President Trump and the GOP-led Congress are conveying an utter lack of will and competence when it comes to national security. NBC News reports:
More than 130 political appointees working in the Executive Office of the President did not have permanent security clearances as of November 2017, including the president’s daughter, son-in-law and his top legal counsel, according to internal White House documents obtained by NBC News.
Of those appointees working with interim clearances, 47 of them are in positions that report directly to President Donald Trump. About a quarter of all political appointees in the executive office are working with some form of interim security clearance.
The lack of concern with the basic operation of the White House is not simply a matter of politics; it’s also a threat to national security. No administration, certainly since 9/11, has been so cavalier with regard to national security.
It’s not just the clearances, of course, that should worry Americans. In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on Tuesday said: “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin will continue to rely on assertive foreign policies to shape outcomes beyond Russia’s borders. … We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen and other means of influence to try to build on its wide range of operations.” He continued: “There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.” That is an extraordinary rebuke to the president, who remains unwilling to say without qualification that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, to push forward on sanctions and to develop a plan to protect our electoral system. To do so would, I suppose, aggravate his nagging feeling that he didn’t win this fair and square. It would require that he point the finger at the very Russians who interfered in the 2016 election.
It would also require him to bite the hand that reportedly fed him during his lean financial years. Ironically, the day after the hearing, the Moscow Project put out a comprehensive report on Russian financial operations that work hand in hand with political operations.
The report sets out three strands that came together in the 2016 election: “An oligarchy co-opted to be an extension of the Kremlin, in Russia and abroad. A convergence of crises that sprung mutual benefits for Trump and Russia’s moneyed elite. Patterns in Trump’s business operations that lay bare mechanisms for potential compromise.” In short, oligarchs became functionaries for the Kremlin, to whom they owed their wealth:
When President Vladimir Putin consolidated power after the fall of the Soviet Union, he established a social contract of sorts, sanctioning the unbridled self-enrichment of Russia’s new class of wealthy business tycoons—known as oligarchs—in return for their unwavering loyalty to his administration. Among other things, this loyalty to Putin meant the oligarchs would not attempt to challenge him politically or otherwise act counter to the Kremlin’s strategic interests. It also meant the oligarchy would act on behalf of the state, thus erasing the boundary between the two. Journalist Joshua Yaffa aptly summarized the “de-fanging” of the oligarchs in a recent New Yorker piece: “In the nineties, a coterie of business figures built corporate empires that had little loyalty to the state. Under Putin, they were co-opted, marginalized, or strong-armed into obedience.”
Trump was the right man in the right financial situation (dire, that is) in the 1990s and the 2000s. “Shunned by traditional Western lenders, he made frequent overtures to Russian money and accepted injections of cash from Kremlin-linked figures, such as Dmitry Rybolovlev,” the report finds. “He repeatedly disparaged anti-bribery laws and regulations, eschewed transparency through use of shell companies and impervious corporate jurisdictions, and embraced unsavory business partners. With a pivot to international licensing deals in the mid-2000s, Trump grew increasingly accessible and more exposed to tampering and potential compromise.”
It was a perfect match:
Fortunately for Trump, his crisis of capital coincided with capital flight out of Russia following the break-up of the Soviet Union. As the country transitioned, a handful of Russian financial buccaneers made vast fortunes virtually overnight, most notably through the loans-for-shares program and other means of buying up state assets, including gas and oil conglomerates, for a fraction of their value. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was vital to get the money out of Russia without a trace, stashing it away from the prying eyes of tax agencies or law enforcement. Clandestine transfer was particularly critical if that money represented proceeds of a crime. Foreign real estate soon emerged as a preferred safe harbor. And because the Trump Organization reportedly had a reputation for not asking too many questions, Russian money flowed into Trump’s properties.
In exacting detail, the report traces the part Russian money played in Trump’s financial survival and comeback. (“Many of the elements and themes considered thus far converge in the figure of Felix Sater. Like the Agalarovs [Aras and Emin Agalarov, an oligarchic father-son team who hosted a Miss Universe event for Trump in Moscow, and later helped arrange the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting], Sater illustrates how relationships originally forged through business were repurposed in the context of the campaign and, in Sater’s case, the presidential transition.” Sater’s Bayrock Group would help finance Trump’s SoHo project, and Sater also pursued the Trump Tower Moscow deal for Trump. Bayrock Group, by the way, also had office space in Trump Tower, which also sold a number of units to Russian-connected figures.)
To be blunt, given his financial associations and reported dependency on Russian money, it is not clear that Trump could qualify for a top-secret security clearance. (Hint: If his son-in-law could not, do we think Trump is less of a risk?) As president, of course, he gets that clearance — and also command of our armed services and intelligence community.
Russia has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams in promoting a president intertwined with Russian oligarchs and determined to ignore the Kremlin’s anti-Western espionage. Putin could not have imagined a better helpmate who would leave American democracy open to attack.