Weekend open thread: Alarming ties between Trump and Russia edition

President-elect Donald Trump continues to assemble a cabinet full of people “who have key philosophical differences with the missions of the agencies they have been tapped to run.”

But arguably, the scariest news of the week was the political reaction to the Central Intelligence Agency assessment that it is “quite clear” Russia intervened in the U.S. elections with the goal of electing Trump.

Despite what one retired CIA officer described as a “blazing 10-alarm fire,” only four Republican senators have taken up the call for a bipartisan investigation of Russian interference in U.S. elections. For his part, Trump dismissed the CIA’s findings as “ridiculous,” while members of his transition team discredited the agency and leaked news that Trump will appoint a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin as secretary of state.

Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller reported for the Washington Post on December 9,

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances. […]

The Trump transition team dismissed the findings in a short statement issued Friday evening. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again,’ ” the statement read. […]

The CIA shared its latest assessment with key senators in a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill last week, in which agency officials cited a growing body of intelligence from multiple sources. Agency briefers told the senators it was now “quite clear” that electing Trump was Russia’s goal, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

David E. Sanger and Scott Shane reported for the New York Times that intelligence agencies concluded Russia was trying to elect Trump in part because of

another finding — which they say was also reached with high confidence — that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems in addition to their attacks on Democratic organizations, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks.

In the months before the election, it was largely documents from Democratic Party systems that were leaked to the public. Intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russians gave the Democrats’ documents to WikiLeaks.

Republicans have a different explanation for why no documents from their networks were ever released. Over the past several months, officials from the Republican committee have consistently said that their networks were not compromised, asserting that only the accounts of individual Republicans were attacked. On Friday, a senior committee official said he had no comment. […]

One senior government official, who had been briefed on an F.B.I. investigation into the matter, said that while there were attempts to penetrate the Republican committee’s systems, they were not successful.

Meeting with U.S. House members last week, another FBI official avoided stating that Russia was trying to assist Trump.

The security blogger emptywheel reviewed the available “evidence to prove the Russian hack” in fourteen points. One person who has researched CIA intelligence gathering noted that the agency is likely to have much more detailed and explosive evidence than what has been leaked to journalists.

I’ve seen no comment on the bombshell CIA findings from Iowa’s Republicans in Congress. Iowa’s senior Senator Chuck Grassley was giving updates on the University of Northern Iowa’s women’s basketball game on December 10. So far, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan has not called for any Congressional investigation of the reports. Only four Republican senators have taken up the call for a bipartisan investigation of Russian interference: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona, James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Rand Paul of Kentucky. UPDATE: Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, set to chair the Foreign Relations Committee, also plans to hold hearings on the matter.

Trump’s doesn’t believe the CIA’s conclusions: “I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse.” Nor does he put much stock in other information from intelligence agencies. Speaking to Chris Wallace of Fox News,

He also indicated that as president, he would not take the daily intelligence briefing that President Obama and his predecessors have received. Mr. Trump, who has received the briefing sparingly as president-elect, said that it was often repetitive and that he would take it “when I need it.” He said his vice president, Mike Pence, would receive the daily briefing.

“You know, I’m, like, a smart person,” he said. “I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.”

He added that he had instructed the officials who give the briefing: “‘If something should change from this point, immediately call me. I’m available on a one-minute’s notice.’”

Mr. Trump’s seeming dismissal of the importance of that daily interaction with intelligence agencies, as well as his claims of politically tainted intelligence reports on Russia, widened a remarkable breach between a president-elect and the agencies he will have to rely on to carry out priorities like fighting terrorism and deterring cyberattacks.

Senator Joni Ernst told us at this summer’s Republican National Convention that Trump would make the world safer. Does she have an opinion about the president-elect planning to skip most intelligence briefings? How about the self-styled watchdog Grassley?

Within the intelligence community, some fear a “purge” after Trump’s inauguration, Spencer Ackerman reported for The Guardian today:

It is not possible to gauge precisely how deep fears of retaliation run within the intelligence world. Two currently serving intelligence officers told the Guardian this weekend they had not heard their colleagues express such concerns.

One noted that civil-service laws prevented Trump from launching a purge, but also called attention to a report that Trump is combing through the energy department bureaucracy to identify people “who have attended climate change policy conferences”.

Former intelligence officers told the Guardian they considered retaliation by Trump to be all but a certainty after he is sworn into office next month. Trump still has several appointments to make at the highest levels of the intelligence apparatus, picks which are likely to be bellwethers for the new president’s attitudes toward the agencies.

“There is not just smoke here. There is a blazing 10-alarm fire, the sirens are wailing, the Russians provided the lighter fluid, and Trump is standing half-burnt and holding a match,” said Glenn Carle, a retired CIA officer and interrogator.

If you don’t find it “concerning” enough that Trump “dismissed out of hand” U.S. intelligence findings, try this on for size: over the weekend, Trump’s transition team leaked news that the next secretary of state will be ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Here’s Tillerson toasting with the Russian president after sealing a huge oil deal. Putin later awarded him Russia’s highest civilian honor.

Tillerson has zero government or foreign policy experience, which would be unprecedented for a secretary of state. NBC News, which was first to report on the Tillerson appointment, added that he “will also be paired with former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton as his deputy secretary of state, one of the sources added, with Bolton handling day-to-day management of the department.” Trump hasn’t confirmed the choice yet, but according to NBC, Tillerson “has already notified his corporate board about taking on the new role.”

Steve Coll, author of a 2012 book on ExxonMobil, wrote in the New Yorker,

Tillerson’s success within Exxon was attributable in part to the work he has done in Russia. He has forged close relations with both President Vladimir Putin and Igor Sechin, the close Putin ally who runs Rosneft, one of Russia’s oil-and-gas giants. In 2011, Tillerson flew to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to sign a joint-venture agreement with Putin under which ExxonMobil would partner with Rosneft to produce oil from the Arctic, a project made easier by the retreat of Arctic sea ice, due to global warming. Economic sanctions imposed on Russia because of its annexation of Crimea and its military interference in Ukraine have slowed this collaboration. If Tillerson is confirmed, he would be in a position to benefit the corporation where he spent his career, by, for example, advocating for the easing of Russian sanctions. In general, Tillerson and ExxonMobil have argued against economic sanctions as an instrument of American foreign policy.

What could go wrong?

Sarah Kendzior, a specialist on authoritarian regimes in Central Asia, recently gave an interview about “Trump, authoritarianism and kleptocracy.” Although she answered the questions before news broke about the Tillerson appointment, her comments are relevant. I also recommend her advice last month on “how to be your own light in the Age of Trump,” especially this:

Write a list of things you would never do. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will do them.

Write a list of things you would never believe. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will either believe them or be forced to say you believe them.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

A forthcoming post will discuss Trump’s cabinet full of horrors in more detail, but I challenge anyone to think of a worse person to run the Environmental Protection Agency than Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. He has sued the agency repeatedly and formed a “secretive alliance” with energy firms, Eric Lipton reported for the New York Times in 2014. (That article was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning body of work by Lipton.) This week’s New York Times profile of Pruitt by Coral Davenport and Lipton is also a must-read. Writing at Grist, David Konisky explained “How Trump’s EPA could undermine environmental justice.” The Sierra Club commented that naming Pruitt to run the EPA “is like putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires.”

UPDATE: Have mentioned before but forgot to add here that Trump’s chief security adviser, Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has close links to Putin’s regime as well. In a normal world, Tillerson and Flynn probably wouldn’t even receive security clearances, let alone some of the most important administration jobs. But as we’ve seen every day for a long time, Trump’s behavior is not normal.

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