In any other time, it would have been front-page news and ignited days or weeks of controversy. But last week, when a former top government official accused the president, for whom he once worked, of treasonous conduct, the story lasted nanoseconds and was blown away by the never-ending firehose of craziness and disinformation generated by the commander-in-chief and his crew. The tragedy here is not merely that Donald Trump escaped yet another scandal. It is that a fundamental and dire threat to the security of the United States did not receive sufficient attention and that American democracy remains in immediate danger.
I am referring to an interview retired General H.R. McMaster, who served as Trump’s national security adviser after Michael Flynn was bounced, gave to MSNBC, in which he said that Trump was acting like a traitor. This sounds hyperbolic. But how else to frankly characterize McMaster’s remarks? He stated that Trump “is aiding and abetting Putin’s efforts” to intervene in the 2020 presidential contest. This is a helluva accusation being leveled by a man who once was Trump’s most senior national security aide: the president is currently assisting a foreign adversary’s covert attack on the United States.
Why did McMaster’s accusation not produce a thunderclap that caused the world to stand still for a moment? There were articles in the New York Times and elsewhere about his charge. But the Times relegated the story to page 14. That’s hardly highlighting the issue. If you blinked, you easily could have missed this damning comment from McMaster, who noted that Vladimir Putin was currently mounting a “sustained campaign of political subversion against us” and that this operation was being “aided by a leader”—that is, Trump—“who doesn’t acknowledge” Moscow’s assault.
For months, news reports and Democratic members of Congress have noted that Putin, following up on his successful 2016 attack, is once again trying to sabotage an American presidential election to sow discord and help Trump win. Trump, though, has refused to address this. In fact, Trump and his minions have been blocking, suppressing, or discounting intelligence showing the Kremlin is attempting to subvert the 2020 election.
After intelligence officials in February told House lawmakers during a classified briefing that Russia was interfering to boost Trump, an irate Trump ousted Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire and replaced him with a loyalist (who was subsequently replaced by another loyalist). Last month, the former intelligence head at the Department of Homeland Security filed a whistleblower complaint claiming that members of the Trump administration pressured him to withhold intelligence assessments detailing Russian efforts to spread disinformation aimed at influencing the 2020 election “because it made the president look bad.” The current director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, has tried to restrict the sharing of intelligence on Russia’s clandestine endeavor with Congress, and the Trump administration has downplayed Russia’s actions, attempting to deflect attention to Iran and China, whose efforts to influence the 2020 election are far less developed and are more indirect. (Ratcliffe also has been declassifying information to assist the latest Fox disinformation campaign, which claims Hillary Clinton and Obama administration conspired in 2016 to tie Trump to Russia. This is nonsense. There was no secret scheme. When Moscow targeted the Democrats with a hack-and-leak operation, Clinton’s aides publicly raised legitimate questions about Trump’s and his adviser’s connections to Russia.)
On Tuesday, DHS finally released its delayed annual assessments on threats to the United States—which the whistleblower had claimed had been withheld to protect Trump—and the report stated that “Russia is the likely primary covert influence actor and purveyor of disinformation and misinformation within the homeland.” But in an interview, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf insisted that China posed the greater overall threat to the United States
Last week, in another little-noticed development, several Democratic senators demanded that Wolf release a document that shows Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting are “consistent with a foreign influence campaign.” They contended that this unclassified report produced by DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis “demonstrates that a foreign actor is attempting to undermine faith in the US electoral system, particularly vote-by-mail systems, in a manner that is consistent with the rhetoric being used by President Trump, Attorney General Barr, and others.” They did not say that Russia was the culprit, but that’s a good guess.
Democrats in Congress have been trying to sound the alarm about Putin’s schemes. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) recently subpoenaed DHS for information related to the whistleblower complaint that alleged intelligence on Russia had been smothered. He also asked the intelligence community to monitor Russian disinformation efforts—particularly those that boost Trump’s criticism of mail-in voting. “Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the intelligence community started seeing exactly that,” Schiff said. “It was too enticing and predictable an option for the Russians. They have been amplifying Trump’s false attacks on absentee voting.”
