The following article by David Remnick and Evan Osnos was psoted on thewebsite March 4, 2017:
Between six and six-thirty this morning, the President of the United States, who had returned to his Mar-a-Lago estate, in Florida, unleashed a series of tweets accusing his predecessor of tapping his phones just before Election Day: “a new low!” “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” Two hours later, he tweeted again, this time about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to leave “The New Celebrity Apprentice”: “Sad end to great show.”
Donald Trump’s early morning Twitter binge unleashed, as he likely expected it would, a flurry of comments on the same medium, with his partisans echoing his rage at Barack Obama while many others questioned Trump’s motives, his integrity, and his mental stability.
Others pointed to articles posted on Breitbart as a possible inspiration; it would not be the first time that Trump has been inspired to action by something published on Breitbart, the former home of his close adviser, Steve Bannon. One of the articles is based on Senator Orrin Hatch’s remark about the wiretaps that led to the downfall of Michael Flynn as national-security adviser. Another is based on Mark Levin, a conservative radio host, who recently accused Obama of “police state” tactics to carry out a “silent coup” against Trump.
One of President Trump’s most consistent rhetorical maneuvers is a fairly basic, but often highly effective one—the diversionary reverse accusation. When he is accused of benefitting from “fake news,” he flips the neologism on its head; suddenly CNN, the Times, and the rest are “fake news.” When Democratic politicians such as Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi call for investigations of his campaign’s contacts with Russian officials, Trump posts pictures of those critics meeting publicly with Vladimir Putin and calls for an investigation. This happened on Saturday. He fogs the language and clouds the issue.
The stories on Breitbart appear to be related to the efforts of American intelligence and law-enforcement officials to investigate potential links between Trump aides and Russian officials. It would seem that Trump, in the same spirit of diversion, has conflated the work of the courts, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies with “Obama.”
As Benjamin Rhodes, the former deputy national-security adviser under Obama, put it in a tweet on Saturday, the President is not authorized to order a wiretap.
Ironically, the Obama Administration, after being informed that the Russian government was likely behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee and that the effort was intended to undermine Hillary Clinton, did not act more forcefully for fear of appearing to favor its own political party.
And there is other news as well. Trump, who for years has paid compliments to Putin’s strength and tactics, is expected to appoint as his main adviser on Russia Fiona Hill, a think-tank analyst who has described the Russian President as a gangster. Many members of the foreign-policy community in Washington are stunned. They wonder how Hill could take such a post when the Trump Administration is under scrutiny for its relations with Russian officials.
A dual citizen of the United States and the United Kingdom, Hill is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, and, between 2006 and 2009, served as a Russia analyst on the National Intelligence Council, a kind of intelligence think-tank independent of the C.I.A. Hill is the co-author, with Clifford G. Gaddy, of a political and psychological portrait of the Russian President titled “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.” The book describes Putin’s system as a “protection racket” in which he views himself as the “CEO of Russia, Inc.” and is served by “crony oligarchs.” “In reality,” Hill and Gaddy write, “his leadership style is more like that of a mafia family Don.”
Hill and Gaddy describe in detail Putin’s background as an intelligence officer and the methods used in the Russian secret services to discredit opponents. “Core individuals collect and amass detailed compromising material (kompromat in Russian) that can be used as leverage on every key figure inside and outside of government,” they write.
A few weeks ago, we spoke with Hill, on the record, for an article about Russia and the Trump Administration. She in no way gave the impression that she was an admirer of Trump or shared his views on Russia. While Trump himself has derided the intelligence agencies and their conclusion that Putin directed an operation aimed at undermining the 2016 election and Clinton’s candidacy, Hill expressed no such doubt. She added, “They couldn’t have anticipated, whoever is doing this”—Russian military intelligence, Russian foreign intelligence—“whoever, they couldn’t have imagined how lucky they would be and come across the motherlode of information.”
“Are they trying to turn him into the Manchurian Candidate?” Hill went on. “The Russians didn’t invent him, but now they seem to create that impression. It was all intended to discredit Clinton and the electoral and party system. They wanted to amplify someone like Trump because what he says is music to their ears.”
When asked why Trump seemed so admiring of Putin, particularly his “strength,” Hill said, “I don’t want to suggest that Trump is emulating Putin. Trump is his own creation. But Putin, coming from the KGB, a lot of his skill set comes out of the KGB playbook. His public messaging is right out of Lenin, with slogans like ‘Land for the Peasants,’ and calling the Bolsheviks a majority when they were not. This is a skill set that Putin acquired. Trump knows how to play the media all on his own. He creates his own Twitter feed and uses it. He knows how to get the media’s attention without the benefit of a state-controlled media. He does it all on his own. Trump understands how a free media works.”
Many Russian and American analysts now refer to the current state of U.S.-Russia relations as a kind of new Cold War; Hill gave the current state of affairs an even more alarming tag. “I think we are in a hot war with Russia, not a cold war,” she said. “But we have to be careful about the analogy. It’s a more complex world. There is no set-piece confrontation. This is no holds barred. The Cold War was a more disciplined competition aside from the near blow ups in Berlin and Cuba where we walked back from the brink. The Kremlin now is willing to jump over the abyss. They want to play for the asymmetry. They see themselves in a period of hot kinetic war. Also, this is not just two-way superpower. There is China, the rising powers. I almost see it as like the great power competition from the time before the Second World War.”
Hill also said that the Russians, partly because they “have” Edward Snowden, in Moscow, possess “a good idea of what the U.S. is capable of knowing. They got all of his information. You can be damn well sure that [Snowden’s] information is theirs.”
In the think-tank and analytical world of Russian specialists in Washington, Hill has a solid reputation. Celeste Wallander, who was Obama’s leading adviser on Russia, told me, “Fiona is a respected analyst in the Washington Russia community, and she has been very tough and really hardheaded about who and what Putin is and about U.S.-Russian policy.”
And yet the general feeling in that same community is that Trump is not an ordinary Republican President—his comments about Putin are extraordinary, and so is the tumult in his Administration, particularly when it comes to its relations with Russia. Michael Flynn lost his job as national-security adviser in less than a month because of his contacts with the Russian Ambassador, and others in the Trump circle—from Paul Manafort, Trump’s onetime campaign manager, to Attorney General Jeff Sessions to Carter Page, a policy adviser during the race––are also being scrutinized. Some officials and analysts wonder if Hill is deluded in thinking, somehow, that she can play a positive and decisive role in a White House clouded by the prospect of congressional investigations and influenced so markedly by ideologues like Steve Bannon.
In late July, Hill wrote a column for Vox on why Putin might have wanted to interfere in the election. Her analysis was completely in line with consensus thinking. She concluded that Putin believed that the Obama Administration, particularly Clinton, as Obama’s Secretary of State, had somehow been responsible for the anti-Kremlin demonstrations in 2011–12 and that he wanted either to prevent Clinton from becoming President or, more likely, to do his best to weaken her. “A US president who is elected amid controversy and recrimination, reviled by a large segment of the electorate, and mired in domestic crises,” Hill wrote, “will be hard-pressed to forge a coherent foreign policy and challenge Russia.”
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