Does Treating Trump as An Illegitimate President Play Into Putin’s Hands?

Yesterday a former CIA colleague who rose to a very senior position at CIA and has spent forty years watching the Kremlin, the KGB, and the FSB reached out to me.  He’s been reading what I and my Facebook “commentariat” have been saying of late, and felt compelled to offer some thoughts on the controversy that is bubbling over Russian hacking, the election of Trump, and the reality of what Putin is attempting to accomplish. He emphasized these are non-partisan thoughts,and I believe him. I don’t know what his politics are, but I’m confident his concerns transcend partisan thinking. He’s a genuinely patriotic American who devoted his life to service.   He asked not to be named because he doesn’t normally engage in public discussion – but he has some important thoughts to share.

The Russian Hack is Nothing New

His first point:  Let’s not lose sight of the fact that even if Russia hacked the election and influenced it, this is not the first time Russia or Russian intelligence has dipped deeply into US internal affairs and stirred the pot. It is well established that the KGB “Service A”, who were responsible for “active measures” ranging from disinformation all the way up to the occasional assassination, attempted to influence the civil rights movement in the United States, and the anti-Vietnam protest movement. Martin Luther King himself was a target, and when he frustrated the KGB by refusing to identify his movement with the international struggle against American imperialism, and instead identified it with the fulfillment of the American dream, they tried discredit him and replace him with someone more to their liking. (For details on Service A’s efforts with civil rights and Vietnam, I suggest you read The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasil Mitrokhin, a KGB defector.)

What are Putin’s Objectives?

Consistently, the goal of Russian intelligence has been  twofold:  Internally, in America, it seeks to destabilize American society and governmental institutions, thereby making it more difficult to govern at home. A divided nation consumed with domestic unrest is less willing to pursue anti-Russian policies, whether during the Cold War or now.  Further, and perhaps more importantly, a divided, struggling America cannot be perceived abroad as a “shining example of democracy” — a disrupted, chaotic America exposed America in the eyes of the world as a “fake democracy” which is in fact an unjust, hypocritical society and state not fit to “lead the free world”.  Whether during Cold War times or today,  Russian interests are helped when America stumbles and looks bad.

The Russian Election Hack Seen in Context

If you keep in mind the foregoing, it’s easy to see the Russian election hack in context.  The intelligence community got it more or less right when it stated the goals were two-fold: first, to undermine American confidence in our democratic electoral process and; second, to undermine Clinton.  But my friend makes an important distinction on this second point, and I think he’s right.  He emphasizes that the Russians weren’t choosing sides so much as they were pursuing a plan to undermine either candidate when they became President:

The Russians certainly assumed Clinton was going to win the election, as did all other pundits in the U.S. from which the Russians were collecting intelligence. And while I have no doubt there was personal animosity between Putin and Clinton,  the disinformation campaign had far greater goals than to address a personal grievance. They sought (and seek) to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. President. They want to make it hard for the President, whoever it is, to govern; they want the President to have to govern a contentious, divided America; they want the world to see America as in chaos, and American democracy as in crisis, even illegitimate.

Treating Trump as Illegitimate Plays Into Putin’s Hands

For starters America must understand and acknowledge the competition that is being waged by Putin; the game that is being played; his objectives and his methods.  He is actively working against stability in America and against American leadership in the world. This is not a partisan observation; it is objective fact. To be in denial about this is dangerous.  We must understand what was one, and how. We must take appropriate action against Putin and further establish our defenses in the event of future action, which surely will occur.

But here’s the even more important point — the big takeaway from my old colleague:  We can’t view our democracy or the results of the election as something other than legitimate.  Russians have been probing our democracy and attempting to influence it for many years, and this election hack needs to be seen in that context. It’s yet another effort, the latest in a long line going back to the early years of the Cold War, and neither this hack nor any of the previous efforts can or should be seen as de-legitimizing American democracy. He writes:

The latest Russian initiative will only be successful if we allow it to be successful. . . .What can be done to resolve this issue and what do we do in the meantime?  What we should not do is to characterize Trump’s victory as “illegitimate” due to Russian interference.  Even as patriotic and heroic American like  Congressman Lewis is unintentionally damaging America by doing this.  By claiming Trump is illegitimate, he is  fulfilling the objectives of the Russian disinformation campaign by undermining our electoral process, undermining the office and the person of the U.S. President, and delivering up to Russia just what Putin wants–a fractious, chaotic, dysfunctional vision of American democracy. Yes, the Russians influence the election, but does that make the President illegitimate? No.  Would Congressman Lewis or the others calling Trump illegitimate characterize the civil rights movement as “illegitimate” because the KGB was in there mucking around with it?  Or the Vietnam anti-war movement?  I think not. Yes, there was Russian influence, but no, this did not render illegitimate those movements, nor should it render illegitimate the Trump Presidency.  The Soviets/Russians have been involved in these types of activities for a long time and their actions should not automatically discredit their targets. . . . .The current path of political divisiveness, vitriol and hate are playing directly into Putin’s hands. Russia certainly initiated this latest round, but we should not enable their further success by behaving precisely the way they are trying to make us behave.

My Take on His Take

I think he’s gotten at something very important that I’ve been struggling to articulate.  Because of the hyper-partisan nature of our current political culture, it seems that we have largely fallen into two warring camps on the issue of the Russian hack:  Americans on the left claim it’s real, it happened, and because of it they push the agenda that Trump is not a legitimate President. And because it’s seen as a blatant attempt by the left not to address a genuine security concern, but rather to attack and delegitimize Trump as President, Americans on the right refuse to accept that it happened. And meanwhile we descend further into partisan chaos, which was the objective of Putin’s hack anyway.

Somehow we need to arrive at a place where we as a nation accept with clear-headed rationality that yes, Putin and Russia hacked and influenced the election — but this does NOT delegitimize the election of Trump any more than the KGB’s efforts to influence the civil rights or anti-war movements delegitimized those movements.  Our democracy isn’t perfect; foreign influence can’t be completely rooted out; but we need to move forward with confidence in our institutions while learning from what happened and being more vigilant in the future.

Another old CIA colleague, not the one who wrote me yesterday, used to refer to our work “back in the day” with a wry, self-deprecating expression.  At the end of the workday he would say: “Another day spent puttying the windows of democracy.”   What just happened in the election suggests that a draft of cold Russian air got through the window, and some puttying indeed needs to be done — but the window is intact, and to suggest it’s broken hands Putin a victory he doesn’t deserve.

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