The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump gives critics ammunition: Is he Putin’s puppet?

President-elect Donald Trump is giving plenty of people the creeps. In response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision not to retaliate for President Obama’s pin-prick response to Russian interference with our election, Trump tweeted, “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!” Shortly thereafter he added, “Russians are playing CNN and MSNBC News as such fools — funny to watch, they don’t have a clue! Fox News totally gets it!” Which is more cringe-worthy –Putin manipulating Trump or Fox putting out pro-Putin, pro-Trump propaganda?

Trump has agreed to meet with representatives of the intelligence agencies. He has now seen the Joint Analysis Report (JAR) by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. (Trump aides at one time said he was waiting for a written report and couldn’t take oral statements leaked to the media as conclusive.) The report found that Russian civilian and military intelligence services (RIS) were “part of an ongoing campaign of cyber-enabled operations directed at the U.S. government and its citizens.” The report continued:

These cyber operations have included spearphishing campaigns targeting government organizations, critical infrastructure entities, think tanks, universities, political organizations, and corporations leading to the theft of information. In foreign countries, RIS actors conducted damaging and/or disruptive cyber-attacks, including attacks on critical infrastructure networks. In some cases, RIS actors masqueraded as third parties, hiding behind false online personas designed to cause the victim to misattribute the source of the attack. This JAR provides technical indicators related to many of these operations, recommended mitigations, suggested actions to take in response to the indicators provided, and information on how to report such incidents to the U.S. Government.

It will be telling if, after the report and additional classified information provided by intelligence services, Trump still sides with Putin, denying rather conclusive evidence and siding with a foe of the United States. Let’s hope he comes to his senses. If not, the question will be whether the new commander in chief is intellectually unfit (because his own emotional needs take precedence over the well-being of the country) or whether Trump has financial or personal reasons for favoring the Russian autocrat. Absent his tax returns, the latter remains a possible explanation.

Plenty of lawmakers, intelligence and military officials, and ordinary Americans are alarmed at the prospect that a U.S. president might intentionally refuse to defend our interests because it impairs his own personal well-being. This would be the mother of all conflicts of interest. So what can be done?

David J. Kramer, senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute in Washington and former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, suggests that the United States “engage in a little retaliatory hacking of their own by going after the bank accounts of top Russian officials; Europeans can help in this effort. Lopping off a few zeroes from the Russians’ ill-gotten gains would send a strong, targeted message. It is unlikely these officials will publicly protest that they are out millions, even billions of dollars, since they would have trouble explaining how they acquired such fortunes in the first place.” Kramer also urges that Congress codify existing and additional sanctions against Russia not only for hacking but also for its invasion of Crimea and human rights violations.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has already scheduled a hearing for this week, according to news reports. Other committee chairmen in the House and Senate should do so as well. President Obama, if Trump remains determined to act as Putin’s errand boy, should, to the greatest extent possible, declassify materials so Americans can see for themselves. We would hope appropriate legislation with veto-proof majorities can pass.

In addition, intelligence officers collectively or individually can choose to resign in protest if Trump continues to side with Putin in the face of overwhelming evidence. The Senate can refuse to confirm nominees who peddle the Putin-Trump line; if Trump insists on sending up to the Hill one like-minded toady after another, senators should reject each one of them. This also might be a good time for former presidents and/or secretaries of state and defense to come forward in unison to insist that the president recognize the cyberattack on the United States and pledge to respond appropriately. The media should demand in each and every interview with Trump and his advisers an explanation of their position.

To the extent that Trump’s Putin deference may stem from financial issues, Congress can also take other measures, including passing a law requiring Trump and all future presidents to release tax returns. (If he vetoes it, Congress can override it.) Congress can hold hearings on the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, with particular focus on Trump’s foreign bank loans. And, yes, ultimately the remedy for constitutional violations (e.g., receiving foreign governments’ monies or things of value) and for dereliction of the president’s duties is impeachment.

This sounds far-fetched, we know. But everything about Trump is far-fetched, especially his professed admiration and flacking for a foreign adversary. The onus will be on Republicans, who so far show little appetite for taking on Trump. Their colleagues, Democrats, the national security community and voters may need to impress upon them that if Republicans cannot stand up to a president incapable of defending the United States, then Republicans should not have majorities in either house. McCain and a few others are doing their part — but what about the others? Crickets.