Two metaphors for politics are that politics is like a sports competition and that politics is like war. Neither of these metaphors get to the core of things. Yes, politics is like a game in that there are winners and losers and that skill is combined with team cooperation and luck in some uncertain proportion so as to make for a win, but the reward for athletic achievement, aside from the hugh salaries for those who are the very best, is the medal or the certificate, a bit of prestige that lasts a lifetime, while there are more significant impacts for politics, which can lead to programs where people starve or are made well or wars that lead to cataclysmic disaster. Nor is politics like a war. The means to the end in politics are more restrained than they are in warfare and in politics it is not always clear who won and who lost in that people can reinterpret their programs to be, when legislated, what they wanted (or didn’t want) in the first place. Romneycare became Obamacare and that was reason enough for Romney to denounce it. That is what happens in politics. But these two metaphors are the best we can do and so let us consider what we might call the first skirmish of the Trump Administration as being over Russian hacking, understanding a skirmish as a miniature battle used to probe the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy while one moves one’s own forces into a more advantageous position for a major encounter of forces.
No one would have predicted that Trump would pick his first fight with the Washington Establishment, meaning the powers that be in both the Democratic and Republican Parties, over the intelligence community, which is held sacred by everyone however much it has time and again in the past compromised itself--over weapons of mass destruction, over torture. But Donald Trump, as I repeat myself, is not someone who operates as a strategist, thinking about how a move will benefit him two or three steps in the future, but out of whatever rhetorical trope possesses his mind for an instant or two, and the idea that the intelligence people are trying to cloud his victory seems to have taken hold, though the persistence of that pseudo-thought suggests that there is something going on between him and Russia of which the public is not yet aware.
The first thing to realize is that Trump’s response to the Klapper briefing on Friday concerning the Russian hack of the DNC could have gone any number of ways. He could have said that he always loved the CIA, even if that was obviously false, and that would have mended fences at least for a while so Trump could get on with more important business, including having his own people replace within the month the people he didn’t like. Or he could continue to belittle them, which is what he did with all his campaign opponents and has already done with Chuck Schumer, the minority leader in the Senate. That usually gets him his way, though I wonder why Schumer doesn’t go into high dudgeon mode and insist on an apology from Trump before he will have any more dealings with him, given that conversing with Trump doesn’t seem to get you anywhere if you are at all opposed to his ideas. When will Senators demand the respect that is traditionally awarded to all major political figures as a matter of course and is part of the fabric of our democracy until now, the two parties styling themselves as adversaries rather than as enemies? That would reveal just how radical Trump is to some of those for whom it is not all that clear.
A third possibility is that Trump could have said that he appreciated the briefing but was still skeptical for good reasons he could not go into. Balderdash but a good way to end an episode that had served its purpose of parading Trumpian cynicism about anyone who claimed to know something Trump did not already know. It would be like Trump saying he was no longer disputing that Obama had not been born in Hawaii without going into why he had thought so in the first place. That too had served its purpose as had, in its time, the claim that he would lock up Hillary. Always pick a fight on a new front when the old one no longer serves your interests.
That is what, in substance, Trump did. He admitted to a concern about cyber-attacks and said he would assign people to prepare a report on it for him. He finessed the issue of Russian malevolence against the United States even though he might have said that, given past United States initiatives, Russian antagonism was understandable, grounds for saying so supplied by the intelligence briefing allusion to Russian resentment about American questioning of Russia’s own elections. But he did not want to side with the Russians all that openly. So we will have to wait and see when the next confrontation between Trump and the American constitutional system takes place and use that to evaluate whether the constitutional system can cope with such a rogue President.