While the investigation still unravels into possible connections between the United States and Russia in the 2016 presidential election, I want to describe a series of events which may be unknown to many.
After a grueling presidential campaign, the President-elect names his incoming National Security Advisor. Some of the activities of the President-elect and his chosen National Security Advisor (NSA) require closer study. The incoming NSA was trusted by the President-elect. He saw the NSA as tough and had proven to be direct and forceful on security related discussions over the years. This created a tight relationship. The NSA-designee was a retired Lieutenant General with a long background in the intelligence community but who was no longer in the government. He was outside the current administration looking in and did not agree with all of the policies of the outgoing administration.
But let’s back up a bit to before the election.
The future president had tried to find moments to connect with and assess the powerful Russian leader. Funerals, dinners, and even embassy visits gave him time to get acquainted. They discussed the upcoming election and the future U.S. president came away with an impression that the Russians would be quite happy if he won the contest to become the commander-in-chief. The future president even explained to the Russian leader that he should ignore all the “empty rhetoric” that the Russians would hear during the campaign. He warned the Russians to look at actions and deeds and not words. The presidential candidate ensured the Russians knew that, if elected, the new president was very willing to rethink the future of U.S.-Russian relations.
The Russian leader told the future president that he understood that he wanted to improve U.S. relations with his nation. The Russian leader said he thought the prospects for better relations were good, and that it seemed like they could work together on many issues. He urged the future U.S. president to think about all the possibilities.
While still a year away from the election, the future U.S. president decided he wouldn’t talk particulars, but promised some generalities. He described the new administration team he was forming, and then went a step further and described his new national security priorities, if elected. Then the future president broke his “no particulars” pledge and suggested they might come to an accommodation if the Russians would stop pushing so much aid to the U.S. enemy in a very important U.S. military effort.
Before this meeting ended the Russian leader informed the future president that he would like to set up a back-channel to continue their talks during the election campaign. A Russian ambassador was named as the trusted Russian agent for any “special messages” the future U.S. President would like to send to Russia. He was strongly signaling the candidate that he wanted to maintain close relations with him.
The future U.S. president was already learning a lesson from his foreign contacts during the campaign. He was realizing that many foreign leaders felt like they were being lectured to by an arrogant professor, who believed he was perfect. He vowed that he would avoid being a “pedantic lecturer” if elected president.
Also during the campaign, the future president would send his son to Eurasia on a high profile visit to show the Russians that he genuinely cared. It worked.
For the future president this was all about trust building. He felt that he could make some bold U.S. policy changes if elected. He trusted the Russian leader more than any previous president had. The future president was less suspicious of the Russian leader because he believed the Russian was a proud man with solid convictions. He didn’t think the Russians would instantly test his new administration. Truth be told, after their interactions, the future president realized he liked the Russian leader.
They had learned how to just sit down and talk. Candor replaced suspicion between them. At the same time, he realized his best strength as future president would be to take very complicated issues and explain them to America in a very simple way.
During the campaign, the future NSA felt that Russia was being handled poorly in some ways by the current administration. He felt the Russians were aiming to restore economic and political dynamism and they needed to be ready to deal with the changes.
The future president felt a calling to run for office. He felt it was a way he could serve his nation, although at his age there were many other things he would rather do. One of his goals as president would be to make the world safer, a world where there were no endless wars or fears about nuclear weapons. He knew one obstacle would be the cynicism that Americans, and especially the press, had about public servants. So many thought they were just selfish liars; he wanted to change that notion. His view was that the cynicism of the press had led them to chase down every rumor, despite the known facts.
The future president made clear to his advisors that he planned on being a hands-on leader. He explained that he would be digging into the details of defense, trade, and foreign policies. At the same time, he didn’t want to micro-manage the executive branch and he planned to deliver authority to his very strong willed cabinet members. He quietly chose a seasoned national security leader, well in advance, to be his assistant for National Security Affairs, so he could hit the ground running on Inauguration Day.
After Election Day
The President-elect started publicly naming his team in the transition period between the election and Inauguration Day.
He announced that the foreign policy advisor who had worked for free, without thought of reward through the campaign, would be his NSA. He also made some controversial decisions about who would sit in the cabinet and make up the national security council. The incoming administration felt strongly that key intelligence leaders should be free of politics and should be treated as the Commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – an unbiased advisor who is not in the policy making world, where things get too political.
The President-elect encountered some difficulties with the confirmation process, as things were overly politicized. They became a moment for the congress to publicly hurt and humiliate patriotic Americans. This had a direct effect on the willingness of many qualified individuals to volunteer to serve in the White House.
In January, the President-elect and his NSA designee were at one of their daily meetings when a retired, seasoned U.S. diplomat and national security expert offered to become another back-channel to the Russians. The president elect was hesitant at first, as he didn’t want to send any messages through a third party that might contradict current U.S. policy.
The NSA was a very strong proponent of back-channels, and although the Russian ambassador already named was a better fit, he advised the president elect to use the U.S. person to send a message and see what develops. The President-elect crafted a letter about future U.S. relationship possibilities, and even added a personal thank you for how the Russians had taken care of his son on his previous personal trip.
In January, the President-elect, NSA designee and the future Secretary of State met with a Russian ambassador in the future Secretary of State’s home to discuss how the current (Russian ambassador) and the new backchannel man would operate.
A few days after the U.S. person backchannel returned from Moscow, he detailed his extensive meetings with senior Russian leaders.
The Russian leader was very happy that the President-elect had set up their confidential dialogue before Inauguration Day. The Russian leader took that effort as a sign of good faith, and felt that the U.S. would be serious about future dialogue.
The U.S. person detailed that he was told that the Russian leadership would not apply pressure on certain long-standing issues as long as fresh dialogue began by March. The Russians listed Germany and some Eastern European states as issues they both should watch. The Russian leader clearly said that both states should avoid threatening each other’s security.
The Russian leader directly dictated a message to the president elect. He said he looked forward to sharing ideas about how they could harmonize U.S. and Russian international policy issues as the President-elect had suggested. The Russian added that the use of a confidential channel at this early stage was greatly appreciated.
It is clear that this is the tip of the iceberg of what the President-elect and his designated national security advisor talked about through various back channels and direct meetings with the Russians – many before election day. But if you think I’m talking about the current administration, you’d be wrong. For more details about these pre-inaugural activities, read the book A World Transformed.