Editor’s Note: CNN analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-seller “Security Mom: My Life Protecting the Home and Homeland.” She is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and CEO of Zemcar. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
We were lulled into submission early Friday night. All week President Donald Trump had raised the possibility there would be major personnel changes in the White House: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had already been fired by tweet earlier in the week, but the rumors – egged on by Trump himself – were swirling that there would be other “You’re Fireds.”
By close of business, it seemed the weekend would begin with a whimper.
In the course of a few hours, that all changed. Three stories broke that upended the Trump presidency and America’s sense of stability. First, attorneys for the President himself joined an effort to stop porn star Stormy Daniels from exposing her alleged affair with Trump and sought $20 million in potential damages. Second, the attorney general fired former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe less than two days before his retirement, arguing that based on the findings of an internal FBI investigation he had lied about communications with the media – an allegation McCabe denies. And, third, The New York Times and the Observer of London posted an in-depth analysis about how Cambridge Analytica, a firm with ties to Trump’s campaign, utilized data from 50 million Facebook users to target voters.
In short, the weekend can be summarized by power, sex and data. But they are not distinct stories. All three fit into a coherent narrative, united by a single theme: The President benefits from systems that, at best, twist the rules, and he does not take kindly to efforts to expose that fact. He seeks to gain the glory of someone else’s bad dealings – saying there was no Trump campaign collusion with Russia, putting the onus of silencing Daniels on his lawyer Michael Cohen or passively benefiting from Cambridge Analytica’s efforts.
And while all the political attention is on the McCabe firing (and the Mueller threats), and all the gossip is about the Stormy Daniels saga, it is actually the Facebook scandal that may be the biggest story. Simply put, Cambridge Analytica, which worked with the Trump campaign, is now known to have used the data of millions of Facebook users to target voters for fake news and Trump-related propaganda.
And though Cambridge Analytica has long denied any connection to the Russians, New York Times reporting suggests otherwise. Lukoil, Russia’s oil giant, had contact with Cambridge Analytica in 2014 and 2015, according to company documents and interviews. More specifically, the oil company was reportedly interested in how data could be used to reach the American electorate, according to two former employees. Lukoil denies these talks were “political in nature.”
Cambridge Analytica has now been booted from the platform, a face-saving move by Facebook in light of the damning stories, but there is a growing call in Europe and the United States for Facebook to explain how it allowed this to happen.
And to make matters worse, the Wall Street Journal has reported that Cambridge Analytica has become the focus of information inquiries by Robert Mueller. Mueller’s indictments against Russians and their involvement in the 2016 election mentioned the manipulation of Facebook a dozen times. Mueller’s data request is now reportedly focused on how and whether Cambridge Analytica gamed the system and what, if any, ties to Russia and the Trump campaign it had at that point.
View these three stories across a continuum. The Trump campaign hires a company that used data to get information to target voters; as Trump locked in the GOP nomination and he headed toward Election Day, Trump’s lawyer felt he needed to silence a porn star who might expose Trump’s alleged affair; and investigations about the campaign led Trump to try to intimidate the FBI and suggest the firing of a senior official investigating his conduct.
It is fair to ask at this point whether what motivates the President has less to do with our national interest and more to do with his legal defense strategies. Why? Because if Trump is willing to have a scorched earth attitude to keep secrets – what does Daniels know, what does McCabe know, what does Cambridge Analytica know – then he is susceptible to manipulation by those who may not have America’s best interests in mind.
And it is why those who have spent careers defending America seemed to reach a breaking point this weekend. Former Director of the CIA John Brennan called Trump a “disgraced demagogue.” And four star Gen. Barry McCaffrey went straight to the point: “Reluctantly I have concluded that the President is a serious threat to US national security. … It is apparent that he is for some unknown reasons under the sway of Mr. Putin.”
It’s a shocking statement by McCaffrey, largely because it was uttered by someone who isn’t prone to conspiracy theories.
McCabe and Daniels have a pretty sophisticated media and legal strategy, and so their stories will continue to get attention. But keep focused on Cambridge Analytica, as the news stories provide an exhaustive account of tactics used and data manipulated to help Trump become President. And Trump’s behavior since Friday night suggests he will use every tool imaginable to remain so.