The 21st and 22nd paragraphs of a weekend New York Times report on anti-Russian cybersecurity operations contained a harrowing detail. President Trump reportedly “had not been briefed in any detail” on the operations, “for concern over his reaction — and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials.”
That is to say, American national-security officials are declining to share Russia-related intelligence with the president of the United States because they view him as a security risk.
The denouement of the Mueller report seemed to bury the question of secret Russian leverage over Trump. In the days after Attorney General William Barr delivered his misleading summary of its contents, Trump’s allies declared all grounds for suspicion of his activity a debunked conspiracy theory, and the news media engaged in an orgy of self-flagellation over their pursuit of Trump’s connections that — according to Barr — went nowhere.
But the Mueller report focused on criminal questions, not counterintelligence. Representative Adam Schiff recently noted that Congress stopped receiving counterintelligence briefings on Trump and Russia after FBI director James Comey was fired two years ago. Whether Russia still has blackmail or financial leverage over Trump is a giant question hovering over the presidency, with no clear avenue of resolution.
That Vladimir Putin had secret leverage over Trump in the very recent past is now a matter of public record. Mueller found that during the campaign, Trump was negotiating a deal to build towers in Moscow that promised a potential payout of several hundred million dollars “without assuming significant liabilities or financing commitments” — that is, a guaranteed payoff, similar to the generous putative business deals Putin often makes secretly with other foreign right-wing politicians he has courted. Putin’s leverage in this transaction was compounded by the fact that Trump denied its existence during the campaign, giving Russia blackmail leverage over him.
Trump’s defenders have seized on several anti-Russian steps his administration has taken as supposed evidence that Putin has no secret hold on the president. The dilemma, of course, is that Trump’s Russophilia makes him an extreme outlier in his party, which means his government is staffed with people committed to very different policies toward Moscow.
National Review editor Rich Lowry cites the Times report as more proof that “despite his rhetoric, Trump has been tougher on Russian than Obama was,” glossing over the part of the article reporting that Trump was not informed of the actions for fear he would undermine them.
The same tension has played out in other policies where Republicans have forced hawkish stances upon a very unwilling president. After Congress passed anti-Russia sanctions by a veto-proof supermajority, Trump fumed in private, and “it took aides four days to persuade Trump to sign the bill.”
Trump’s response to the report inadvertently confirmed its most damning passage. Even if it isn’t true that the U.S. is preparing aggressive countermeasures against Russian cyberstrikes, Trump had no reason to deny it. The threat serves as valuable deterrence. Instead, just as he raged privately against sanctions on Russia, he raged publicly against the report of his government’s anti-Russian acts:
Trump has repeatedly met with Putin in unusually secret conditions, refusing to allow foreign-policy staffers to attend, and even at one point confiscating a translator’s notes. Mueller has finished his work, and — save for foreign-policy bureaucrats keeping their actions secret from the president — there’s no obvious mechanism for identifying and limiting the threat of Russian leverage over him. For all we know, Trump is still being promised, or even receiving, payoffs from Russia. None of these actions would amount to crimes. They do, however, constitute a crisis — not just of national security but of national sovereignty.