From National Review Online
by VICTOR DAVIS HANSON March 28, 2017 4:00 AM @VDHANSON
Remember when Obama and Hillary cozied up to Putin? And recall when the media rejoiced at surveillance leaks about Team Trump? The American Left used to lecture the nation about its supposedly paranoid suspicions of Russia. The World War II alliance with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union had led many leftists to envision a continuing post-war friendship with Russia.
During the subsequent Cold War, American liberals felt that the Right had unnecessarily become paranoid about Soviet Russia, logically culminating in the career of the demagogic Senator Joe McCarthy. Later, in movies such as Seven Days in May, Doctor Strangelove, and The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, Hollywood focused on American neuroses as much as Russian hostility for strained relations.
In the great chess rivalry of 1972 known as “The Match of the Century,” American liberals favored Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky over fellow countryman Bobby Fischer, who embarrassed them by winning.
In the same manner, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was often portrayed in the media as the urbane, suave, and reasonable conciliator, while President Ronald Reagan was depicted as the uncouth disrupter of what could have been improved Russian–American relations.
Senator Ted Kennedy reportedly reached out to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov in 1984 to gain his help in denying Reagan his reelection.
In sum, the American Left always felt that Russia was unduly demonized by the American Right and was a natural friend, if not potential ally, of the United States. That tradition no doubt influenced the decision of the incoming Obama administration to immediately reach out to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, despite its recent aggressions in Georgia and steady crackdown on internal dissent, and despite Russia’s estrangement from the prior Bush administration.
Obama’s Entreaty to the Russians In March 2012, in a meeting with President Dimitri Medvedev of Russia, President Barack Obama thought his microphone was either off or could not pick up the eerie assurances that he gave the Russian president:
“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him [Vladimir Putin] to give me space.” Medvedev answered: “Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you . . . ” Obama agreed and elaborated,
“This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” Medvedev finished the hot-mic conversation with, “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir, and I stand with you.”
A fair interpretation of this stealthy conversation would run as follows:
‘I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir, and I stand with you.’ — Medvedev to Obama, March 2012
Barack Obama naturally wanted to continue a fourth year of his reset and outreach to Vladimir Putin, the same way that he was reaching out to other former American enemies such as the Iranians and the Cubans.
Yet Obama was uneasy that his opponent, Mitt Romney, might attack him during his reelection campaign as an appeaser of Putin. Thus, to preempt any such attack, Obama might be forced to appear less flexible (offer less “space”) toward Putin than he otherwise would be in a non-election year.
In other words, he couldn’t publicly assure Putin that he would be “flexible” about implementing missile defense in Eastern Europe (“all these issues”) until after he was reelected.
An apprehensive Obama, in his hot-mic moment, was signaling that after his anticipated victory, he would revert to his earlier reset with Putin. And most significantly, Obama wished Putin to appreciate in advance the motives for Obama’s campaign-year behavior. Or he at least hoped that Putin would not embarrass him by making international moves that would reflect poorly on Obama’s reset policy.
Furthermore, Obama did not want his implicit quid pro quo proposal to become part of the public record. Had it been public, it might have been interpreted as a message to Putin that he should empathize with Obama’s plight — and that he should interfere with the American election by behaving in a way that would empower Obama’s candidacy rather than detract from it.
In the present hysterical climate, substitute the name Trump for Obama, and we would be hearing Democratic demands for impeachment on grounds that Trump was caught secretly whispering to the Russians about compromising vital national-security issues in a quid pro quo meant to affect the outcome of the 2012 election.
The Architects of Russian Outreach The Obama administration came up with a reset–soft-glove approach to Vladimir’s Russia, characterized by Secretary Hillary Clinton’s heralded pushing of the red plastic button on March 6, 2009, in Geneva. Reset was couched in overt criticism of George W. Bush, who had supposedly alienated Putin by reacting too harshly (like a typical cowboy) to Russia’s aggression in Georgia.
Over the next few years, the reset policy consisted of, among other things, backtracking on previously agreed-on missile-defense plans in Eastern Europe.
In the second presidential debate of 2012, Obama portrayed Romney as being too tough on Russia, to the point of delusion:
A few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaeda. You said Russia. In the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.
The Obama administration invited Russia into the Middle East for the first time in nearly a half-century to help Obama back off from his own redline threats to attack Syria if evidence of WMD usage appeared.
Moreover, after the Crimea and eastern Ukraine aggressions, the perception in most of the Western world was that the U.S. was not sufficiently tough with Putin, largely because of its commitment to a prior (though failed) outreach.
