Why former top spy James Clapper thinks Russia swung the election for Trump

James Clapper served as the director of national intelligence from 2010 to 2017, and before that worked as a career intelligence officer under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

So when Clapper writes a memoir alleging that the current president of the United States is “distorting and twisting” the truth and using his power to financially benefit himself and his family, that ought to sound alarm bells.

And when he suggests that Russia very likely changed the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, we should probably listen.

Clapper doesn’t claim that the Trump campaign and Russia colluded, but he acknowledges that there were “striking parallels” in terms of their actions and messaging. He also admits that Trump was “indifferent” to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions and “inexplicably trusted the denials of Putin … over the considered judgments by his own intelligence community.”

It’s not much of a leap to infer collusion from these observations, but Clapper resists that temptation in his book. So I reached out to him on Tuesday to see what he thinks now in light of everything we’ve learned since.

I wanted to know if he believes there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, why he thinks Russia succeeded in swinging the election to Trump, and if he regrets not doing more to warn the country about Russia’s meddling before the 2016 election.

Clapper still thinks we lack a “smoking gun” in the collusion investigation, but he does believe that President Trump is waging a disinformation campaign against the country.

“There is a deliberate intent here to undermine the veracity and the legitimacy of the special counsel’s investigation,” he told me. “The goal is to sow enough doubt so that people are reluctant to make a call one way or the other.”

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

I’ll ask you straightforwardly: Did the Russians swing the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s favor?

James Clapper

Yes, and I say so in the book. But let me make a couple of points to clarify. First, when we published our official intelligence community assessment of Russia’s interference in our election in January 2017, we didn’t make any definitive calls about whether or not the outcome of the election was impacted. And we didn’t make any calls of this sort in our classified briefing for President-elect Trump either. We, the intelligence community, didn’t have the charter or authority to do that.

But now I’m speaking as a private citizen, having left government service and knowing what I know about what the Russians did, how massive the operation was, how diverse it was, and how many millions of American voters it touched. When you consider that the election turned on 80,000 votes or less in three key states, it stretches credulity to conclude that Russian activity didn’t swing voter decisions, and therefore swing the election.

Sean Illing

You’re reluctant to say that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, but, as you put it in the book, “the dashboard warning lights were all lit.” And the evidence has only mounted since. Speaking as a private citizen, do you believe there was collusion?

James Clapper

Well, I certainly wondered about it when I saw the frequency of meetings between people in the Trump campaign and people with ties to the Russian government. And we’ve learned a lot about these and other connections since we published that intelligence community report in January 2017. But I saw no smoking-gun evidence of collusion before I left the government, and I still haven’t. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence and reasons to be suspicious, but no smoking gun as of yet.

My hope is that special counsel Robert Mueller and his team will resolve this one way or the other. The country badly needs a resolution on this issue because it hangs over us like a cloud right now. I’m certainly not saying there was no collusion; I just haven’t seen any direct evidence of it yet.

Although I will say that there were striking parallels between what the Trump campaign was saying and doing and what the Russians were saying and doing in the runup to the election. It’s almost as though there was an echo chamber, particularly with respect to anything about Hillary Clinton.

Sean Illing

I understand the need to be measured here, but it’s still not clear to me what would constitute “direct evidence.” We’ve got the president’s son, son-in-law, and chief adviser meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer in Trump Tower to discuss dirt the Russian government has on Hillary Clinton, and that’s just one data point. So, to borrow your words, it stretches credulity to conclude that collusion didn’t take place.

James Clapper

That’s fair, and again, I’m not saying collusion didn’t happen. I’m simply saying we don’t have definitive evidence yet. I’m trying to be a fact-based guy because we don’t know for sure. I just hope this issue is put to bed by Mueller.

Sean Illing

Do you believe the president of the United States is willfully lying to the American people about Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election?

James Clapper

I’m reluctant to make a bold assertion like that. He does have a rather distant relationship with the truth. I mean, everybody understands that.

Sean Illing

A “distant relationship with the truth” sounds a lot like lying. Let me clarify a bit: I’m asking because in the book, you describe sitting through briefings in which the president was told what was happening, what the Russians were doing, and then he’d go out the same day and tweet things that flatly contradicted what he was just told. If that’s not lying, what is it?

James Clapper

What we appear to have with this president is someone who lives in his own reality bubble, who simply believes whatever he wants to believe. And sadly, this is a characteristic that is becoming quite pervasive in this country. And this is exactly what the Russians sought to exploit. They tried to polarize us by amplifying the schisms that already exist. And they’ll continue to do this moving forward.

Sean Illing

What does it mean to have a president declare the intelligence community an enemy?

