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Opinion The truth about Trump and Russia that Republicans cannot say out loud

President Trump's news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin was a disastrous capitulation, says Democracy Post editor Christian Caryl. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)


It is being widely reported today that many Republicans are criticizing President Trump’s refusal to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin over his sabotage of American democracy. Many of their statements sided with the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election, and defended our intelligence services against Trump’s continued assault against them.

But ask yourself this question: How many of those statements from Republicans also acknowledged the conclusion of the intelligence community that the goal of that Russian interference was to elect Trump?

Obviously, Republicans are reluctant to say that out loud, because it might diminish the greatness of Trump’s victory, which would anger him and his voters. But I think this gaping hole in the public posture of the GOP hints at deeper truths about the predicament that Republicans — and all of us — are consumed with right now.

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The Washington Examiner reports today that many Republicans are privately worried that Trump’s display with Putin will hurt them in November’s midterm elections. Their concerns: Republicans lose when the focus is on the Russia investigation and Trump’s temperamental recklessness, and not on the economy, and swing voters aren’t going to side with Trump on this matter. As one aide to a vulnerable House Republican put it: “Is there an independent, swing voter in the country who would say: ‘Yeah, I really think Putin is telling the truth and the U.S. Department of Justice is the real problem?’ ”

Both President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke about Russian interference in U.S. elections at a 2018 news conference in Helsinki. (Video: The Washington Post)

It’s good to have it confirmed that Republicans admit this. After all, we keep hearing that Trump is “winning” in his effort to delegitimize the Russia probe. But beyond this, it creates a problem for Republicans. That’s because the Republican base sides with Trump (and increasingly with Putin, as well) against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. As one House Republican suggested to CNBC’s John Harwood, Republicans must be careful about opposing Trump when they stand up for the Russia inquiry, because “my constituents love him.”

This may explain GOP members’ responses to Trump’s performance. Their statements mostly focused on the impropriety of Trump siding with Putin against U.S. institutions and democracy, or urged the president to accept the intelligence community’s conclusions that Russia generally interfered while vouching for those conclusions.

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That’s good, but tellingly, these statements do this in a limited way: They don’t acknowledge the intelligence services’ consensus view that the Russian sabotage effort was designed to elect Trump. (If I missed statements like this, or if some emerge, I’ll update.) The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded this — and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he accepts the prevailing consensus, while avoiding specifics — but the House Intelligence Committee, which has been converted by Trump loyalists into a bad-faith effort to undermine the Mueller probe, conspicuously refused to reach that conclusion.

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Thus, the statement from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) says nothing about Trump, because he wants to portray House Republicans as being on the same page as the intelligence community and as a functional oversight body acting in good faith. But engaging on the point about Russia’s goal that the House Intelligence Committee refused to acknowledge would blow that effort up.

The big unknown

The Republican evasion on this is not just a political dodge to avoid offending Trump voters. It’s also substantively important. The big unknown right now is why Trump refuses to take Russian sabotage of our democracy seriously, at a time when our own intelligence officials say it will happen again. The easy answer that has been pushed by Republicans and some Trump loyalists is that the president doesn’t want to diminish the appearance of his victory’s legitimacy. It’s just a matter of ego and temperament. It’s just crazy Trump being crazy Trump.

But as this Brian Beutler thread demonstrates, that explanation cracks up against the known facts. We all had good reason to suspect in real time that Russia was interfering, and Trump relished it, and even encouraged it, as it happened. Now that Mueller’s indictments have started fleshing out the fuller dimensions of this sabotage and its now-confirmed goal of electing Trump, this can no longer be about guarding appearances of legitimacy, because his current conduct makes that more suspect. The only conceivable explanation is that he was both perfectly happy to benefit from Russian interference and wants to obstruct/or and delegitimize the ferreting out of the truth.

