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OPINION | Gen. Hayden: How the Russians played the Trumps

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I don’t know Jared Kushner. I have never met him. In fact, until some recent television broadcasts, I don’t think I had ever heard his voice.

Intelligence officers who have briefed him have told me that he is intelligent, sincere, respectful and genuinely curious, although starting in many cases with a fairly lean background.

{mosads}Kushner’s lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, was deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton, and I have no doubt that she is working to serve the best interests of her client and the United States.


That said, Kushner and Gorelick have drawn some fire for how Kushner has handled the notorious SF 86, the “tell-me-everything-there-is-to-know-about-you” form required for a security clearance. No one who has filled out the SF 86 has found it to be an enriching experience; It’s invasive, tedious and time-consuming. At times, in fact, it is difficult to understand the connection to its described purposes.

That said, anyone who was not the president’s son-in-law would have hit real turbulence in the clearance system with the omissions and false starts in Kushner’s form. The White House has chalked that up to the chaos and the time demands of the transition. I’d probably add what looks like (over) reliance on staff, personal indifference to paperwork, and ignorance about federal practices.

To my eye, there is likely nothing criminal here (despite the personal signature on the form). There probably aren’t compelling grounds for even imputing moral guilt. But there is a lot to be said here about responsibility.

That same lens of responsibility also applies to the now infamous June meeting at Trump Tower which had Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and campaign director Paul Manafort on one side and two Russian lawyers, a translator and two representatives of the Agalarov family (the Russian fixers for the meeting) on the other.

Although Trump Jr. took the meeting on the promise of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton to be provided by the Russian government, all three Trump participants claim that the session was a “nothing burger” and that that should be the end of the story.

Even if that is true from the American side—and several investigations still must determine that for us–it almost certainly wasn’t a “nothing burger” from the Russian side.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a career CIA case officer, has rolled out a compelling view of what was going on here from the Russian perspective, a view confirmed by every case officer I have consulted.

For these intel veterans, the meeting constituted a Russian soft approach, using people who did not have SVR on their business cards, but whose historic connections to the Russian government were clear.  That made the meeting easier to accept from the American side, while allowing the Russians plausible deniability should they need that in the future.

And the Russians accomplished several things with the session.  First, they established the clear willingness of the Trump campaign to deal with the Russian government for dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Second, they learned that the Trump campaign would not report such approaches and meetings to the U.S. government (otherwise they would have detected increased counterintelligence activity from the FBI).  Third, since the two Russian negotiators had made a career of fighting for sanctions relief, I think the Russians would have fairly assessed that the Trumps were open to that linkage.

Finally, as recent history and press outrage suggest, the Trumps’ accepting the meeting created a potential point of leverage on the campaign and the later administration.  It was first down payment on a bit of Russian kompromat, as it were.

Kushner’s presence at the meeting may indeed have been the product of his just being swept up by his brother-in-law’s enthusiasm for the session.

But that same enthusiasm betrayed a lot about the campaign (and the subsequent Administration) writ large.  Trump Jr.’s email accepting the meeting showed no evidence of any framework of legality, morality or even appropriateness for considering such a session.  

It might help the campaign. “I love it.” Case closed.

Those with more political or security experience might have warned Team Trump about the Russians, but this was a campaign and a candidate with an almost preternatural confidence in themselves, disdain for experts or expertise, and contemptuous not just of their political opponents but of much of the government they would eventually inherit.

President Trump is a life-long Yankee fan.  In terms of dealing with the Russians, his political team clearly didn’t understand that they had never seen a major league curve ball. Mysteriously, they still seem to think they are destined for Cooperstown.

It is unlikely the Hall of Fame selection committee would agree.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Bill Clinton Donald Trump Donald Trump Donald Trump Jr. Hillary Clinton Jared Kushner Russia Russian collusion

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