Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Donald Trump: A Modern Manchurian Candidate?

Photo
CreditEric Thayer for The New York Times
In recent days, two intelligence dossiers have been published making sensational charges involving President-elect Donald J. Trump and the 2016 election. Although they will be lumped together in the public mind, in truth they are as different as chalk and cheese.
The first of these reports, published last week, was an unclassified version of a United States intelligence community assessment that concluded with “high confidence” that President Vladimir Putin of Russia had ordered an “influence campaign” aimed at the presidential election, and that his goals included damaging Hillary Clinton and electing Mr. Trump. All intelligence contains an element of uncertainty, but this as good as it gets: a judgment corroborated by the F.B.I.C.I.A. and National Security Agency based on human intelligence, electronic intercepts and forensic investigation into the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Party officials.
The second report — dumped on the internet by BuzzFeed News on Tuesday — is a very different animal. As BuzzFeed wrote, “The document was prepared for political opponents of Trump by a person who is understood to be a former British intelligence agent” — now identified as Christopher Steele — and its allegations are “unverified.” If true, the claims in the BuzzFeed dossier are sensational, including extensive contacts between Trump aides and Russian operatives and the Russian accumulation of dirt on Mr. Trump to be used for blackmail.
But are they true? No one knows. This could either be a Watergate-style scandal that engulfs the Trump presidency or a “Hitler Diaries”-style hoax, or anything in between.
It is worrisome that this material was published by BuzzFeed when major news organizations, which are not particularly friendly to Mr. Trump, declined to do so because they could not verify its claims. BuzzFeed made a serious mistake in simply posting all of this unverified information online, ignoring the journalistic practice of checking and corroboration. And the publication of the material is damaging not least because the questionable character of this dossier can be used to impugn the integrity of the American intelligence community, even though it was not the source.
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Just because the allegations are unproven, however, does not mean they are all false. CNN reported, “U.S. intelligence agencies have now checked out the former British intelligence operative and his vast network throughout Europe and find him and his sources to be credible enough to include some of the information in the presentations to the president and president-elect a few days ago.”
Mr. Trump himself is doing nothing to dispel suspicions with his hyperbolic attacks and his denials that he has business interests in Russia — when his dealings there go back decades. He accused the intelligence agencies of releasing this “fake news” to take “one last shot” at him, and outrageously compared their acts to those of Nazi Germany — as if the Nuremberg Trials were held to punish the leaking of raw intelligence.
At the same time that Mr. Trump continues to exhibit paranoia about American intelligence agencies, he displays a trust verging on gullibility in the mendacious and murderous government of President Vladimir V. Putin. “Russia just said,” he tweeted, “unverified report paid for by political opponents is ‘A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION, UTTER NONSENSE.’ Very unfair!”
Well, yes, of course Russia said that. But why should anyone believe what Mr. Putin says? The fact that Mr. Trump seems to give greater credence to the Kremlin than to United States intelligence agencies is precisely what has set off so much speculation about his real motives in cozying up to Mr. Putin.
There is only one way to get to the bottom of this tawdry affair: Appoint a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission to investigate all of the allegations and issue a public report. The former C.I.A. directors Leon E. Panetta and Michael V. Hayden, among other possible choices, would provide instant credibility if they were appointed to lead such a panel.
If Mr. Trump is genuinely innocent of any untoward connections with the Kremlin, wouldn’t he want a full investigation to clear his name? That he so adamantly opposes any such inquiry speaks volumes.
Yet the speculation, which was gaining currency even before the publishing of the dossier by BuzzFeed, isn’t going away. The reason is obvious: Mr. Trump appears to be infatuated with the autocrat in the Kremlin. As the Russian dissident and chess champion Garry Kasparov noted: “Trump has criticized: Republicans, Democrats, the pope, U.S. elections, C.I.A., F.B.I., NATO, Meryl Streep. Trump hasn’t criticized: Vladimir Putin.”
The closest Mr. Trump has ever come to directly criticizing Mr. Putin was at his news conference on Wednesday, when, speaking of the hacking (which he admitted for the first time was the work of the Kremlin), he said, “He shouldn’t have done it.” This was pretty mild censure, however, compared with his scorching suggestion that American spies were employing Nazi-like tactics. And even that mild rebuke was vitiated by Mr. Trump’s boast: “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability.”
If it persists in office, Mr. Trump’s slavish devotion to the Russian strongman will continue to raise questions about the exact nature of their relationship. If the president-elect wants to put such suspicions to rest, he should get as tough with the Kremlin as he vows to do with America’s other enemies.

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