James Comey’s having himself a year, isn’t he?
Of note: There are no FBI sources on this story, at least as of 3 p.m. ET. It’s John Brennan, the head of the CIA, who’s claiming that Comey now agrees with the agency’s conclusion that Russia wasn’t just trying to create chaos with its DNC and Podesta hacking, it was actively trying to help Trump win. If you think this clusterfark can’t get worse, imagine if Comey now turns around and says that Brennan misunderstood and that he doesn’t agree with that assessment. (Given the way 2016 has gone, that’s probably the only way this can end.) Then again, what are the odds that Brennan would put out a memo like this if he hadn’t made sure first that he and Comey were on the same page?
If you’re keeping score on Comey, he’s gone from (1) villain of the right and hero of the left when he initially refused to recommend charges against Hillary in July to (2) villain of the left and hero of the right when he re-opened the email case in late October to (3) villain of the right and hero of the left when he closed the case again a few days later to (4) villain of the left and hero of the right when Hillary lost and many commentators (including Hillary herself) concluded that Comey’s eleventh-hour intervention was to blame to (5) villain of the right and hero of the left today, in (supposedly) backing up the CIA’s conclusion that Putin was trying to help Trump get elected.
Comey’s support for the CIA’s conclusion — and officials say that he never changed his position — suggests that the leaders of the three agencies are in agreement on Russian intentions, contrary to suggestions by some lawmakers that the FBI disagreed with the CIA.
“Earlier this week, I met separately with (Director) FBI James Comey and DNI Jim Clapper, and there is strong consensus among us on the scope, nature, and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election,” CIA Director John Brennan said in a message to the agency’s workforce, according to U.S. officials who have seen the message…
CIA and FBI officials do not think Russia had a “single purpose” by intervening during the presidential campaign. In addition to helping Trump, intelligence officials have told lawmakers that Moscow’s other goal included undermining confidence in the U.S. electoral system.
Question one: What changed — or did anything change? A source told WaPo today that the FBI and CIA assessments were never all that different to begin with. Ummmmm, okay, but this WaPo story from last week made sure did make them sound different. The CIA was clear in accusing Russia of wanting Trump to win whereas the FBI was “fuzzy” and “ambiguous,” a degree of uncertainty that “frustrated” Democratic members of Congress who were briefed. Some commentators in the last few days have chalked that up to a difference in agency culture. The CIA operates on educated guesses about motives whereas the FBI, which is used to gathering hard evidence for use at trial, is more cautious. It could be, though, that whatever mysterious intelligence has emerged to make U.S. intel suddenly confident that Putin himself had direct input in the hacking operations has also made them more confident about motives. Maybe that convinced the FBI that helping Trump was part of this.
Question two: Why are we all so hung up on motive again? What would change materially if it could be proved that Russia was “only” trying to create chaos rather than to help Trump win? No one’s accused Trump of coordinating with Russia on the hacking and no one’s showed with any evidence that the outcome of the election would have been different but for the hacking. Regardless of why Russia did it, the fact that remains that a U.S. enemy tried to interfere in a presidential campaign for its own reasons and broke the law to do it. It’s reasonable to assume that Putin preferred to see Trump win — Trump is far more likely to lift sanctions on Russia and pull back from NATO than Clinton was — but it doesn’t much matter. If Democrats were smart, they’d skip the question of motive and focus exclusively on the fact of the interference itself. What are we going to do about Vladimir Putin playing hacking games in the middle of our election and why does the president-elect seem so unbothered, to the point of outright denial, that Russia would undertake an operation like that? Should China try to make nice with Trump by serially hacking congressional Democrats and airing all of their dirty laundry? Trump’s basic duty as president is to defend American sovereignty even his political enemies are the ones bearing the brunt of an infringement on it.
For what it’s worth, a “senior intelligence official” confirmed WaPo’s new report about the FBI this afternoon to NBC. Here’s Kellyanne Conway from earlier today arguing that if Obama and Hillary Clinton truly love the country and believe in a peaceful transition of power, they should “shut down” the criticism of Trump by Josh Earnest and other Democrats over Russia. What does that mean? Americans, including the CIA, should cover for the country’s enemies because the truth is politically inconvenient for the new president? He’s not the king. If Putin’s hackers broke U.S. law, the public has a right to know. And if them knowing is so painful to Trump, maybe he should take that as a sign that his Russia policy is a little too friendly.