Paul Pillar

Implications of a Siberian Candidate

The dribbling out of revelations, many of which contradict previous denials, about dealings with Russia of Donald Trump, his family, and his associates, has increased the plausibility of the more sinister possible explanations of what this affair is all about.  This has been especially true since revelations of the meeting last year in which Trump’s son, son-in-law, and campaign chairman met with Russian representatives with the intention and expectation of receiving dirt on Hillary Clinton.  Trump’s conspicuous obsession with the investigations into the affair and with trying to discredit, derail, and defeat those investigations adds to the likelihood of the more sinister explanations.

There is much we still don’t know, but it is prudent to think ahead about some of the implications if the more nefarious possibilities regarding Trump and Russia turn out to be true.  Other politicians, the American public, and the U.S. bureaucracy need to figure out how to handle such an unprecedented situation.

Compromise of Classified Information

As a starting point, and to add some perspective to this extraordinary tale, consider whether some of the most influential people in the White House, who have access to some of the most sensitive secrets within the U.S. Government, would be granted security clearances if they were ordinary applicants seeking positions in one of the departments or agencies for which such clearances are required.  In the case of Jared Kushner, the son-in-law to whom the president has given a broad portfolio spanning foreign and domestic matters, the answer, assuming a thorough enough background investigation, would almost certainly be no.  There would be red flags to begin with regarding past legal and financial problems and continuing liabilities to foreign interests.  The repeated failure to report completely his past meetings and dealings with the Russians would be a disqualifier by itself.  The effort to establish a channel of communications through Russian officialdom and out of reach of U.S. agencies would make denial of a clearance a slam dunk.  No security officer would need to think twice about it.

Some of the same sorts of considerations also would apply to Donald Trump were he an ordinary applicant, even though he evidently has not had to fill out a Standard Form 86 and therefore has had one less opportunity than Kushner to be deceptive about past dealings with Russia.  There would be at least as many of the questions about financial and legal vulnerabilities, including financial dependence on people from Russia, and other possibilities of having been compromised by that foreign power.  Strong issues of unsuitability would come up, even without getting into Trump’s complicated personal and marital life, regarding duplicity and dishonesty.  Unmonitored meetings with Russian officials would be the final item in a file that would very likely lead security officers to put it quickly on the rejection pile. 

Divulging of classified information is the principal contingency that agencies are trying to avoid by vetting applicants for security clearances.  At least one instance of such divulgence has already come up with Trump, when in a meeting at the White House he blabbed to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister classified information that reportedly a third country had provided to the United States.  The circumstances suggest that for Trump this was not a calculated disclosure but instead a form of bragging about how much good stuff he is privy to.  Even so, such carelessness in handling classified information is part of what the system of security clearances and vetting of people who hold them is intended to avoid.  Whatever the intention, the harm can be significant—in this case, harm to the trust that is necessary for effective intelligence liaison relationships.

U.S. departments and agencies dealing with sensitive national security information undoubtedly have devoted much recent thought to how they can perform their duties of informing the president while—given the nature of this president—protecting classified information from foreign adversaries.  One advantage those agencies have in trying to deal with this dilemma is Trump’s short attention span and dislike for detail.  As national security adviser H.R. McMaster has learned, well-organized, fact-filled briefings don’t work well with this president.  Informal conversation, preferably laced with flattering references to Trump himself, is more likely to get his attention.  Thus agencies can in good conscience withhold much sensitive detail, in the interest both of protecting that information and catering to the preferences of the incumbent president.

Agent of Influence

Disclosing classified information is not, in any event, the main worry involving Trump and Russia.  And from the Russians’ point of view, it is not the main use they would hope to make of Trump.  Russia could get more detailed and extensive U.S. national security information from a low-level mole somewhere in the bureaucracy.  They already have gotten more of it from a wholesale leaker such as Edward Snowden, who currently enjoys the Russians’ hospitality.  For Russia, Donald Trump would instead be the most spectacularly well-placed agent of influence they could ever dream of.  The great opportunity for Russia would be to use Trump to move U.S. policies in directions favorable to Russia.