On the Senate side, though, there has been little action. In August, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee released a massive report that detailed Russia’s wide-ranging efforts to secretly help Trump in 2020. (The report showed that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort colluded with a Russian intelligence officer, that Donald Trump Jr. tried to collude with a secret Kremlin plot to help Trump, that Trump and his aides sought to exploit the Russia attack while denying it was happening, and that Trump likely lied to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.) The committee acknowledged Putin was up to it again in 2020. But it has taken no public steps to address the Russian threat. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tells Mother Jones, “U.S. intelligence agencies have made clear Russia is intent on interfering in the 2020 election, and yet Republican senators and Donald Trump continue to obstruct any legislation or oversight to respond to the Russian threat. Republicans have refused to even hold a single oversight hearing in the Intelligence Committee this year on how to respond to Russia’s attack on our democracy.” Not one hearing.
On October 1, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tried to cast the spotlight on this brazen negligence. He posted a Twitter thread detailing what he called a “massive coverup campaign underway to disguise the octopus-like Russian election interference operation being run on Trump’s behalf.”
Murphy pointed out that in early 2020 intelligence reports started “coming into Congress about a giant, multi-layer Russian effort to help Trump in 2020. Bigger than what they did in 2016. Looks like Russians are trying to get U.S. persons – especially those close to Trump – to help.” In July, he said in this thread, “Dem leadership [wrote] a letter to FBI Director Wray, asking for an all-Congress briefing, especially because the reports we’re reading suggest Russian agents are trying to find Members of Congress to assist their interference operation.” But no such briefing came. Instead, the Trump administration released “vague” statements about possible Russian, Chinese, and Iranian intervention—which, Murphy calls, “very puzzling” because “Congress has never been briefed on any meaningful Chinese/Iranian interference plans.”
Murphy also noted that when the Treasury Department in September sanctioned Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian politician and Russian intelligence officer promoting conspiracy theories about Joe Biden, there was “no press conference from Intel or the FBI or DHS that they’ve caught a Russian agent who has been in regular contact with the President’s inner circle.” Derkach had been in touch with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, who has been trying to collect and spread anti-Biden disinformation. The Trump administration made no fuss about this move. “What’s happening is clear,” Murphy tweeted. “American intel agencies, that are supposed to be totally apolitical, have been folded into Trump’s campaign. They are keeping info about Russian interference hidden, and overhyping info about China and Iran helping Biden.” And Murphy finished with this: “It’s why Trump’s former National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, said something today that is as shocking as it unsurprising. He said Trump is ‘aiding and abetting’ Putin’s interference campaign. Wow. But of course he is. And now you know the details.”
Which brings us back to the general and his demand that Trump call out the Russians for attacking the election. McMaster is currently peddling a book, which focuses on his big thoughts about foreign policy. It is not a tell-all about his tenure in Trumpland. But the insight he shared on MSNBC is worth the same sort of attention that was granted to Bob Woodward’s revelations about Trump purposefully downplaying COVID-19. Here is a former high-ranking Trump official stating that Trump is assisting an attack on the United States because he believes that serves his own political interests. McMaster ought to be asked more about this. And he ought to say more. (He did not respond to an email from me in which I posed several questions, including whether he had made any efforts as national security adviser to persuade Trump to take direct actions to protect the United States from Russian information warfare and how much Trump’s “aiding and abetting” assists the ongoing Russian operation.)
McMaster’s remarks and the GOP-endorsed Senate Intelligence Committee report are a firm rebuttal to the Trumpers’ long-running shouts of “no collusion” and their cries of “hoax!” Whether or not Trump directly conspired with Russian operatives—Donald Trump Jr. attempted to do so and Manafort indeed collaborated with a Russian intelligence officer—it is now (and has long been) clear that Trump’s great sin in 2016 was providing cover to the Russian operation and taking advantage of it. McMaster’s judgment about Trump’s current actions echo what Michael Isikoff and I concluded in our 2018 book, Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump: Trump “had aided and abetted Moscow’s attack on American democracy.”
The Russia story can seem like old news, and Trump and his amen chorus have done all they could in the last four years to discredit and marginalize this historic scandal. But Putin has again targeted the United States, and Trump is again assisting Putin. A reunion of treachery is under way. Meanwhile, Trump’s GOP handmaids are doing nothing, as the US political system is endangered by an overseas foe. McMaster spoke up in one interview. Yet with Election Day only weeks away, he, other Trump alums, and members of Congress need to do so repeatedly and forcefully for Trump and the GOP’s grand act of betrayal to register during a time of chaos and information overload.
Trump is in league with an enemy plotting to infect and undermine a crucial election. And just as he has not protected the nation from the coronavirus, he has not safeguarded the American nation from Russia’s insidious attacks. As McMaster tells it, there is a turncoat in the White House. Other than the pandemic, what could be a greater threat to the United States and more deserving of continuous coverage and dread?