President elect Donald Trump is a loggerheads with the U.S. intelligence community just weeks before he is to be sworn into office. The Washington Post reported that the C.I.A. had determined that Russia had interfered with last month's presidential election in an effort to undermine the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. The Russians broke into Democratic National Committee computer networks and released embarrassing documents and emails in the weeks prior to the election. The New York Times reported the Russians had also hacked Republican National Committee computers but did not release any of those documents.
The Post quoted a senior U.S. official as saying, "It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia's goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help get Trump elected." The Trump transition team responded with a snarky statement, "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction." In an interview released Wednesday, Trump told Time magazine, "I don't believe it. I don't believe (Russia) interfered." But President Obama has now ordered a full review "of what happened during the 2016 election process" to be completed before he leaves office.
While there is no evidence yet that the Russians or President Vladimir Putin did anything that would alter the outcome of the election, Trump supporters are concerned that these reports may be an effort to delegitimize his presidency. Trump praised Putin as a strong leader during the presidential campaign. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Twitter Saturday, "I'm not challenging the outcome of the election, but very concerned about Russian interference/actions at home & throughout the world."
President Putin has been waging a multi-front campaign for years to destabilize Western democracies and undermine NATO. Trump was critical of NATO during his campaign. Russia has endured tough sanctions as a result of its invasion of Ukraine. The sanctions have added to the severe economic problems the country is facing. While Russia has been a partner of the U.S. in the Iranian nuclear deal, it has been at odds with the West over its military support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, which has only intensified that country's civil war and compounded the human tragedy currently taking place.
Putin is a master manipulator, and he may be betting that businessman Donald Trump would be easier to deal with on several fronts. Trump's imminent announcement of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State nominee is an added plus for Putin. Tillerson and Putin are friends and have done business together. The ExxonMobil website claims that the company "has had a continuous business presence in Russia for more than 20 years." No project is more important than a joint venture between Exxon and the Russian state owned company Rosneft to drill oil in the Arctic's Kara Sea. That project had been halted due to the sanctions, but Tillerson has said he does not believe the Russian sanctions work. This week it was announced that Russia sold a 20% stake in Rosneft for $11.7 billion based on expectations that sanctions would be eased under a Trump presidency.
Putin is a trained KGB officer and he runs his country with a ruthless hand. He has cracked down on civil society, the media, he has intensified persecution of his critics, and he has fanned anti-Western sentiment in Russia. Two weeks ago Republican Senator John McCain warned Trump against another reset with Putin. "At the very least, the price of another "reset" would be complicity in Putin and Assad's butchery of the Syrian people," he said. "When America has been at its greatest, it is when we have stood on the side of those fighting tyranny. That is where we must stand again."
A Russian friend of mine recently asked me if I heard the latest joke from his homeland. "President Putin has appointed Donald Trump as the head of America," he said with a chuckle. This may be funny to Russians, but it is a scary thought to any American. President elect Trump should be treating all U.S. national security agencies with the highest respect. To attack them will only weaken and discourage their efforts at a critical time. Further, he must treat Putin as a serious threat to this nation. The future of freedom and democracy is at stake.