So what ended this one-sided reset in 2016? The estrangement certainly did not coincide entirely with Putin’s aggressions on Russia’s borders. Nor were Democrats inordinately angry with Putin when he bombed non-al-Qaeda Syrian resistance fighters.
Rather, Democrats’ split with Putin grew from the perception that hackers had easily entered the porous e-mail account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign guru John Podesta and released his messages to WikiLeaks.
This led to general embarrassment for Hillary and the Democrats — and they floated the theory that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange were taking orders from Putin or at least operating with the encouragement of the Kremlin’s intelligence services.
After the WikiLeaks mess, the image of Putin was reset again, and now he was said to have ordered the hacking because he hated Hillary Clinton and indeed the Obama administration in general. That was a bizarre indictment.
If Putin were really a conniving realist, he would have much preferred Hillary in the 2016 election — given his success in manipulating the Obama-era reset. Unlike Trump, Clinton would probably have kept the radical Obama defense cuts and perpetuated the restrictions on domestic energy development that were helping Russia. She probably would have likewise continued Obama’s therapeutic approach to foreign policy.
From Russia’s point of view, considering their strategic and economic interests, a pliable Obama 2.0 would have been far better than Trump, with his pro-oil-and-gas domestic agenda, his promised defense buildup, and his unpredictable Jacksonian promises to help friends and hurt enemies.
Squaring the Surveillance Circle
The entire Trump-collusion-with-Russia narrative has now descended into incoherence.
For five months, dating back to the heated final stretch of the 2016 election, mainstream media — in particular Obama-administration pet reporters at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the BBC — ran creepy and occasionally near-obscene stories about “collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
These published rumors were based on “unnamed sources” often identified generically as American intelligence officers inside the FBI, CIA, and NSA. Soon that narrative went from ominous to hysterical — but only once Hillary inexplicably lost the election.
The anonymous allegations of collusion were used to convict the Trump circle of a veritable pre-election partnership with the Russians. The collusion was to be followed, the story went, with a new reset with Putin — this time born not out of naïveté but of lucre and near treason.
We forget that the Democrats’ narratives of the purported Trump collusion also radically changed to meet changing circumstances.
Before the election, a sure and poor-loser Trump was pathetically cheating with the Russians to stop the fated winner Clinton.
Then, in the post-election shock and transition, the Russian-interference storyline was repackaged as an excuse for the poorly conducted Clinton campaign that had blown a supposedly big lead and sure victory. “The Russians did it” was preferable to blaming Hillary for not visiting Wisconsin once. Finally, Trump’s Russian connection served as a useful tool to delegitimize an abhorrent incoming Trump administration.
And the delegitimizing was made easier by Obama’s eleventh-hour order, days before his departure, to expand the list of federal officials who would have access to sensitive intelligence and surveillance transcripts.
But all such accusations of Trump-Russian complicity, based on admitted leaks from intelligence agencies, required some sort of hard evidence: leaked transcripts of Trump officials clearly outlining shared strategies with the Russians, hard proof of Russian electronic tampering in key swing states, doctored e-mails planted in the Podesta WikiLeaks trove, travel records of Trump people in clandestine meetings with Russian counterparts, or bank records showing cash payoffs.
Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation had as many financial dealings with pro-Russian interests as did Trump people.
Yet a hostile media, in collusion with intelligence-agency leakers, has so far provided no such proof.
John Podesta had as much invested in Russian profiteering as did former Trump aides. Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation had as many financial dealings with pro-Russian interests as did Trump people. The ubiquitous Russian ambassador had met as many Democratic grandees as he had Trump associates
The lack so far of hard proof gradually created a boomerang effect. Attention turned away from what “unnamed sources” had alleged to the question of how unnamed sources had gathered surveillance of the Trump people in the first place — as evidenced by media reports of General Flynn’s conversations, of Trump’s private talks with foreign leaders, and of allegations of electronic contact between Russian and Trump Tower computers.
In other words, the media and their sources had gambled that congressional overseers, law enforcement, and the public would all overlook surveillance that may have been illegal or only partly legal, and they would also overlook the clearly illegal leaking of such classified information on a candidate and a president-elect — if it all resulted in a scandal of the magnitude of the Pentagon Papers or Watergate.
So far such a scandal has not emerged. But Trump’s opponents continue to push the Russian narrative not because it is believable but because it exhausts and obfuscates likely illegal surveillance and leaking.
