Asked directly on Monday at a news conference with Vladimir Putin whether he believes all the American intelligence agencies or the Russian president about Russian manipulation of the 2016 election, President Trump gave an extraordinary answer. After some barely comprehensible words passing on a conspiracy theory about the FBI not confiscating servers at the Democratic National Committee after they were hacked by Russia, Trump said this:
All I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me, some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.
So I’m guessing he didn’t confront Putin about Russian hacking, then. Sounds like it was more like, “Hey Vlad, you didn’t meddle in our elections, right?” “Of course not, comrade.” “Good enough for me!”
We’re going to have to consider the implications of the fact that after everything we’ve learned, Trump takes the word of a hostile dictator who murders his political enemies over that of American intelligence agencies and the American Justice Department. But in the wake of the latest indictment special counsel Robert S. Mueller III handed down on Friday, charging a group of Russian intelligence officials with intervening in the 2016 election to assist Trump’s campaign, we need to realize that there’s an element of this story that has been widely overlooked, one that may be almost as important in the long run as what went on with the Trump campaign.
While we’re all (properly) asking how deep the Trump campaign’s collusion with the Russians went, we should also be taking a good hard look into the collusion that apparently took place between the Russians and others in the Republican Party, not to help Trump, but to help Republicans running for Congress.
Why exactly the Russian government thought it was important to their own goals that the GOP retain its congressional majority isn’t clear, but according to Mueller, they did. And at least some Republicans were happy to get the assistance.
Let’s begin with what we already knew something about. Much of the attention in 2016 went to the hacks into the email systems of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta and the DNC, in which the Russians were able to obtain emails showing that people within the party had a preference for Hillary Clinton winning the presidential nomination. Those emails were then passed to WikiLeaks, which was eager to release them during the Democratic convention to sow dissension between supporters of Clinton and Bernie Sanders. According to the indictment, WikiLeaks sent a message to the Russians on July 6, 2016, reading, “if you have anything hillary related we want it in the next tweo [sic] days prefable [sic] because the DNC [Democratic National Convention] is approaching and she will solidify bernie supporters behind her after.”
What got much less attention was the fact that the Russians also hacked into the system of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the arm of the party devoted to getting Democrats elected to the House. As the New York Times reported in December 2016, the Russians, using the “Guccifer 2.0” persona, released caches of documents from the DCCC to reporters and bloggers around the country to embarrass Democratic candidates. As one candidate said, “Our entire internal strategy plan was made public, and suddenly all this material was out there and could be used against me.”
As the reporters noted, “The seats that Guccifer 2.0 targeted in the document dumps were hardly random: They were some of the most competitive House races in the country.” This is one of the most curious parts of this whole story. How did a bunch of Russian intelligence operatives choose which candidates to target? For instance, former Nebraska congressman Brad Ashford — hardly a household name even in America, let alone in Russia — announced on Friday that his campaign’s emails had been hacked in 2016, likely by the Russians, which he didn’t reveal at the time. He lost his reelection race.
In addition, information from the stolen emails was used by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a PAC with close ties to House Speaker Paul Ryan, to criticize Democrats.
But one of the most striking revelations in the indictment is this:
On or about August 15, 2016, the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, received a request for stolen documents from a candidate for the U.S. Congress. The Conspirators responded using the Guccifer 2.0 persona and sent the candidate stolen documents related to the candidate’s opponent.
We don’t know who that candidate is, but suspicion has centered around a group of Republican members of Congress from Florida. In 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that a campaign consultant for one of those members, Rep. Brian Mast, said, “I did adjust some voting targets based on some data I saw from the leaks.” The Mast campaign has issued denials that it used any hacked data.
Presumably, Mueller will reveal at some point who the congressional candidate was who requested, and received, stolen documents from the Russians. If that candidate is a current member of Congress, their constituents might like to know before casting their votes in November.
When it comes to Republicans, we’re faced with two related issues. First, there are members of their party who actively benefited from Russian manipulation of our election, and even sought out help that turned out to come from Russia, whether they fully understood it at the time. Second, much of the rest of their party is now arguing that it’s really no big deal if the Russians manipulate American elections, so long as the GOP is the one that benefits.
And today we got the extraordinary spectacle of the president of the United States standing alongside the Russian dictator, saying he takes that dictator at his word and belittling the investigation into Russia’s attack on American democracy. Which led the former director of the CIA to tweet this:
Whether you agree with Brennan’s invocation of treason, his last question is one we still don’t have an answer to.
We all know how eager the Trump campaign was to work with the Russian government when the campaign believed the Russians had dirt on Clinton to share. But just as we’ve seen so many times before, Trump’s naked corruption is merely a more unapologetic version of what’s happening within the Republican Party. So the question now is: Is this still going on? Are any Republican candidates currently receiving information obtained through Russian hacking about their opponents?
We can certainly hope not, but it isn’t something we should take for granted. Nothing they have said or done would lead us to believe they’d have any qualms about getting more Russian help if they thought they could get away with it.