Republicans are trying to lock away the reason for Russian interference, and separate it from the debate over Trump’s current conduct. Engaging with that reason would force uncomfortable questions about that conduct to the fore. It would make it harder to continue standing idly by in the face of Trump’s efforts to keep the truth buried — by refusing to protect the Mueller probe, or by actively continuing to abet those efforts, as House Republicans are still doing to this day. As David Frum notes, Trump’s deference to Putin shows that getting the president’s tax returns is now urgent, to get to the bottom of why Trump is doing all of this, and to put to rest the worst interpretations — and thus, the failure to do this reveals serious GOP dereliction.

Indeed, it is becoming inescapably obvious that Republicans don’t particularly want to know the answer to that question.

* TRUMP AIDES ‘SHOCKED’ BY PRESSER WITH PUTIN: The New York Times reports on the reaction of Trump aides to his press conference siding with Vladimir Putin’s assault American democracy:

Some of Mr. Trump’s own advisers privately said they were shocked by the president’s performance, including his use of the phrase “witch hunt” to describe the special counsel investigation while standing beside Mr. Putin. Aboard Air Force One back to Washington, Mr. Trump’s mood grew foul as the breadth of the critical reactions became clear . . . Aides steered clear of the front of the plane to avoid being tapped for a venting session with Mr. Trump.

None of them will quit, needless to say.

* TRUMP IGNORES BRIEFING MATERIALS ON PUTIN: The Post reports these remarkable details on the run-up to the Putin meeting:

Ahead of the meeting, staffers provided Trump with some 100 pages of briefing materials aimed at laying out a tough posture toward Putin, but the president ignored most of it, according to one person familiar with the discussions . . . advisers covered matters from Russia’s annexation of Crimea to its interference in the U.S. elections, but Trump “made a game-time decision” to handle the summit his way.

Maybe Trump appreciates all Putin has done for him, and that is more important to him than anything else?

* HOW TRUMP REACTED TO INDICTMENTS: The Post also brings us this:

The president spent much of the weekend “growling,” in the words of one White House official, over the Justice Department’s indictment Friday of 12 Russian intelligence officials for interfering in the 2016 election. He fretted that the release of the indictments just before the meeting could hurt him politically, the official said.

Trump’s concern upon hearing extensive details of a plot to sabotage American democracy was to worry about how it would impact him politically.

* PUTIN LAUGHS OFF INDICTMENT OF RUSSIANS: During a Fox News interview last night, Chris Wallace tried to get Putin to look at the indictment of a dozen Russians for sabotaging U.S. democracy:

Wallace gestured towards Putin with the indictment and asked if he wanted to read its contents: “May I give this to you to look at, sir?” After a brief pause, Putin gestured for Wallace to drop the documents on a nearby table. The Russian president then went on to deny all of the allegations.

Luckily for Putin, the U.S. president is similarly dismissive of them.

* TRUMP: PUTIN ‘GETS IT’ ON COLLUSION: Putin is dismissing the idea that Russia sabotaged the 2016 election. Trump went into his Sean Hannity safe space last night and said this:

“And he also said there’s absolutely no collusion. Because he gets it. He is one of the people who gets it.”

In saying this, Trump is actually colluding with Putin right now, by signaling that he’ll look the other way if and when Putin sabotages future elections.

* WHITE HOUSE TALKING POINTS ON PROBE: CNN reports that the White House is scrambling to do damage control on Trump’s embrace of Putin, as well as his attacks on the Mueller probe, distributing talking points that include this:

“For over a year and half, the President has repeatedly said he believes the intelligence agencies when they said Russia interfered in American elections.”

Actually, Trump has often dismissed the whole notion as a hoax. That aside, it bears mentioning that our intelligence agencies concluded that this interference was on behalf of Trump.

* AND TRUMP HAS EVEN LOST FOX (FOR ONE DAY): Axios media reporter Sara Fischer has a good roundup of Fox News personalities who were willing to criticize Trump’s performance with Putin. But as Fischer notes:

Fox News defendants will likely point to today’s condemnations as an example of Fox’s journalistic credibility for months to come.

Indeed. By the way, Sean Hannity did not join in the condemnation, instead saying that Trump was “very strong.” But you already knew that would happen.