James Clapper

It’s obviously not good for the country. What I’ve found so disturbing is the president’s assaults on our institutions and values. It started before his inauguration when he characterized the intelligence community as Nazis. That was outrageous, and I called him immediately after because I felt I had to defend the men and women in the intelligence community.

So obviously, the relationship was flawed right from the start. Now, however, it seems that the Department of Justice and the FBI are in the crosshairs more than the intelligence community.

Sean Illing

Has the president made us less safe in your opinion?

James Clapper

Yes, because he has created doubt in the lives of many Americans. I think he’s very effective at this sort of thing. He creates doubt so that people question the veracity of what the intelligence community — and the press, for that matter — says. This is why he’s now disparaging Mueller and the FBI, hoping it will discredit them so that people will ignore their findings.

Sean Illing

In the book, you say that the point of a disinformation campaign is not to get people to believe untruth things; it’s to get them to doubt whether facts and truths are knowable at all. Is President Trump currently waging a disinformation campaign against the country?

James Clapper

Yes, and I think it’s pretty deliberate. Rudy Giuliani basically said as much on CNN this Sunday. There is a deliberate intent here to undermine the veracity and the legitimacy of the special counsel’s investigation. The goal is to sow enough doubt so that people are reluctant to make a call one way or the other. This is what they’re doing, and they appear to be succeeding.

Sean Illing

In the book, you recall a moment in which intelligence officials went to [House] Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell before the election and asked them to sign a statement condemning foreign interference in our election. You write: “They didn’t care who their nominee was, how he got elected, or what effects having a foreign power influence our election would have on the nation.” How did they justify that decision to you?

James Clapper

It was about the almighty agenda. There was an anti-Obama agenda that they supported above all else, and they weren’t going to jeopardize that. We tried to come up with a bipartisan statement against the Russians, and the Republicans wanted no part of it.

I recall intelligence officials going to Congress at one point to brief them on what the Russians were doing, and we were warned to not allow ourselves to be used as pawns by the Obama administration. We were doing our jobs, which is bringing truth to power, but when power chooses to ignore the truth, we’re in a very dangerous place.

Sean Illing

That’s fairly shocking: You have the party in power ignoring, for the sake of political expedience, evidence that a hostile foreign state meddled in our election.

James Clapper

It is shocking. The whole episode was shocking. I’ve spent more than 50 years in the intelligence world, and I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff, but nothing affected me as much as our apathetic reaction to Russia’s interference in our presidential election. It’s very disturbing to me, and it’s why I thought I had to do what I can to educate the public.

Sean Illing

Are Republicans like Ryan and McConnell betraying their obligations to the country?

James Clapper

I’m sure they don’t feel that way.

Sean Illing

How do you feel about it?

James Clapper

I’m obviously troubled by the fact that they’ve allowed the president to pervert what I understood to be traditional Republican values and standards. They’ve allowed this to happen, and that worries me.

Sean Illing

Do you think the Obama administration and the intelligence community failed to adequately warn the American people about Russia’s attempts to influence our election?

James Clapper

I’ve thought a lot about this. You have to remember how charged the atmosphere was during the election. The administration did not want to appear as though they were trying to influence the election. At the time, you had candidate Trump out there making allegations about the election being rigged, and I think the administration made two calculations.

First, they didn’t want to dignify and amplify what the Russians were doing. And second, because of the charged political atmosphere, President Obama was reluctant to create the optic, or risk the optic, that he was putting his hand on the scale in favor of one candidate and to the disfavor of another.

As far as the intelligence community goes, we released our report and we put out a statement a month before the election which detailed what the Russians were doing. But unfortunately, it didn’t have much impact. Our statement came out the same day the Access Hollywood tapes about Trump were released, and that story totally eclipsed our message.

But I always believed that the things we were doing at the time, including imposing sanctions on the Russians in December 2016, would be phase one, and that more punishments would follow.

Sean Illing

Do you personally regret not doing more, even if doing more meant exceeding the bounds of your role as an intelligence professional?

James Clapper

I think the intelligence community did its duty. Our purpose is not to make policy; it’s to inform policymakers about what’s going on. I think we did that. Ultimately, it’s up to them to take action as they see fit.

Sean Illing

You’ve stated publicly that our institutions are under assault, including from the president. How concerned are you today about the future of American democracy?

James Clapper

I think that our institutions and values have been bruised and there’s some damage that’s been done. But overall I think we’ve been pretty resilient. We’ve endured traumas in the past and emerged the better because of them. I think we can recover from this, but it will take some time.

What we need is a sense of urgency. We have to alert people about what’s going on, and the president has to lead on this front. So far, he has been unwilling to do this, and in fact, he has avoided finding out what the Russians and Putin have tried to do. That’s very worrisome.

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