Judging from the weekend’s ‘modern presidential’ tweets – always a decent metric of Donald Trump’s mood swings – the Special Counsel investigation into his Russian links is weighing heavily on our 45th president.
And no wonder. New reports indicate that Donald J. Trump may be in a lot hotter water than his MAGA legions want to believe. According to the New York Times, the FBI in the opening months of Trump’s administration opened a counterintelligence investigation into the new president to assess whether he is a pawn of the Kremlin, wittingly or otherwise.
Then the Washington Post reported that President Trump concealed the content of his one-on-one discussions with his Russian counterpart, even from senior administration officials and the US intelligence community. Whatever he and Vladimir Putin discussed is something President Trump doesn’t want known, even in classified channels of the government he heads. Calling this abnormal is being very charitable.
Airing of these troubling matters flummoxed the president, and during a softball interview with Fox News – whose nightly talkers fulfill a role in Trump’s Washington roughly analogous to KCNA’s in Pyongyang – Trump waffled a straight-up query, ‘Are you now or have you ever worked for Russia?’ The president replied in his customary word-salad fashion how ‘insulted’ he was by the Times’s report, never answering the up-or-down question.
This was a serious error which may have lasting impacts. The public is accustomed to Trump’s denials, even when they are laughable. There is no more serious question hanging over Trump’s family and his presidency than their rumored ties to the Kremlin. Punting on that implies there really is something they’re hiding.
Everyone in the nation’s capital is waiting for the report to be issued by Robert S. Mueller, III and his Special Counsel investigation, reportedly by the spring. Some version of that report will reach the public, eventually, no matter how mightily the Trump administration tries to prevent its release.
That said, the anti-Trump ‘Resistance’ ought to prepare itself for disappointment, since the unclassified version of the Mueller report they will someday see is destined to be lacking in detail. We already know that the Special Counsel inquiry possesses highly classified intelligence regarding Trump’s Moscow connections; the contents are reported to be devastating to the president and his retinue.
However, such top-secret-plus intelligence will never wind up in the unclassified version of Mueller’s report due to the need to protect classified sources and methods. Unless America’s spy agencies are willing to let the world see their best espionage capabilities – something they have never done, with good reason – the Trump case will be no exception.
These information gaps will give President Trump maneuver room to keep lying. We know that bald-faced dishonesty about one’s secret Kremlin’s ties, evidence be damned, is an effective strategy, at least among true-believing members of one’s political tribe. It’s worked before, and it was the Left which pioneered this seedy modus operandi.
Take the case of Alger Hiss, once a household name in America. Seven decades ago, Hiss was a darling of American liberalism, a high-flying New Dealer, a handsomely smug Harvard Law graduate turned top State Department official. A rising star in 1940s Washington, Hiss was an ideal stand-in for FDR-era progressivism.
Hence left-wingers jumped to his defense in 1948 when Hiss was publicly accused of spying for Moscow. The Cold War was just getting underway and Republicans were attempting to ferret Reds out of the US government. Everything the Left loved about Hiss the Right loathed, and the political ruckus surrounding his case bears considerable resemblance to Washington’s current drama over Kremlin espionage – just in reverse.
The accuser, Whitaker Chambers, a former member of the Communist Party, claimed Hiss was running an underground Soviet cell in Washington back in the mid-1930s. This secret cell was really a spy ring stealing US government secrets for Moscow while attempting to plant spies inside FDR’s administration, according to Chambers.
Although Chambers was not the only person to claim Hiss was a Soviet secret agent – there had been Washington whispers since the late 1930s – he was the first to go public, and he paid a steep price. Vilified by the Left (which in that age was happy to smear Chambers over his bisexuality), Chambers stuck to his story.
Although the Feds never made espionage charges stick against Hiss, who was adamant he was no spy, they convicted him for perjury in 1950. He served just shy of four years in prison and emerged a liberal martyr, an innocent man cynically framed by the Right for political purposes.
None could deny that the Hiss case was a godsend for Republicans, especially a US Representative from California on the make named Richard Nixon. The Hiss drama likewise provided fodder for Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his quixotic, boozy crusade to expose the secret Reds hiding behind the New Deal.
For many liberals, Hiss’s innocence was an unquestioned matter of faith. Hiss stuck to his story to the end, denying any involvement in espionage while attacking Nixon and Chambers at every opportunity. Hiss died in 1996 at the age of 92, and his mainstream media obituaries made more mention of his martyrdom by McCarthyism than of his alleged espionage for Moscow.
Hiss chose an ideal time to die, since 1996 was the year the National Security Agency began its public release of VENONA, an above-top-secret Cold War spy program that cracked thousands of Soviet intelligence messages. VENONA revealed the identities of hundreds of Soviet secret agents in the West. Message 1822, from March 1945, discussed a Kremlin spy codenamed ALES. After extensive analysis, the NSA concluded ALES was Alger Hiss.
Hiss’s guilt was known to the intelligence community back in 1950, but the VENONA secret was so closely held that hardly anybody in Washington was aware. Even after VENONA’s release, some Hiss superfans protested the martyr’s innocence. It was all a sinister plot to smear Hiss and/or the NSA didn’t understand the Russian language. Decades earlier, the Hiss drama became a politically tribal matter in which faith took precedence over facts, and so it remained for some.
I settled this messy issue once and for all in 2005 when I cajoled NSA into releasing the original Russian text of Message 1822 (it’s still the only VENONA message NSA has fully revealed to the public). There ended the ‘Is Hiss ALES?’ debate outside the left-wing flat-earth community.
Alger Hiss proved that if you can keep a straight face while lying about your secret work for the Kremlin, it just might work. Particularly if you convince like-minded Americans that your accusers are cynics seeking political gain, not truth. It helps if the US government for classification reasons can’t tell the public everything they know about your crimes. If the Trump White House is seeking to dodge the consequences of secret misdeeds, Alger Hiss offers an ideal template.