The real scandal is probably not going to be Trump’s contacts with Russians. More likely, it will be the rogue work of a politically driven group of intelligence officers, embedded within the bureaucracy, who, either in freelancing mode, or in Henry II–Thomas Becket fashion (“Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”) with Obama-administration officials, began monitoring Team Trump — either directly or more likely through the excuse of inadvertently chancing upon conversations while monitoring supposedly suspicious foreign communications.
Added to this mess is the role of three unsympathetic characters who are on record as either not telling the truth, deliberately obfuscating it, or showing terrible judgement.
Obama CIA director John Brennan, who assumed that role after the still mysterious and abrupt post-election departure of David Petraeus, has a long history of political gymnastics; he has made many a necessary career readjustment to changing Washington politics. He is on record as being deceptive — he failed to reveal that the CIA intercepted Senate communications. He also stated falsely that the drone program had not resulted in a single collateral death. And, in the spirit of Obama’s new Islamic outreach, Brennan strangely suggested that jihad was a sort of personal odyssey rather than a call to use force in spreading Islamic influence. Brennan is also on record as critical of Trump: Trump “should be ashamed of himself,” Brennan said the day after the inauguration, in response to Trump’s speech to CIA staffers gathered in front of the Memorial Wall of Agency heroes.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has in the past lied to Congress, when he assured that the NSA did not monitor the communications of American citizens. Likewise, he bizarrely asserted that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was largely a secular organization. And more than 50 CENTCOM officers formally accused Clapper of distorting their reports about the Islamic State. Like Brennan, Clapper has been critical of Trump, asking, “Who benefits from a president-elect trashing the intelligence community?”
During the 2016 election, FBI Director James Comey popped up to assure the nation that while Hillary Clinton had conducted herself unethically, and probably in violation of federal statutes in using her private e-mail server for government business and wiping away correspondence, her transgressions did not rise to the level of indictable offenses.
It was as if the investigator Comey, rather than the appropriate federal attorney, was adjudicating the decision to charge a suspect.
Then in the final stretch of the race, Comey resurfaced to assert that “new” evidence had led him to reconsider his exculpation of Clinton. And then, on November 6, 2016, just hours before the nation went to the polls, he appeared a third time in front of cameras to reiterate his original judgment that Hillary’s transgressions did not merit further investigation, much less criminal prosecutions.
The media contextualized Comey’s schizophrenia as see-saw reactions either to liberal Obama-administration pressures or to near revolts among the more conservative FBI rank-and-file.
Just as likely was Comey’s own neurotic itch to seek public attention and to position himself favorably with a likely new president.
How did Obama’s naïve pro-Putin reset and Clinton-family profiteering transmogrify into wild accusations that others had become even friendlier to such an unsavory character?
Comey’ s weird election-era prominence was also apparently fueled by the fact that Attorney General Loretta Lynch was caught in an embarrassing private meeting on the tarmac with Bill Clinton — a meeting during the investigation of his spouse. (The encounter was intended to remain secret, but a local reporter was tipped off.)
That unethical encounter had tainted Lynch’s pose of disinterested adjudication, and she accordingly de facto fobbed off her prosecutorial responsibilities to Comey.
Comey most lately has asked the Justice Department to refute Trump’s claims that he was subject to electronic surveillance by the government during the last days of the Obama administration.
Given the past assertions and political natures of Brennan, Clapper, and Comey, none are very credible in any future testimony they might give about the Trump-Russia narrative or the role U.S. intelligence agencies played in the possibly illegal monitoring of Trump associates.
All three men are even less credible when it comes to the illegal leaking of such classified information to media outlets.
Trump’s infamous and clumsy tweet (“just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower”) may well prove to be inaccurate — literally.
But it could also end up being prescient if revelations show that Obama-appointed officials or their underlings used surveillance on foreign officials — three years after the NSA got caught tapping Angela Merkel’s cellphone — in order to sweep up Trump communications and then leak them to the media to damage his candidacy and later his transition.
We are left in the end with paradoxes:
How did Obama’s naïve pro-Putin reset and Clinton-family profiteering transmogrify into wild accusations that others had become even friendlier to such an unsavory character?
How did the image of a sacrosanct media speaking the “truth” of Trump’s collusion with Putin rest on the peddling of false narratives — many of them based on likely illegal surveillance and certainly unethical and unlawful dissemination?
And if Trump was unhinged for leveling wild allegations based on mainstream news reports, why were news outlets themselves — and those who quoted them chapter and verse — not unhinged for spreading such suddenly unreliable information?
What is the explanatory sword that cuts this Gordian knot?
Trump supposedly had zero chance of winning. But when he did, facts had to adjust to a bitter actuality — at first perhaps to explain away reality, but quite soon after to alter it by any means necessary. —
NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.