The latest confrontation between President-elect Trump and the US intelligence agencies is entertaining theatre for the rest of us. But behind it lie more serious issues. The extent to which the outgoing Obama administration is trying to constrain and undermine its successor is unprecedented. Some of the Republican establishment seem determined to join the Democrats in bringing down a president who has not yet even been inaugurated. It is not clear what Senator McCain intended in passing the intelligence dossier on Trump’s links with the Russians to the FBI, but he risks provoking a breach in American society that could take years to heal. The dossier itself, which has provoked the latest controversy, is typical of those produced, for a high price, by corporate intelligence consultancies: strong on allegations but weak on evidence and even weaker on assessment of sources.
The East Coast Establishment is horrified by Trump’s election as President and appalled by his vulgarity. Many, including Senator McCain, have suffered his insults. But there seems to be more to the Obama administration’s efforts undermine the credibility and freedom of manoeuvre of its successor. The Obama administration began with great expectations. The President himself won the Nobel Prize Peace (although primarily for not being George Bush). But over eight years Obama has achieved little, and what legacy he has left is in danger of quickly being overturned. Republicans in Congress has already announced they will cancel Obamacare. Trump has announced he will cancel the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and will revise the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA). The French and the Germans had already, effectively, killed off the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Treaty (TTIP). Obama’s failure in Syria looks set to be compounded by Trump’s acceptance of the Russian occupation of the Crimea and the continuation of Assad in power in Damascus. Trump has threatened both Obama’s recognition of Cuba and the nuclear deal with Iran. The pivotal to Asia looks set to be replaced by confrontation with China. Obama might with read Shelley’s Ozymandias.
Obama will be the President whose legacy is trashed by the upstart outsider. The anger is obvious in the actions of the dying Obama administration. The decision to vote against Israel in the Security Council, and Secretary of State Kerry’s speech attacking Israeli settlements looked to limit Trump’s options in the Middle East. Investigation by the US intelligence services into Russian interference in the US presidential elections sought to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s election. The expulsion of Russian diplomats as a consequence of the investigation sought to queer Trump’s pitch in Moscow. A series of such controversial initiatives at the end of administration is, in my experience, unprecedented. But they haven’t worked. Israel and Russia can wait out the last days of Obama and then cut their deals with the new president, as shown by Putin’s theatrical non-expulsion of US diplomats. The legitimacy of Trump’s election has been undermined only with those who didn’t vote for him anyway. The evidence in the intelligence services’ report was nowhere near sufficient to call the outcome of the election into question.
Hence the latest dossier circulating in Washington about Trump’s relations with Russia, including the allegation that the Russians have incriminating evidence on the President-elect that could be used to blackmail him in the future. The dossier has been doing the rounds in Washington for some time. Senator McCain claims he has presented it to the FBI, but it is not clear what he hopes to achieve. Presumably he wants to further undermine the credibility of Trump, arguing that he’s not fit to hold public office (although I imagine that the Soviets and then the Russian had fascinating files on the womanising of Kennedy and Clinton, or the drug taking of Nixon). Possibly he’s preparing the ground for future impeachment proceedings. Either way he’s playing a dangerous game, as is the East Coast Establishment if it is behind him. The first consequence has been further damage, possibly irreparable, ti the relations between the President-elect and the intelligence services, which will not improve the policy-making of the Trump White House. More seriously, any attempt to remove Trump from office before the end of his term will irrevocably fracture the American political body. It will convince his supporters of the establishment conspiracy against them and risk seriously destabilising American society. You don’t have to like Trump (and I don’t) to believe that the best way ti deal with him is to use of checks and balances the Constitution provides to constrain his freedom of action, and then ensure he only serves one term (ie find a better candidate than Clinton.
The dossier itself was apparently produced by a former British intelligence officer who now runs his own consulting company. It is typical of those produced by corporate intelligence consultancies. It makes a series of allegations, but produces little evidence. Sources are not mentioned, let alone assessed for reliability. Often in these reports press reports and rumours are written up as if produced by confidential sources (a favourite trick of intelligence officers, seeking to justify their expenses, the world over). The dossier as written would not have been acceptable when I worked as an official in the Foreign Office. I would not have expected to be told who the sources were (and indeed would not have been told), but would have expected a description of the sources in terms of reliability, access and how long they had been providing information. Without that, any intelligence would be dismissed as worthless. It is no wonder that neither the CIA nor the FBI are willing to pronounce on the reliability or credibility of the dossier.
The latest exchanges between Trump and the East Coast Establishment are producing delicious ironies. Trump, who made such good use of fake news and lies in the election campaign, complains of lies and fake news being used against him. The Establishment, who complained about lies and fake news being used to undermine Hillary Clinton, now use them to undermine the President-elect. But this is serious. Trump’s election campaign bitterly divided American society. Efforts to question the legitimacy of Trump’s election, and cast doubt on his fitness for office, ultimately to undermine his administration, risk making the damage irreparable.