This week, the CIA delivered its findings after President Obama requested a review of foreign hacking in the 2016 election: Russia intervened to help Donald Trump, its preferred candidate, win the presidency. The New York Times has called the findings “one of the most consequential analyses by American spy agencies in years” while President-elect Trump has attacked the CIA, calling the agency’s claims “ridiculous.” On the latest Keepin’ It 1600, Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett brought on former CIA operations officer and independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin to discuss Russia, the role of intelligence agencies, and the Trump transition in general.
Check out the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
How the Kremlin Uses TV and the Internet to Try to Influence Americans
Evan McMullin: The first thing I’ll say is that we shouldn’t need the intelligence community to tell us that Russia tried to influence the election. There’s plenty of open information and overt activities that the Russians took in order to accomplish that.
I mean, you start with the Russian cable channel, [RT America], in the United States. For a year, RT America has been promoting Donald Trump and sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of Americans about our democratic institutions. This is something that we discussed on the Hill before I launched my campaign with Republican leaders. This isn’t a surprise. It’s not something that we weren’t aware of. I mean, this is a known thing and a known problem that Republican leaders were worried about. … It’s the Russian-government-backed trolls that, you know, poorly pretend to be Americans supporting Trump online and are willing to attack anybody who doesn’t agree with them. All of that adds up.
One of the things I learned on the campaign is just how vulnerable people are to fake news or misinformation, and that’s what [Russia’s] operation was all about. These trolls [were] spreading information that wasn’t true, pretending to be things they weren’t. That has an impact.
Russia Knew It Would Be Caught but Didn’t Care
E.M.: As far as the hacks are concerned, that wasn’t exactly covert, either. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin knew that he was going to take that information and give it to WikiLeaks, and then it would be widely known. [He knew] that [the United States] would do an assessment, that we would figure out how the hack took place and who was responsible for it and we’d be able to figure out that it was Russia. [The hack] was covert at the time but not meant to remain covert long term. Of course Putin understood that whether he was exposed for having done this or not, it would still likely have a negative impact on Trump’s political competitors.
So again, we don’t need the intelligence agencies to [tell us all of this]. I mean, yes, we need them to tell us that, yes, the hack took place [and] the Russians did it, but a lot of this we already know. Putin spoke favorably about Donald Trump and unfavorably about Hillary Clinton. Some of Putin’s allies threatened that there would be war if Hillary Clinton were elected. This is clear interference. Their motives are clear. Their actions were often overt. The really troubling thing is that it’s just amazing to me in the worst possible way that we have a president-elect [in] Trump who is planning to align our country with the very government that is undermining our democracy. How is it possible that we have a president-elect who is going to align our country with another country that is actively trying to undermine our democracy? It’s just not something we should tolerate, and I fear that we are.
On Trump’s Authoritarian Tendencies
E.M.: It’s troubling that Donald Trump is attacking the Central Intelligence Agency again while he tries to align our country with Vladimir Putin, who is one of our greatest adversaries and a source of tremendous instability in the world. [But] it doesn’t surprise me. I view Donald Trump as a threat to our republic and I believe that he is looking out for himself before he looks out for the country. I believe that he has authoritarian tendencies — [though] I stop there because he hasn’t actually taken office [yet]. I’m going to wait for him to actually be an authoritarian before I call him an authoritarian, but I do believe that he’s demonstrated those tendencies.
His posture vis-à-vis the CIA is the CIA raises concerns about Russia and its activities in the United States, [and it] doesn’t surprise me one bit. It’s exactly what I would expect. So really, the game in my view is making sure Americans are ready to watch this administration very closely and stand up for liberty and equality in our nation. [And] also making sure our representatives in Congress on both sides of the aisle are willing to stand up to Donald Trump — and I haven’t seen a whole lot of that yet. I hope I see more. There are pockets of it here and there.
An Optimistic Outlook on Mike Pompeo’s CIA Appointment
E.M.: I like [Representative Pompeo]. I’m not going to endorse everything he’s ever said — I wouldn’t be able to do that for any human being probably — but I have met him. I do know that he is very, very smart. He’s very strong-willed, which I think is good. He was not on the Trump bandwagon through the campaign. He may have appeared with Trump in places, which is something I never would have done, but I believe that he understood the problems with Trump, at least on some level. He at least wasn’t one of these guys who jumped on the bandwagon and was advocating for Trump publicly. So I’m hopeful that Pompeo will bring good leadership to the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a smart guy. He was on the [Intelligence] Committee. I’ve personally seen him go and try to find new information on his own instead of just trusting what anybody gives him. He actively searches for new information and welcomes it and wants to learn. I think these are important characteristics for someone who is going to lead the agency. I’m more worried about [Stephen] Bannon, [General Michael] Flynn, [Senator Jeff] Sessions — guys like that.
The Significance of Trump Skipping the Daily Presidential Briefing
Tommy Vietor: Trump is sort of saying he’s not going to take the president’s daily brief, the intelligence briefing every day. Flynn’s going to get it and the VP’s going to get it. … I’m wondering, what do you think the impact of skipping the PDB is? What do you think about [the briefing] getting laundering through a national security adviser that’s as political as Flynn?
E.M.: Flynn is not the right guy to be the messenger of sensitive information for a number of reasons. First is his judgment. Second of all [is] his relationship with Russia. He’s been on the payroll of the Kremlin as an RT America commentator. He has promoted bigoted ideas and conspiracy theories. It’s highly, highly troubling. On one hand, it makes you wonder, “OK, how engaged does Donald Trump intend to be at all, on anything, if he’s going to skip the intelligence briefings?” But sadly, I think he will be quite engaged, because he is a man who enjoys power and enjoys using it. But he prefers to do that without the wealth of information that the Central Intelligence Agency and the intel community in general provide.
It’s just incredibly foolish, and you have to wonder, “What kind of information is he going to be using to make this nation’s most important decisions?” I would like him to answer that. What information is he going to base his decision-making on? Is he going to base his information on that which he receives from his friends in Moscow? Or from Steve Bannon? I mean, where is it going to come from?