Donald Trump’s latest outburst, in which he openly called on Russia to go on a massive cyberhunt for Hillary Clinton’s emails and release them to the press, raises a key question:
What will it take for leading Republicans to cross over from responding to Trump’s remarks in a careful, circumscribed manner, or quietly withholding their support for him, to actively denouncing his comments as reckless and dangerous?
Trump’s comments today basically amount to him urging Russia to help him get elected president, at precisely the moment when Russia is already accused (though this has not been close to proven) of trying to interfere in the election. Here’s what he said:
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” Trump said during a news conference at his South Florida resort on Wednesday.
“They probably have them. I’d like to have them released. It gives me no pause, if they have them, they have them,” Trump added later when asked if his comments were inappropriate. “If Russia or China or any other country has those emails, I mean, to be honest with you, I’d love to see them.”
It’s already been widely reported that the Clinton campaign quickly denounced the remarks. Senior Clinton policy adviser Jake Sullivan said today that this had become a “national security issue,” arguing: “This has to be the first time that a major presidential candidate has actively encouraged a foreign power to conduct espionage against his political opponent.”
But now Republican-aligned foreign policy experts are also weighing in along similar lines.
“It’s appalling,” Dr. Eliot A. Cohen, who was counselor of the State Department during the second term of George W. Bush’s presidency, said to me today. “Calling on a foreign government to go after your opponent in an American election?”
Cohen recently organized an open letter from a range of GOP national security leaders that denounced Trump in harsh terms, arguing that Trump’s “own statements” indicate that “he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world.” The letter said: “As committed and loyal Republicans, we are unable to support a Party ticket with Mr. Trump at its head. We commit ourselves to working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.”
But this latest from Trump, by pushing the envelope once again, raises the question of whether other prominent Republicans are ever going to join in.
For instance, to my knowledge, top national security advisers to George W. Bush, such as Stephen Hadley and Condoleezza Rice (who was also secretary of state), have yet to comment on anything we’ve heard thus far from Trump. Also, there could theoretically come a point where figures like former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and possibly even Dubya and George H.W. Bush feel compelled to weigh in.
Meanwhile, senior Republican elected officials who have backed Trump continue to refrain from taking on his comments forcefully or directly. Some Republicans actually defended Trump’s comments today. Paul Ryan’s spokesman issued a statement saying this: “Russia is a global menace led by a devious thug. Putin should stay out of this election.”
The careful reader will note that Ryan’s statement is directed entirely at Putin, and not at what Trump said.
All this comes after senior Republicans were almost as circumspect when Trump recently questioned whether we would honor our commitments to defending our NATO allies against Russian aggression. In response to that, Ryan’s office merely said that “the Speaker believes we should defend our NATO allies,” which is fine, but avoided commenting on Trump directly. Mitch McConnell responded by saying he disagreed with Trump, but added that this didn’t raise any questions in his mind about Trump’s fitness to be president, because President Trump’s Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense were likely to disagree with him on this point, as if his own cabinet members could be counted on to act as a check on his dangerous instincts.
Cohen, the counselor to State under Bush, argued to me that more GOP officials needed to step up.
“An enormous amount rests on Republican politicians being willing to say something,” Cohen said. “What’s disturbing is how many will dodge the issue and say, ‘oh, he doesn’t mean it.'”
Indeed, this sort of stuff can no longer be blithely dismissed as showmanship and bluster. As Zack Beauchamp explains today, the totality of Trump’s statements and positions suggest an actual worldview and agenda, one that would upend the international order in ways that could be deeply destabilizing, but are “objectively pro-Russia” and would constitute “music to Putin’s ears.”
Cohen noted that many GOP-aligned foreign policy thinkers had done the right thing and denounced Trump. But he added that not enough GOP elected officials had done so.
“He’s completely unqualified to be president and would be a menace if he were to get there,” Cohen said. “I do wish more prominent Republicans would step forward and say that.”
What would it take for this to change?
UPDATE: Asked for comment, the office of Senator Bob Corker, who is chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and widely seen as a serious GOP foreign policy voice, would only say this:
“The FBI confirmed yesterday that it is investigating the breach, and Senator Corker certainly believes that is appropriate.”