President Donald Trump is a consistent creature in a lot of respects, especially when it comes to helping Russia and hurting the US. For years, Trump has engaged in behavior that makes Russian President Vladimir Putin's job of sowing discord, spreading disinformation and undermining our democracy a lot easier -- especially when Trump thinks it might benefit him. Trump has also signaled that he's open to receiving dirt on a political rival from a foreign country. What's more, no other President has a friends-and-family list so littered with people with connections to Russia.
Trump associates "presented attractive targets for foreign influence, creating notable counterintelligence vulnerabilities," according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report released in August. But Trump has refused to change his own behavior -- let alone tell his team to clean up their counterintelligence posture. That's why new reports that US intelligence agencies warned the White House last year that Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was being targeted by Russian intelligence come as no surprise.
US intelligence officials-- according to four former officials, cited by the Washington Post as familiar with the matter-- were concerned that Giuliani, who was interacting with people linked to Russian intelligence, would act as a foot soldier in Moscow's information warfare against the US and feed misinformation back to Trump. Despite these direct warnings, however, Trump didn't tell Giuliani to cease and desist. Instead, Trump simply shrugged and kept him close. Every American should remember what this means: Trump has given Russia a free pass to attack our democracy.
Trump should know full well what Russia is up to. For four years, the President has been briefed on malign Russian activities. He has access to detailed, classified information, and the FBI alerted Trump to foreign intelligence threats back in 2016, when he was still a candidate. His own administration has publicly imposed sanctions against Russian entities and individuals for their election interference. The Special Counsel report also detailed ways Russia targeted Trump campaign officials as part of a wider influence campaign, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report did the same in even greater detail.
Last year, news reports indicated that Rudy Giuliani was the subject of an FBI counterintelligence probe, which reportedly looked into whether foreign governments were trying to take advantage of his business ties in Ukraine and with wealthy foreigners. While we don't know the status of this investigation, we do know one thing: If the FBI was investigating Giuliani as a potential counterintelligence risk, he should not have gone anywhere near the President or the White House. Any patriotic President would want to steer clear of an individual who could be doing double duty for a foreign government, including Russia. We also learned just this week that the FBI is now investigating whether unverified emails, which the New York Post said were provided to the paper by Giuliani, about Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden are linked to a foreign intelligence operation.
To make matters worse, Rudy Giuliani has had close ties to Andrii Derkach, a Russian intelligence agent, and acted as a megaphone for Derkach's anti-Biden campaign late last year. In a statement announcing new sanctions against Derkach in September, the Treasury Department said he waged a "covert influence campaign" centered on "cultivating false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning US officials in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election." Well before this public announcement was made, President Trump would have been privately briefed on Derkach's real activities. And yet, Trump didn't back away from Giuliani -- or Derkach. In fact, Trump even retweeted material in August that Derkach released, amplifying alleged audio recordings of Biden which the US government labeled as Russian propaganda.
There is no chance that Trump doesn't know what he is doing. While he likes to play the implausible ignorance card on issues like QAnon, it's impossible that Trump doesn't know that he's helped Russia by siccing Giuliani on Biden, retweeting Russian propaganda or spreading lies that Trump's own senior intelligence official says our foreign adversaries are taking advantage of.
The fact is, that's likely why so many Trump team members have been targeted by Russian intelligence: At this point it seems Trump and his inner circle are willing to help Russia as long as there is some perceived personal, financial or political gain on the table. Giuliani has been laundering Russian propaganda that's helpful to Trump, and Trump uses the presidential podium to push out Russian propaganda to service his political needs. (Giuliani told NPR, "I never tried to influence the election, and my work with [Derkach] was over months ago well before the election.")
The Russians likely know that the President doesn't mind being surrounded by counterintelligence risks (former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats thought Trump himself may be compromised and an active counterintelligence concern, according to Bob Woodward's book "Rage") as long as he gets what he thinks he needs to stay in power.
We are used to hearing the phrase "useful idiot" thrown around when discussing Soviet intelligence operations - it references westerners who were manipulated by the Soviets. Last month, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman called Trump Putin's useful idiot. And while I agree that Trump and Giuliani may be useful to Russia, they aren't idiots on this front -- no one is duping them. Trump and Giuliani clearly know the impact of their actions on our democracy. It seems they just don't care.