In sixty bland words, the most powerful figure in US intelligence overnight rebuked his own president about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, making clear that Donald Trump’s ready acceptance of Vladimir Putin’s claim that Russia was entirely innocent was wrong. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said:
The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers. We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.
Given that the Mueller inquiry has now produced indictments for a dozen Russian agents, in addition to a string of indictments and guilty pleas from Trump-connected US figures in relation to their contact with Russians, it’s now become impossible to credibly dismiss the argument that Russia interfered with the 2016 election. But not according to Trump, who declared about Putin “he just said it’s not Russia… I don’t see any reason why it would be… President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Trump then went on to call Mueller’s inquiry “a disaster for our country” and “a total witch hunt.”
Trump’s preference for believing the kleptocratic thug Putin over his own intelligence services left Republicans and Trump supporters — even Newt Gingrich — aghast. Others went further. The former head of the CIA, John Brennan, called it treasonous and an impeachable offence.
Let’s bear in mind the extraordinary degree of hypocrisy here: the military-intelligence establishment of the United States, which routinely and systematically interferes in the elections of countries all over the world and will even engage in, or support, regime change when it doesn’t get its way, is outraged about Russian interference in its own election processes. But the fact of the interference itself — and the rich irony of it — is not the issue. The issue is Trump’s alignment with Putin. It is not merely the case that Trump believes there are benefits to forging a closer relationship with the Russian autocrat. This is no Nixon-goes-to-China moment. In addition to his obsequious public acquiescence to Putin in Helsinki, he is implementing the same agenda as Putin: encouraging the far right in Europe, encouraging the break-up of the European Union, looking to undermine European governments, attacking the press as the enemy of his country, and enriching himself and his family and circle while in office.
What was once a laughable idea, that the Russian regime had some sort of leverage over Trump that could be used to achieve his acquiescence to its agenda, must now be taken seriously as a plausible motive for Trump’s willingness to grovel to Putin, even in a manner that enrages his own supporters and staff. Certainly it must be a view now circulating even within the Republican Party, let alone the rest of Washington.
The Turnbull government, too, must start operating on the basis that the Russian regime — which, remember, was responsible for the murder of 38 Australians four years ago — is exercising undue and improper influence over the US president — a statement that is utterly remarkable to write and yet which must now be taken seriously. Turnbull’s approach to Trump has been to truckle as much as possible in the hope of winning exemptions from his more ludicrous policies. That succeeded on the narrow issue of steel and aluminium tariffs (along with several other countries) but it is unlikely to afford much protection from the trade war he is stoking with China. Certainly it is clear that what has been the bedrock of Australian foreign policy for sixty years — our automatic backing by the United States on matters of strategic interest — can no longer be relied on if it involves the interests of Russia.
“We can no longer completely rely on the White House,” German foreign minister Heiko Maas said yesterday. That may be true as much for us as for the Europeans.
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