Friday, December 23, 2016

What Trump Could (But Won't) Say About Russian Hacking

by Michael Dorf

"My fellow Americans. It's so so great that the Electoral College has done its duty by electing me following my historic, tremendous victory in November. By the way, I totally could have easily won the popular vote by a landslide if it would have made any sense for me to campaign in California or my home state of New York, while Hillary would still have been wasting her time in the wrong states. And anyway a lot of people, it could be most people actually, are saying I really did win the popular vote, so thank you. Thank you.

"Now I want to address the concerns some sore losers have raised about alleged attempts by Russia or maybe China or some guy sitting in bed who weighs 400 pounds to influence the election by releasing John Podesta's risotto recipe.

"First of all, so what? Lots of stuff got released during the campaign. Some of it was supposed to be super-damaging to my campaign, but the American people saw it for what it was, just locker room talk and lies from the crooked media. One of Hillary Clinton's loudest supporters called the Wikileaks stuff that Russia supposedly got from Podesta's email--really, how dumb is that guy that he fell for a spearphishing scam?--but this other guy called it a nothingburger. I mean, it's a nothingburger, so what's the big deal?

"Now they're saying that I'm a Russian puppet, which is ridiculous. Actually a lot of people are saying the opposite. It's only a few people who are saying this puppet thing, like Saturday Night Live which is totally not funny, I mean nothing against Alec Baldwin, but seriously he isn't even the second most talented Baldwin brother. I kind of feel sorry for him.

"Okay, they want to investigate. Okay, so look, it's a tremendous waste of time and money, but sure. Knock yourself out. Hold hearings. Bring in the CIA, the FBI, the EPA, whatever. Talk to my staff. If you find that anybody who worked for me was a Russian agent or a Chinese agent or a 400-pound-guy agent, I want to know, because that would certainly be news to me. Try them for treason. Hang them from the highest flagpole.

"I don't know anything at all about who hacked, why they hacked, whatever. I don't know Putin. What I've said, 100 percent right, by the way, is that Putin's a strong leader and we have common interests. We should be fighting ISIS together in Syria and other terrorist countries. Do I agree with everything Putin says or does? No. But there are a lot of nasty dudes in the world. Not saying Putin's a nasty dude, not at all, but guys like Assad, just like Saddam was, which by the way I was totally against the Iraq war, the Howard Stern thing was just an off the cuff quick answer, not what I said over and over to Sean Hannity, you can even ask him--and we can't be the world's policeman, so if some nasty dude is good at killing terrorists, then we should work with them.

"So sure, okay fine. Have the investigation. If it turns out the Russians or the Chinese or maybe the Soros Foundation was trying to interfere with our elections, we deal with it. I'll tell you this. When I'm president, they'll respect us. Not that I want to say anything bad about Barack Obama, who is a terrifically nice guy, although I'm totally going to do more for African Americans than he or any Democrat ever did. The blacks, they love me, which is part of why I won such a historic victory. But I don't know maybe sometimes Obama doesn't have the smartest or the toughest people working for him, which is why he is so weak and that's why Putin or the Chinese or ISIS take advantage. But we can get along with everybody who wants to get along with us and it will be a beautiful thing because number one, they will want to get along with us because they'll respect me, and B, I can make a deal. It's what I do. I make the best deals because I have the best people who work for me, not like these guys they have now. You'll see, okay?

"Yeah, have your investigation. Let me know what you find. Maybe you'll find that the Russians or the Chinese or maybe Mexico tried to influence the election. Luckily we know they failed. But still, yeah, let's find out because you know what? I'm going to win an even bigger even historicker landslide in 2020, and I want to make sure no foreign country or 400 pound hacker interferes with that.

"Now that I'm going to be president, let me just add a couple of words that very soon won't be illegal to say anymore. Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas. And to all the terrific tremendously great Hispanics who voted for me despite the crooked media saying I was against them just because I want to build a wall to keep out illegals, not all Mexicans, just illegals, I say Feliz Navidad."

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Donald Trump could, but almost certainly won't, give a speech very much like the foregoing. Why not? I'll briefly consider four possibilities.

1) Trump is actually a Russian agent. If so, he can be impeached, removed, and then tried for treason.

I suppose that evidence that Trump committed treason could arise but until it does, I will assume that he is at worst a dupe, not a traitor. If I were a Russian spymaster, I would not regard Trump as a prime target for recruiting, given his lack of self-control. Thus, if Trump really were a Russian agent, by now he probably would have slipped up in some obvious ways.

2) Trump is not himself a Russian agent but he knows or has strong reason to suspect that one or more people who worked on his campaign and will work in his administration are Russian agents.

This is more plausible than proposition 1), but for now the evidence, while intriguing, is only circumstantial. We know that advisors to the Trump campaign had Russian ties. Trump's people apparently were responsible for eliminating a plank in the Republican Party Platform calling for arming Ukraine against Russia and its allies. Despite Trump's denials, we know that the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russian hacks appeared targeted to harm the Clinton campaign. We know that various Trump positions--such as questioning the U.S. commitment to NATO, denying the obvious fact that Russia annexed Crimea, and indicating a willingness to cooperate with Russia in the Middle East--are more Russia-friendly than positions taken by Clinton and most elected officials of both parties. And since the election, Trump announced plans to nominate Putin-BFF Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State. There's no smoking gun there, but there's enough of an aroma of gunpowder that even if Trump himself doesn't know about a Russian mole (or colony of moles) in his operation, he or his advisors could fear what a full investigation might turn up.

3) Trump rationally fears that a thorough public investigation of Russian hacking and other attempted interference in the election would undermine the legitimacy of his presidency, even if it cannot be shown conclusively that but for the hacking and other attempted interference, he would have lost the Electoral College vote. He and his advisors have calculated that any political damage from his continuing to dismiss the evidence of Russian hacking is less serious than the damage that would arise from the findings of a thorough investigation.

This hypothesis would make a great deal of sense were it not for the fact that, if there really was no coordination, the political calculation seems wrong. The intelligence services will conclude at least a preliminary investigation before Trump takes office. If, as expected, it confirms Russian involvement and enough documentation is made public to establish that conclusion definitively (except on Breitbart, Infowars, etc.), then Trump will look the worse for having opposed the investigation. By contrast, if Trump and his team really weren't participating in a Russian plot and they invite the investigation using a Trumpian statement like the one above, then the result of the investigation would not be very damaging.

4) Trump's opposition to an investigation is not based on any sort of rational calculation. It is simply the product of his huge-but-fragile ego. Anything that is in any way connected with the possibility that he didn't win a ginormous unpresidented victory without any help from anybody must be met with the overwhelming force of Trump's blustering denials and fabrications.

Explanation 4) is pretty clearly the most likely of the ones I've considered. Even though giving a speech like the one I've drafted for Trump would help him politically, he won't do it, because to do so would require him to acknowledge, even for a few moments and for the purpose of rebutting them, the reasons why people think that Russian interference might have influenced the electoral outcome.

If there are any members of the Trump transition team reading this essay and you are persuaded, feel free to pass the speech along to the president-elect for him to deliver (preferably without attribution). You're welcome.

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I'm sure I speak for all of us here at DoL when I say Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Feliz Navidad, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Yule, Happy Festivus, and belated Happy Dhanu Sankranti, Milad un Nabi, and Bodhi Day. Also, Happy Holidays and Season's Greetings.