The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The entire Republican Party is becoming a Russian asset

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)

In the past few days, President Trump has given at least some Republicans reason to express displeasure over his relationship with Russia. First he performed a pathetic ritual of subservience before Vladimir Putin, standing beside the Russian leader — after a private meeting between the two, which no aides were permitted to attend — and dismissing the copious evidence of a Russian attack on the 2016 election in deference to Putin’s word.

Then we learned that Putin had suggested that we make Americans available to the Kremlin for questioning, including Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, in exchange for allowing us to question some of the agents who carried out the cyberattack. Trump had called it “an incredible offer,” and the White House said he was considering it, before finally backing down after the Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning the idea.

But look past the modest number of Republicans saying that Trump has gone a bit too far here or there, and you see a very different picture. The truth is that the entire GOP is well on its way to becoming a Russian asset.

Are there a few Republican dissenters? Sure. But perhaps we’re having difficulty viewing that whole picture because what’s happening is so utterly bonkers that we can’t quite bring ourselves to see it clearly. So let’s review just some of the things we know:

  • In 2016, the campaign of the Republican nominee for president was approached multiple times by representatives of the Russian government offering to help them win the election. These offers were welcomed with enthusiasm. The campaign was also led for a time by a political consultant with deep financial and personal ties to a Russian oligarch and a Kremlin puppet in Ukraine.
  • Multiple members of the Trump team had contacts with the Russian government that they later lied to conceal.
  • As part of its attack on the American electoral system, Russian intelligence hacked into Democratic Party systems. Some of the information it found there was released publicly and promoted gleefully by Republicans at all levels in order to help the Trump campaign; information relating to down-ballot campaigns was passed to Republicans, who used it in order to maintain their hold on the House of Representatives.
  • Amid the insistence from the intelligence community that in 2018 Russia will likely attempt to once again penetrate the computer systems of state election agencies, Republicans this week killed an effort to provide funding to states to bolster the security of their election systems.
  • As part of a lengthy effort to infiltrate the National Rifle Association, an important Republican interest group, an alleged Russian spy began a romance with a Republican activist, met multiple Republican leaders and fostered a relationship between American gun advocates and Russians. On the night of Trump’s victory, she messaged “I am ready for further orders” to her handler, a Russian banker named Alexander Torshin who is close to Putin.
  • The NRA dramatically increased its spending on the 2016 presidential campaign from past years, pouring $30 million into their effort to elect Trump. The FBI is investigating whether that money may have illegally come from Russia, funneled to the organization by Torshin.
  • The Trump administration has announced a change to IRS rules so that groups like the NRA will no longer have to identify their donors on their tax forms, making such money almost impossible to trace in the future.
  • Over the last few years, the Christian right, another key part of the GOP coalition, has grown increasingly close to Putin, whom they see as an ally in a global clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam.
  • In Congress, Republicans have undertaken an aggressive campaign to discredit and, many of them plainly hope, shut down the probe into the Russian attack on America. Though they mounted seven separate investigations of Benghazi, they are nearly united in their position that no further investigation into a hostile foreign power’s attempt to manipulate the American electoral system is necessary.
  • Fox News, which functions as the propaganda arm of the Republican Party, has aired relentless attacks on the Russia investigation and calls for it to be shut down.
  • Despite the mountain of unambiguous evidence of the Russian attack in 2016, the overwhelming majority of Republican voters continue to say no such attack occurred.
  • Hard-core Trump supporters are beginning to argue that even if Russia did attack the American electoral system, it was actually a good thing because it helped Donald Trump get elected.

That last argument has not yet filtered up to more mainstream Republican figures, but give it some time. When Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III closes his investigation and presents all his evidence (and more indictments, surely), no one will really be surprised to hear Republican members of Congress and prominent conservative media figures saying that it all worked out for the best because Hillary Clinton isn’t president, and we should just move on.

The president himself has laid the groundwork for that argument to spread. Not only has he repeatedly cast doubt on whether the attack occurred, he insists that he himself didn’t “collude” with Russia, and no matter what, there’s no proof that the attack changed votes, as though that would somehow make the whole thing okay. And you may recall that when news broke that his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman met with a group of Russians in hopes of getting dirt on Clinton, an outreach that had been presented to them as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” the president claimed that “I think from a practical standpoint most people would have taken that meeting,” as though working with Russia to defeat his opponent was the most natural thing in the world.

We can speculate on exactly why Trump has been so eager to become Putin’s flunky; it’s obviously a complicated story with roots that go back decades. But what about the rest of the GOP? Some of them have embraced the annexation of their party with gusto, while others are clearly more reluctant. But let’s not forget that they were reluctant to make peace with Trump’s takeover of the GOP, too. Eventually, they realized that since Trump had captured the hearts of the Republican base, they had no choice but to get on board if they wanted to survive.

The same has happened, and will likely continue to happen, with Russia. Had you told them 10 years ago that Russian intelligence was going to mount a comprehensive assault on an American election, they’d say that they would respond to such an attack with a furious rage and leave no stone unturned in learning every detail about it so that any collaborators could be mercilessly punished and no such attack could ever occur again. Today though, they’re mostly eager to get everyone to think about something else.

It may be because they’ve convinced themselves that no tactic is too repugnant, no alliance is too distasteful, and no moral compromise is too loathsome when you’re serving the lofty goal of keeping Democrats from power. Or it may be that they’re terrified that their rabid base will decide that they are insufficiently devoted to the cult of Trump. Whatever the reasons, they’ve traveled a long way down this road already, and it doesn’t look like they’re turning back.

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