Humor writer Andy Borowitz recently joked that Donald Trump had been named the Kremlin’s “employee of the month.” I giggled at that, and then winced. It’s painful even to joke about.
Some of the most explosive reports about America in the last few days appeared in Israeli newspapers. They suggested that U.S. intelligence officials had warned Israel to “be careful” about sharing classified information with the Trump White House, for fear that it would be given to Russia.
U.S. intelligence officials reportedly cautioned that Vladimir Putin might have “leverages of pressure” to extort Trump. That presumably was a reference to the hanky-panky recounted in the dossier alleging that Moscow compromised Trump by filming him cavorting with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel.
Perhaps more troubling are suggestions of collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.
Trump strongly denies all this, the dossier has zero public evidence behind it, and it should be treated with skepticism. But it reflects an unprecedented uncertainty: There is a disorienting kernel of doubt about whether we can fully trust the man who will occupy the Oval Office.
So is our new president a Russian poodle?
Here’s what we know. The dossier was gathered by a former British MI6 spy, Christopher Steele. A onetime British ambassador to Russia described Steele as a “very competent professional operator” who would not make things up.
Still, the dossier began as opposition research funded by people looking for dirt on Trump, and for weeks it has been in the hands of news organizations (including The Times), the FBI, politicians and others, and no one has been able to prove its allegations. Perhaps the closest: The BBC suggested that the “head of an East European intelligence agency” was aware of the material and that CIA officers investigating the issue provided details including that there was “more than one tape.”
Look, it’s poetic justice that Donald Trump, who for years falsely bellowed that President Barack Obama was born abroad, is now caught in similarly unsubstantiated rumors. So Democrats have a right to chortle. But they should remain skeptical.
This isn’t “fake news” of the kind fabricated by Macedonian websites, but it’s both plausible and completely unsubstantiated. Unlike Trump’s claims that Obama was foreign-born, even after the president produced his birth certificate, this hasn’t been disproved or discredited, and it was regarded as credible enough to brief the president and president-elect about. This occupies a murky middle ground: Maybe it’s true and maybe not.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has announced an investigation of Russian election meddling, and other Senate Republicans seem intent on pursuing the issue as well. That’s good: Democrats have little credibility investigating Trump, so it makes sense for Republicans to lead on this.
In the meantime, let’s put aside sexual blackmail and focus on what is undisputed: Trump praises Putin, criticizes NATO and downplays Russian war crimes and its attempts to steal our election.
In contrast, Trump compares the U.S. intelligence community to Nazis, suggesting it was behind the leaking of the dossier. It’s astonishing to see a president-elect in effect hug the Russians while giving his own team the finger, creating a chasm between the White House and the intelligence community.
“It’s extraordinarily serious,” said Jeffrey H. Smith, a former general counsel to the CIA. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” He said that the CIA was buoyed by the nomination of Mike Pompeo to lead it, but that morale and effectiveness would suffer if the rift with the Trump White House continued.
It’s also indisputable that Trump has appointed people soft on Russia. Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the new national security adviser, took money in 2015 from RT, the Russian propaganda front, and sat next to Putin at an RT dinner. Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state nominee, is one of the American executives friendliest to Putin.
For months, there have been indications of bizarre ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow, including the Russian government’s assertion in November that it maintained contacts with Trump’s “immediate entourage.” The FBI investigated Trump’s Russia ties over the summer and fall, and reportedly sought approval to monitor his aides suspected of improper contacts with Russian officials.
So what’s going on?
The most important question is simply why our president-elect has been so determined to side with Russia – undermining his own intelligence community as he does so. Perhaps it’s a genuine if naive attempt to “reset” relations. But, oops, new presidents have tried that before, and it fails each time.
The Trump view is so far from the foreign policy mainstream that inevitably there will be darker theories offered for the softness toward Russia. These involve financial ties with Moscow, since Trump refuses to release his tax statements, or the kind of sordid blackmail alleged in the dossier.
Such rumors may well be wrong and unfair – but they persist. They damage Trump, the intelligence community and the United States itself, and the best disinfectant will be transparency. That means congressional inquiries, led by Republicans, and a continued FBI investigation.
We can’t afford even the perception that our president is the Kremlin’s man in Washington.
Nicholas Kristof can be reached at Facebook.com/Kristof of Twitter.com/NickKristof.