As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump declared, “I love WikiLeaks!” And he had good reason to display affection to this website run by accused rapist Julian Assange. By releasing reams of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, WikiLeaks helped tilt the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.
As president, Trump hasn’t come out and said anything laudatory about WikiLeaks following its massive disclosure of CIA secrets on Tuesday - a treasure trove that some experts already believe may be more damaging than Edward Snowden’s revelations. But Trump hasn’t condemned WikiLeaks. The recent entries on his Twitter feed - a pure reflection of his unbridled id - contain vicious attacks on, among other things, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the New York Times, and Barack Obama but not a word about WikiLeaks. Did the president not notice that the intelligence community he commands has just suffered a devastating breach of security? Or did he simply not feel compelled to comment?
Actually there is a third, even more discomfiting, possibility: Perhaps Trump is staying silent because he stands to benefit from WikiLeaks’ latest revelations.
On Saturday, recall, Trump was making wild-eyed accusations that Obama had ordered the U.S. intelligence community to wiretap him. “How low has President Obama gone to tapp (sic) my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” The White House could not come up with one iota of evidence to support this irresponsible allegation, which was denied by FBI Director James Comey and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. But Trump would not be dissuaded from pursuing this charge, which serves as a convenient distraction from the far more serious accusations of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin while Russia was interfering with the presidential campaign.
Is it just a coincidence that WikiLeaks dumped a massive database pertaining to CIA hacking and wiretapping just three days after Trump made wiretapping a major political issue? Perhaps so. But there is cause for suspicion.
In the first place, WikiLeaks has often timed its leaks for maximum political impact. It released 20,000 stolen DNC emails just three days before the Democratic National Convention on July 25, 2016. As expected, WikiLeaks generated headlines about DNC staffers disparaging Sen. Bernie Sanders, buttressing a Trump campaign effort to prevent Clinton from consolidating Sanders supporters. DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned as a result, and the Clinton campaign suffered significant public relations damage.
In the second place, WikiLeaks, which has often leaked American but never Russian secrets, has been identified by the U.S. intelligence community as a front for Russian intelligence. In January, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified estimate that found “with high confidence that Russian military intelligence . relayed material to WikiLeaks.” This was done with a definite purpose: “Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
Trump has consistently resisted the intelligence agency’s conclusions, insisting that some 400-pound coach potato might have committed the hacking before grudgingly accepting the findings but continuing to claim that the Russian hack had no impact on the election. (Given that 70,000 votes in three states were his margin of victory, how does he know what affected the outcome and what didn’t? And if WikiLeaks was so inconsequential, why did he tout its revelations in almost every appearance during the last month of the campaign?)
The intelligence community’s finding that Putin helped him win the election spurred Trump to pursue a vendetta against it. For example, he accused the spooks - with no support - of being behind BuzzFeed’s publication of a damning dossier compiled by a former British intelligence officer claiming that the Kremlin had compiled compromising materials on him. Trump outrageously tweeted: “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” His animus against the intelligence agencies has continued down to his more recent accusations that they allowed themselves to be used by Obama to wiretap him. The consistent (if hardly believable) storyline from Trump is that he has no connections to Russia, and that he is a victim of the nefarious machinations of the American “deep state.”
It is significant, therefore, that one of the major storylines to emerge from the latest WikiLeaks release is that the CIA supposedly has a program to reuse computer codes from foreign hackers, thus disguising CIA fingerprints on a hacking operation. Never mind that there is no evidence that the codes used to break into the DNC were part of this CIA database. Right-wing outlets are nevertheless trumpeting these revelations with headlines such as this one on Breitbart: “WikiLeaks: CIA Uses ‘Stolen’ Malware to ‘Attribute’ Cyberattacks to Nations Like Russia.” Russian-controlled Internet “bots” are also said to be playing up these claims online.
The implication is clear. Trump was a victim of a “false flag” operation wherein CIA hackers broke into the DNC and blamed the Russians. This may be nutty, but it’s eminently believable to an audience conditioned to believe that 9/11 was an inside job and that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged - favorite tropes of the radio talk-show host Alex Jones, whose work Trump has praised. Other WikiLeaks revelations - for instance, that the CIA can use Samsung smart TVs as listening devices - lend further credence to Trump’s charge that he was secretly wiretapped.
Quite apart from its specifics, the WikiLeaks release changes the subject after a bad few days for Trump highlighted by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from any Kremlingate probe after he was revealed to have lied under oath when he denied meeting any Russian representatives. Last week it was Trump on the defensive. Now it’s his nemeses in the U.S. intelligence community who are answering embarrassing questions about how this leak could have occurred and the contents of the leaked information.
Again, maybe this is entirely coincidental, but WikiLeaks’ history of being used by Russian intelligence to support Trump should lead to much greater scrutiny not only of who leaked this information - is there a mole in the CIA? - but why it was released now. Even if there is no active collusion between the White House and the Kremlin, the extent to which their agendas coincide is striking. Both Putin and Trump want to discredit the U.S. intelligence community because they see it as an obstacle to their power.