Aside from the president of the United States, almost no one denies that Russia mounted a serious and concerted effort to manipulate the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Russians hacked into Democratic Party emails and gave what they obtained to WikiLeaks so that it could be released publicly to maximize the political damage to Hillary Clinton. They used social media to spread fictional stories meant to do the same. They made repeated attempts to engage the Trump campaign in a cooperative effort to undermine Clinton and help then-candidate Donald Trump. They attempted to hack into state voting systems.
And today we learn, in this report from Peter Stone and Greg Gordon of McClatchy, that they may have funneled money through the NRA to aid the Trump campaign.
This extraordinary possibility shows not just how comprehensive the Russian effort to get Trump elected was, but something else as well: The ways that Republicans have successfully changed our election laws in recent years have made us vulnerable to exactly this kind of foreign manipulation. And in their desire to protect the president, Republicans in Congress may prevent us from ever learning the full truth.
Here’s how the McClatchy report begins:
The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency, two sources familiar with the matter have told McClatchy.
FBI counterintelligence investigators have focused on the activities of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who is known for his close relationships with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the NRA, the sources said.
It may turn out that no money found its way from Russia to the campaign to elect Trump. But there are certainly a lot of suggestive things going on, including the fact that Torshin is a sketchy character with deep ties to the NRA, and the fact that the group dramatically increased its election spending in 2016. After spending $12.5 million to help Mitt Romney in 2012, it poured over $30 million into the effort to get Trump elected, and perhaps much more, since certain kinds of campaign spending don’t need to be reported.
But this is significant because it highlights a potential path of foreign influence that we haven’t much talked about. And it was available to Russia because of the relentless GOP effort in recent years to make American campaign finance law simultaneously more open to the influence of big money and more opaque.
One way to understand what happened with regard to Russia is that because our political system is open and decentralized, we’re vulnerable to this kind of attack. But the possibility that Russia funneled money through a group such as the NRA highlights another dimension of our vulnerability, which is that thanks to the conservative attack on campaign finance restrictions and disclosure rules, the system has become much less transparent, in ways that enable those with resources — including, perhaps, hostile foreign governments — to influence the elections while keeping their tracks covered.
Let me bring you back eight years to President Barack Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address. “With all due deference to separation of powers,” Obama said, “last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.” He was referring to the Citizens United decision that among other things removed virtually all limits on corporate spending to influence campaigns. When he said that, Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito mouthed the words “Not true,” and afterward Republicans pretended to be outraged that Obama would be so terribly rude and uncouth as to criticize a Supreme Court decision with members of the court sitting right there.
There was some dispute about whether Obama was right — on one hand, foreign corporations were still barred from spending money in American campaigns, but on the other, they could do so through their American subsidiaries. Still, Citizens United did indeed open the floodgates of outside spending, one of the consequences of which was that corporations and individuals realized that 501(c)4 nonprofit organizations are a great vehicle for influencing an election, for one important reason: They don’t have to disclose their donors.
For some donors that might not matter, and super PACs, which do have to disclose, have spent more money in the past couple of elections than (c)4s. But if you want to spend election money but you don’t want anyone to know that’s what you’re doing, a (c)4 is the way to do it. And no (c)4 spent more in 2016 than the NRA. Again, it may turn out that this is a big misunderstanding and the NRA didn’t get any Russian money that wound up being spent to help Trump. But the Russia story is more complex now than it seemed before.
Indeed, there’s also this BuzzFeed story out today, which concerns an odd series of financial transactions involving the Russian ambassador, six-figure cash withdrawals, dozens of Russian embassy employees getting checks totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, and millions of dollars paid to a “contractor” for “construction” that looks a lot like a money-laundering scheme.
All this raises an important question: Are we ever going to get to the bottom of this mess? If Republicans have their way, we most certainly aren’t. Not only are they (at least some of them) doing everything they can to limit and hinder the congressional investigations into the Russia scandal, they’re also trying to intimidate the FBI with charges of bias, and a few are even calling for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to be fired and his investigation shut down.
The more complicated this scandal gets, the more obvious it is that we need to understand everything that happened, so we can make sure it never happens again. You’d think Republicans would be patriotic enough to join in that effort, but the truth is that it may have to wait until Democrats control a house of Congress and have the power to do it themselves.