There are very few victims of Russian hackers who emerge with their reputations enhanced. Colin Powell may be unique for that alone, judging from the bluntness of his leaked emails about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. To be clear: Hacking personal emails is reprehensible, and those behind the hack are trying to manipulate American voters.
To be doubly clear: The news media (including this column) have no principles and no shame in exploiting the ill-gotten product of those scumbags. Guilty, as charged. And yet the Powell emails are so insightful and direct, it seems a shame — even if there is no sense of shame — to let them pass by without comment. First, the emails are as scathing as they are fresh from his outbox. One, dating from June, describes Trump as “a national disgrace” and “an international pariah”. Powell said Democrats had no need to attack Trump because he was “in the process of destroying himself”.
Another, from just last month, describes Trump’s pursuit of United States President Barack Obama’s birth certificate as racist. “Yup, the whole birther movement was racist,” Powell said. “That’s what the 99 per cent believe. When Trump couldn’t keep that up he said he also wanted to see if the certificate noted that he was a Muslim ... As I have said before, ‘What if he was?’ Muslims are born as Americans everyday.” You might say he considered Trump and his supporters deplorable.
As Buzzfeed reports, the emails were obtained by DCLeaks.com, a site with reported links to Russian intelligence. If such reports are true, the Russians may have finally misread the impact of their leaks. Far from making Powell look foolish, the emails only savage the candidate who so admires Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Powell was astonished, for instance, that Trump would hire Roger Ailes, the disgraced former head of Fox News, who now sits in a cesspool of sexual harassment claims. “Ailes as an adviser won’t heal women, don’t you think,” wrote Powell. Powell was already a national treasure. Not just as a former general, national security adviser, chairman of the joint chiefs and secretary of state. But as the best qualified and most charismatic man never to have run for president.
There was a good reason why Bill Clinton’s team was so worried that Powell might run for election as the Republican nominee in 1996: Because he could have won, and reshaped the political landscape for a generation.
Instead, he served another president who spent his first term siding with Powell’s haters. Like Tony Blair, Powell was naive to think he could talk sense into former US president George W. Bush, or outflank his arch enemies, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. They set him up as the fall guy for their half-baked case for war, cashing in on his credibility. They filled the first draft of his United Nations speech with bogus reports linking former Iraq president Saddam Hussain to 9/11, leaving Powell’s team no time and no room to weed out all their fabrications.
Still he later called the speech a painful and devastating moment: A permanent blot on his record, as he put it. That directness is what shines through the emails, along with a sharp sense of political and media analysis.
Quite rightly, Powell is uncomfortable about condemning every Trump eruption because the response merely adds fuel to the fire. “You guys are playing his game, you are his oxygen,” he wrote to one would-be interviewer. “I will watch and pick the timing, not respond to the latest outrage.” He put it more succinctly in another email: “To go on and call him an idiot just emboldens him.”
Powell is also blunt about Hillary Clinton’s failings, especially the effort to excuse her use of a private email server by pointing to his email use in the State Department. “HRC [Hillary] could have killed this two years ago by merely telling everyone honestly what she had done and not tie me into it,” he wrote late last month. “I told her staff three times not to try that gambit. I had to throw a mini-tantrum at a Hamptons party to get their attention. She keeps tripping into these ‘character’ minefields.” There is surely the opening of a whole book chapter in that Hamptons party.
President Obama likes to say that the smallness of our politics doesn’t match the magnitude of our challenges. You don’t get much smaller than a mini-tantrum about an email server. “I would rather not have to vote for her, although she is a friend I respect,” Powell wrote in another email, that described her “unbridled ambition” and her husband’s unbridled libido.
Naturally, Trump has shown none of Powell’s self-control or strategic thinking in responding to the hacked emails. “I was never a fan of Colin Powell after his weak understanding of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq = disaster,” Trump tweeted on Thursday morning. “We can do much better!” This from a real-estate developer who supported the invasion of Iraq and has repeatedly lied about it throughout the course of the campaign. But as Powell says, calling him an idiot just emboldens him. So we will just have to settle with “deplorable”.
Powell likes to tell the story of a post-Soviet meeting of security officials in Europe. There he was confronted by an old Russian general who chastised him for wanting to keep Nato alive when the Warsaw Pact had died. Powell grinned as he recounted his reply: “It’s hard to close a club that people still want to join. I can’t help it if my club is more popular than yours.” Powell’s personal club remains more popular than anybody else’s. Not least because he never ran for president, never suffering the kind of reputational damage that is strewn across that battlefield.
As the Russian hackers have unwittingly revealed, Powell remains a sharp observer of presidential politics, no matter whose club you belong to.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Richard Wolffe is a Guardian US columnist, as well as chief digital and marketing officer at Global Citizen, a non-profit organisation dedicated to ending extreme poverty. He is the author of Renegade: The Making of a President, Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House and The Message: The Re-Selling of President Obama.