive meeting,” but his statement’s principal thrust was the claim that, “there was absolutely no effect on the [election] outcome whatsoever,” and no tampering with voting machines.
Huh? Clearly, Trump misses the point. This is not about him; it is about protecting the country he has been elected to govern from an active and deliberate threat.
In his statement, Trump vowed to get tough on hacking from various countries, but did not indicate he viewed Russia as the culprit in the election interference operation.
The Russian interference campaign, as it happens, was not just hacking, even if actions by Russian and Russian-directed hackers played a major part in the operation. Russia’s activities – which we have seen targeting other Western democracies – included a vast array of techniques.
Hacking the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chief John Podesta’s emails were important elements of the Russian efforts. The report shows how the hack was carried out and how the documents were handed to WikiLeaks for dissemination.
“Moscow’s influence campaign,” as the intelligence report calls it, blended a variety of means, including covert cyberactivity by Russian intelligence operatives, along with “with overt state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls’.”
And there was Trump himself, who peddled the material to his followers, making it sound as if the hacks contained truly explosive information. All those Clinton emails, in fact, were the least of it. Few people read them, but many people believed the claim that they contained great and horrifying secrets.
The greater effort was in painting Clinton as unfit to lead. Putin, as we wrote months ago and as US intelligence experts concluded, “developed a clear preference” for Trump over Clinton. When he thought Clinton would win despite Russia’s multipronged effort to cast doubt on her, the plan shifted to undercutting the credibility of the election.
The report says pro-Russian government bloggers were all set to launch a #DemocracyRIP campaign after a Clinton win, to undercut the election’s credibility. Curiously, Trump had also strongly suggested that if he lost it would be because of fraud.
Putin made a big push to help Trump win. He deployed his “news” agencies, RT and Sputnik, along with a vast social media machine to promote false accusations that Clinton was corrupt, ill, mentally unstable and linked to Islamist groups.
As it happens, Trump did the same, promoting precisely that unfounded description of his rival, all the way to electoral victory.
The looming question is what, if anything, Trump will do to stop this Russian assault on democracy. Will he carry on his plan to repair relations with the Kremlin without taking any action? Will he lift the modest sanctions just imposed by President Barack Obama?
Trump concluded his statement today saying, “America’s safety and security will be my number one priority.” What is not clear is whether American democracy is also a priority.
The President-elect is playing a risky game by downplaying this matter and resisting the intelligence community’s conclusions. Even before he takes office, the issue has already opened a rift with fellow Republicans, and it has raised piercing questions that he cannot afford to ignore.
As Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said, Trump’s continued denial of Russia’s intervention in the election, “would raise questions about where his sympathies truly lie.”