Michael Hayden doesn’t know if Donald Trump colluded with the Russian attack on the 2016 election—but he’s sure the president helped the Kremlin, and is continuing to do so every day.
Hayden, a retired general who led the NSA and the CIA under President George W. Bush, is sure, too, of what he calls a “convergence” of interests between Trump and Russia. And he thinks it risks destroying America.
“There is an eerie and uncomfortable echo between some of the things the president tweets, the different points of emphasis on Fox News, the thematic stories in the alt-right media, and Russian bots,” Hayden told me in an interview for the latest episode of POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. “I don’t have to create collusion here: Each for their own purposes are well-served by creating deeper divisions within American society. The president, to play to his base; Fox News, for ratings; the alt-right, because they have a conspiratorial view of everything; and the Russians, to mess with our heads.”
Everyone—the president included—needs to face the fact that two years ago, the Russians decided that the most effective way to divide the U.S. was to back Trump’s presidential campaign, Hayden says.
“The overall objective of the Russian effort was to mess with our heads and erode confidence,” according to Hayden. “And they decided by mid-summer that the very best way they could mess with our heads was to make more people vote for Donald Trump, period.”
Hayden reads each of the indictments from Special Counsel Robert Mueller with the eyes of a person who’s run and chased many close-hold operations himself. His own assessment of how much of the iceberg we’ve seen so far: “I don’t know, but we keep uncovering more bits of ice.”
Hayden is “very concerned” that, as extensive as the 2016 operation was, it may have only been a probing attack from the Russians—testing for American weaknesses and seeing how much they could get away with. He believes what’s coming in the 2018 and 2020 elections could be worse—much, much worse.
And he’s not the only military leader worried about being at war without the commander-in-chief. Well before the fuller picture of Russian involvement started to emerge, retired Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, who served as ambassador to NATO in the waning years of Barack Obama’s presidency, was warning that 2016 was simply Phase One for the Kremlin.
The election meddling, Lute says, mirrors what he learned when he was coming up in the military about Russian and Soviet tactics—“a broad, front-probing attack until you find a point of weakness and then you amass your force and pour through that point of weakness.”
On top of the psychological element, Lute’s says no one’s paying enough attention to how little is known of what the Russians did in infiltrating state databases and machines, or how much they’ll be able to expand—whether that means directly changing vote counts or altering registrations to cause chaos and long lines.
Already in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s aides were convinced that the Russian operation was too sophisticated about U.S. politics and media to be operating without direct guidance from American operatives—the sort of action that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein deliberately ruled out (in that particular indictment, at least) in announcing Mueller’s charges against the 13 Russians and stressing that the Americans who aided the social media disruption campaign they waged were “unwitting.”
Hayden wonders just as much as anyone else whether the special counsel’s careful chess advance is leading to the indictments of some who were, in fact, witting. It’s been weeks, after all, since the president’s lawyers insisted that he’d testify soon, in what would have been a signal that Mueller was likely close to wrapping up his investigation. Hayden notes that his experience wasn’t in law enforcement, so he avoids legal conclusions. But morally and ethically, he said, it’s settled.
“I see a case for a campaign [that] does not ever seem to have said, ‘You know, that wouldn’t be right,’” Hayden says of Trump’s political organization. “A campaign who continually calls attention to WikiLeaks? That’s help.”
“The [Russian lawyer Natalia] Veselnitskaya meeting with the president’s son and son-in-law, which fundamentally was, ‘The Russian government has dirt on Hillary Clinton. Do you want it?’ And the answer was, ‘Sure.’ … Then you’ve got the synchronization of the campaign’s movements with WikiLeaks in that exchange of [Twitter direct messages] between Don Jr. and it appears to have been Julian Assange himself, at which point, they’re calling attention to themes and websites where the data can be harvested.”
A public presence while at the CIA, Hayden has taken comfortably to an even more public role in the time since. In addition to his work at the Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy and International Security at George Mason University, he’s a CNN contributor, works with former Bush Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at the Chertoff Group a few blocks from the White House, and is familiar enough with Twitter that he tweeted out a shot of himself in a Steelers cap off the coast of Antarctica two weeks ago, while appearing as a speaker on a three-week cruise.
He’s also used those tweets to sound off on the occasional matter of policy, including liking a tweet over the weekend about United Airlines dropping discounts for National Rifle Association members in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and promoting a column he wrote for The Hill about the fact Vice President Mike Pence misstated what was in last year’s public intelligence assessment of Russian involvement in the presidential campaign.
Last year, Hayden’s account showed the general at a breaking point, after Trump went on a rampage against CNN. “If this is who we are or who we are becoming, I have wasted 40 years of my life. Until now it was not possible for me to conceive of an American president capable of such an outrageous assault on truth, a free press or the first amendment,” Hayden tweeted in November.
Hayden said he intended that statement as a warning. And for the record, he doesn’t think he wasted 40 years of his life.
At least not yet.
“My tweet was also conditional: ‘If this is who we are or who we are becoming …’ And so I meant it less as a creed declared from the depths of despair as a, ‘Let’s be careful out here,’” Hayden says. “And not just me. I was trying to represent a whole group of people.”
It’s been nine years since Hayden was CIA director, but he admits he wasn’t looking at Russia much at all while helming the organization, didn’t include it among the 50 countries he visited during his two-and-a-half years on the job, and didn’t even know if the agency had specialists who focused on Georgia until after Putin invaded the country in August 2008.
“Vladimir Putin thinks I’m sitting up there on the seventh floor at Langley plotting how to make his day less happy than it would otherwise be as a full-time task,” Hayden says. “Frankly, the shortfall I had was not that I was trying to torment Vladimir Vladimirovich. The shortfall I had was I wasn’t paying enough attention to him or his country. And I think that was broadly true of the American intelligence community.”
If you’re looking for Hayden to admit that the United States has interfered in other countries’ elections, he’ll volunteer that he’s “the last person to deny that we have never tried to influence foreign public opinion.” But if you’re looking for him to see that as an excuse for what Russia did, he’ll smack that down: “We have never done what the Russians did [in] going against a mature Western democracy.”
He’ll also smack down partisan talk of intelligence officers not doing their jobs, or having political agendas. The continued chatter about the unproven, salacious parts of the Steele dossier, according to Hayden, was not necessarily Americans looking for dirt to undermine the president. “Maybe the Russians are still messing with our heads? I think that might be a very plausible explanation for what’s going on here,” he says.
He’s frustrated by the competing memos coming out of the House Intelligence Committee, not because they compromise sources or methods, or just because they continue down a slippery slope of politicizing intelligence. Put simply, he says, the Republican memo revealed that Carter Page was under surveillance, though he hasn’t been charged with a crime. That, Hayden says, violates Page’s rights.
But the bigger problem is with a country that continues to be torn apart, and therefore vulnerable to what the Russians did two years ago, and a president who won’t confront that reality head-on.
“This was an attack against us from an unexpected direction against a previously unknown weakness. And, it seems, foreign and domestic, law enforcement [and] intelligence, politics and policy, federal and local—it hit that seam, and we don’t patch seams without extraordinary effort, energy, focus, and extraordinary structures,” Hayden warns. “And we don’t go extraordinary unless the president says, ‘Everyone over here, huddle up. Here’s what we’re going to do.’”