Watergate was in full swing when I landed in New York 45 years ago. President Nixon had just fired Archibald Cox, a special prosecutor in charge of the investigation.
Walking down Broadway, I saw a bumper sticker saying ‘Impeach the Cox sacker’ and laughed out loud, the pitch of my mirth heightened by a foreigner’s pride in having understood the crude pun.
The Cox straw fell on the camel’s back with such a thud that the resulting resonance sent destructive waves all over the Nixon presidency. Its end became a matter of when, not whether.
The president had to go on television to assure Americans that “I am not a crook”. A few months later he resigned, half a step ahead of impeachment.
Those events came back to me the other day, when President Trump revoked John Brennan’s security clearance, vindictively punishing the former CIA director for his outspoken criticism of Trump’s links with Russia.
The White House press secretary explained the action by Brennan’s “erratic conduct and behaviour”. Brennan, she claimed, “has a history that calls into question his objectivity and credibility”.
She also referred to the need for “protecting classified information”, however without proffering a single example of Brennan’s misusing such information either during or after his CIA stint.
Moreover, she named nine other former colleagues of Brennan whose security clearances are also in jeopardy. Among them are former FBI Director James Comey, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former NSA Director Michael Hayden and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
All of them are fierce critics of Trump’s links with Putin. Moreover, the nature of their jobs was such that they had all the relevant information at their fingertips. And the information was, and remains, damning.
I’m writing as someone who has no ideological issues with the president – in fact, as I’ve mentioned on several occasions, much as I find him personally hideous, I like most of his domestic initiatives, and many of his international ones.
Some aspects of his foreign policy, alas, can easily be construed as designed to benefit Putin’s, rather than American, interests. One example is Trump’s understated commitment to the Atlantic alliance, especially Article 5 of the NATO charter, according to which an attack on one member is seen as an attack on all.
During his campaign, Trump made noises about leaving NATO altogether, which tune he later changed for the perfectly legitimate demand that European countries contribute more to their defence. However, underneath it all one detects a willingness to let Putin treat the post-Soviet space as his sphere of influence.
Sen. Newt Gingrich, a Trump insider, enunciated that attitude in so many words, issuing an open invitation to Putin. Estonia, he said, is but a suburb of Petersburg, and we wouldn’t to go to war over it.
More grist is added to the mill by Trump’s sycophantic courtship of Putin during the recent Helsinki summit – and indeed by the entire history of their relationship.
All the recent anti-Putin measures, such as the new batch of sanctions, have been taken over Trump’s objections and threats of veto. That has had a unifying effect on Congress, where a large enough bipartisan majority has been built to override any such veto. Yet Trump has managed to slow down the implementation of sanctions to a snail’s pace.
Such inexplicable loyalty to Putin has given rise to speculation about the possible pull Putin has on Trump, in the shape of a dossier of compromising material (kompromat in Russian). Actually, I’d be amazed if such a dossier didn’t exist.
Before he announced his candidature for the presidency, Trump had had dubious business links with Putin’s Mafioso junta, which – to anyone who knows how big business is done in Russia – means with Putin himself.
For at least five years Trump was trying to secure a contract to adorn the Moscow skyline with a tower bearing his name. Acting through such prominent organised crime figures as Agalarov and Deripaska (also a good friend to our own Peter Mandelson and George Osborne), Putin kept dangling that carrot in front of Trump, but nothing came of it.
The most Trump managed to get – officially – was an invitation to use Moscow as a site for his travelling bordello, otherwise known as the Miss Universe pageant. That 2013 event is claimed to have produced kompromat of a sexual nature, which I find credible. After all, Trump’s propensity to consort with ladies of easy virtue is amply documented.
More damaging would be financial kompromat, and Trump’s sons Donald and Eric did acknowledge that the Russians were Trump’s major source of financing (Eric) and revenue (Donald). Doing such business with criminal organisations makes it impossible to keep one’s hands clean.
Trump has never stopped expressing his admiration for Putin’s ‘strong leadership’, dismissing or downplaying the crimes committed by the KGB junta – from murdering political opponents to earning the distinction of becoming the first European country after 1945 to annex another country’s territory by force.
Also, one has to be a fanatical worshipper of Trump not to wonder why his campaign and subsequently cabinet were densely packed with men whose links with Putin and his acolytes have since landed them in deep trouble.
