As with many Americans, I began reading special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference as soon as it was released. As a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer, I couldn’t help but see the events it recounts the way that President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, would have viewed them as they happened.
What the report revealed, page after page, was President Donald Trump and his campaign’s efforts to profit from the most “sweeping and systematic” — to use the words of the report — information warfare attack ever waged against the United States of America.
Trump and his team were uniquely positioned to sound the alarm and halt the Russian attack, but instead they welcomed it.
Trump and his team were uniquely positioned to sound the alarm and halt the Russian attack, but instead they welcomed it. And then they tried to obstruct efforts to investigate it. As such, Trump bears distinct responsibility for our failure to defend against Russia’s hostility and take the steps necessary to deter future threats.
SIGN UP FOR THE THINK WEEKLY NEWSLETTER HERE
To ensure that his betrayal and obstruction, and the foreign hostility it invites, do not become the new status quo in America, Trump must be held accountable. This means we must convene public hearings in Congress leading to impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. We must send an unmistakable message to our adversaries that we will not tolerate attempts to sabotage our democracy and upend the rule of law. It’s not an exaggeration to say that our freedom requires it.
As a former CIA officer, I know that foreign intelligence officers regularly try to infiltrate and manipulate American politics, but what kind of American wouldn’t, out of patriotic duty alone, reject and report a foreign offer to collaborate against our country? The very thought of such betrayal has always sat like a pit in my stomach. Having read Mueller’s report over the past few days, I’m left with that same awful feeling.
The document contains more than 100 pages detailing numerous contacts between Kremlin representatives and the Trump campaign. And not just contacts, but textbook Russian offers of illicit collaboration.
According to the report, Ivanka Trump received an offer of campaign assistance in November 2015 on behalf of Dmitry Klokov, a Russian with ties to the government. Later, Klokov spoke with Trump Organization attorney, Michael Cohen, and again offered assistance, claiming he could offer the campaign “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level.”
In late April 2016, Kremlin associate Joseph Mifsud informed Trump foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos that the Russian government had “dirt” on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of stolen emails, which it could use to help the campaign.
In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. famously received an offer from a Russian prosecutor dangling “information that would incriminate Hillary Clinton,” which was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump...” Trump Jr. responded, “…if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
In early August, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort went even further, providing polling data, messaging strategy and his thoughts on the battleground states Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Minnesota to Russian intelligence associate Konstantin Kilimnik.
And of course, worst of all was candidate Trump himself, who by late summer of 2016 knew in advance of, and was preparing to capitalize on, impending Wikileaks dumps of his opponents’ hacked emails, not to mention his public call for Russian hacking in July.
The Mueller report documents countless Kremlin efforts to probe and test the Trump campaign while offering its assistance. In encounter after encounter, Trump and his campaign entertained and encouraged Kremlin election interference with a wink and a nod, and sometimes more than that. Not once did Trump or his staff report Moscow to authorities. Not a single time.
One phone call to the FBI, one stern declaration that Putin’s meddling in American elections would result in punishment, likely would have stopped, or at least stymied, Russia’s efforts. But Mueller’s report makes clear that wasn’t the outcome Trump desired.
In encounter after encounter, Trump and his campaign entertained and encouraged Kremlin election interference with a wink and a nod, and sometimes more than that.
Rejecting and reporting illicit overtures from our adversaries is critical because those two actions together convey unmistakable loyalty to America, while their absence reveals openness to hostile foreign activity. We should be able to expect at least that much from anyone aspiring to the presidency.
From the likely perspective of Vladimir Putin, the Trump campaign was flashing a clear, consistent green light; Moscow could escalate its attack without fear of significant consequences as long as it succeeded in electing Trump. Trump’s opposition to imposing stronger sanctions against Russia since has proven this assumption to be correct.
Some excuse the president, citing his ignorance about matters of government. But FBI counterintelligence experts warned the president in August 2016 that Moscow would try to infiltrate his campaign. It didn’t change a thing. It’s not hard to imagine why, given his contempt for American democratic norms, his desire to win at all costs and the Trump Tower Moscow deal he was pursuing at the same time.
Had the president done what almost any patriotic American would have done — reject Russia’s approaches and report them to the authorities — he would have reduced Moscow’s willingness to continue by signaling that doing so would trigger serious consequences, no matter who won the election. Instead, Trump chose his own political and financial interests over our national security and the basic democratic rights of all Americans.
More than anything, the absence of foreign influence in our democratic processes depends on our leaders’ widely understood rejection of it. Absent that, interference from abroad could become the new norm in America, in which our democracy, our economy and our rights are for sale to the highest bidder.
Mueller did his job; now we the people and our representatives in Congress must do ours. Because our commander-in-chief betrayed us by failing to reject help from a hostile foreign adversary in 2016 and obstructing resulting investigations, we must now reject it ourselves and uphold the rule of law. Our representatives in Congress must hear Mueller and others’ public testimony and commence impeachment proceedings for these patriotic purposes.