Page, Papadopulos, Flynn, Manafort, Cohen, Tillerson – the list is long. Such concentration of Putin’s friends among Trump’s appointees would be suspicious even in the absence of any compromising information. Alas, such information is plentiful.
Trump originally intended to appoint his Republican rival Mitt Romney to the top government post of Secretary of State. At the last moment, however, Romney – an implacable critic of Putin – was shunted aside and replaced with Rex Tillerson, seen as a Putin-friendly character.
Now Tillerson had no qualifications for that position whatsoever, having had no diplomatic or indeed government experience. But, in his previous capacity as CEO of ExxonMobil he had been an associate of Putin and a close friend of Igor Sechin, widely regarded in Russia as Putin’s de facto deputy.
In recognition of his services to Russia, Tillerson received the Order of Friendship, while whatever services he had rendered America had until his appointment gone unrecognised. Trump’s brief to him, by Tillerson’s own admission, was to “stabilise the relationship with Russia and build trust.”
Tillerson’s appointment caused a spate of resignations in the State Department, and his tenure lasted less than a year. The other top foreign relations job, that of National Security Adviser, went to Michael Flynn, another friend of Putin, who lasted even less time.
In December last year, that paid participant in Putin’s propaganda extravaganzas pleaded guilty to a felony: lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian government during the Trump presidential campaign. That was a reduced charge, in return for which Flynn is now providing government evidence.
The chairman of Trump’s campaign, Paul Manafort, is now on trial for his life, charged with all sorts of financial crimes, including money laundering on behalf of Putin’s Ukrainian puppet Yanukovych. Manafort too was intimately connected with Deripaska, at that time already sanctioned in the US.
Such a concentration of Putin’s agents, witting or unwitting, among Trump’s entourage is hard to explain. The most benign explanation would be extremely poor judgement and lamentable failure to conduct most elementary due diligence.
Less benign judgements come to mind more easily, especially considering Putin’s own admission that he wanted Trump to win. That wasn’t just cheering from the sidelines: Russia’s vast resources were dedicated to destroying Hillary Clinton’s candidature (an awful one, it has to be said).
That was part of the hybrid war Russia declared on America, and the West in general. Propaganda and electronic offensives are the essential ingredients of the hybrid, and disruption its primary aim.
The Russians set up trolling and hacking factories, whose role was to swing the election Trump’s way. Never in US history has a foreign government attempted to exert such a direct influence on elections.
To that end, Russian trolls bombarded America with 1.4 million pro-Trump, anti-Clinton tweets that received 288 million hits. The Russians also hacked into the e-mail servers of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton herself. Compared to that massive theft of documents, the Watergate break-in looks like a little childish prank.
That both the DNC and Clinton were criminally negligent is as true as it’s beside the point. Putin’s intelligence services pursued a specific aim, that of helping Trump. This they did by feeding their loot to Assange’s WikiLeaks.
Whenever Clinton’s lead in the polls grew, new batches of hacked e-mails were released, with the clear intent of counteracting her gains. This was accompanied by a steady barrage of fake news and trolls generated by Putin’s bots.
All this is beyond doubt. What’s open to discussion is whether that hostile campaign actually affected the outcome, and whether Trump and his men were in cahoots with Putin.
The election was extremely close, with Clinton actually getting three million more votes. But Trump carried the Electoral College by winning the slenderest of majorities in three swing states. A turnaround of just 77,000 votes in those states would have put Clinton into the White House.
It’s impossible to assess the effect of Putin’s trolls and hackers, but it’s likely that they did have an effect. As to the other debatable point, we do know that key members of Trump’s campaign, including his son and son-in-law, had contacts with Putin’s agents throughout the campaign – which is to say they were requesting or at least accepting help from a hostile power.
After many denials, Trump finally admitted that he knew about those contacts, which is to say he authorised them. He claims this is perfectly legal, and he may be proved right – although that would surprise me.
I doubt Trump specifically requested help from Putin, or actively conspired with him, which would have been a heinous crime. But his overall demeanour certainly does little to dispel suspicions that Trump is Putin’s man. If that’s indeed the case, then Brennan was right when describing Trump’s behaviour as “nothing short of treasonous”.
The president could quash all such ugly suspicions by making unequivocal statements about the criminal nature of Putin’s regime and his hybrid war on America. He could then initiate new punitive measures or at least expedite those initiated by Congress.
Instead he seems to be doing a Nixon: attacking the press, singling his critics out for punishment or at least trying to silence them. He may get away with that. Nixon didn’t.