“Soul crushing are the only words I have,” Jennifer Palmieri, Hillary Clinton’s campaign communications director, tweeted about the revelations concerning Russia’s effort to make certain Donald Trump was elected. One can understand the Clinton team’s ongoing grief in internalizing an election result they never anticipated. Still, the Russia story is not about Clinton; and Democrats make a mistake to turn a blockbuster story of Russian espionage into an explanation for Clinton’s loss, or worse, an effort to suggest Trump isn’t the legitimate president.
Sure, no WikiLeaks revelations and perhaps Clinton wins. (“Clinton lost 4 states [FL, MI, WI, PA] by ~1 point. If not for [FBI director Jim] Comey/Russia, she probably wins them all by ~2 points & strategy looks great,” tweets Nate Silver.) But, if she had never set up the home server or decided to spend time in Michigan and Wisconsin or she had a succinct, positive economic message, she might also have won. To be clear, there was never much of anything damaging in the leaked Democratic emails (although the press feverishly covered them).
The point here is not to contest the election results or to show Trump “really” didn’t win. Frankly, Clinton supporters who focus on that — just like Republican hacks who dismiss the story because they think Russian espionage did not change the outcome — miss the boat entirely. We should care about the Trump-Russia relationship going forward because he is going to be the 45th president. You would think it would be obvious that Russian efforts to select America’s president through cyber-weaponized revelations may be the most important election story — ever. This is warfare of an entirely different sort, one aimed at the heart of democracy. (Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted, “Russia is trying to break the backs of democracies – and democratic movements – all over the world.”)
There are three categories of questions that should be the focus going forward:
Russian motives/Trump motives: We don’t know if Vladimir Putin’s espionage on Trump’s behalf was undertaken with some specific expectation or understanding about Trump’s future conduct; on the belief Putin could manipulate pro-Russian advisers around Trump; or simply on the observation that Trump is an egomaniac and ignoramus whom Putin could play. We don’t know whether personal affinity, economic self-interest or something else prompted Trump to adopt pro-Russian positions (e.g., weaken NATO) and take Putin’s side against U.S. intelligence agencies. Congressional investigators should get to the bottom of Trump advisers’ ties to Russia, any communications during the campaign between Trump’s team and the Kremlin and the post-election conversations that have taken place.
Personnel picks: How did he wind up with so many Russian apologists in his inner circle? Eric Edelman and David Kramer wrote recently:
[Flynn] appeared at the 10th anniversary dinner last December for RT, one of the Kremlin’s most scurrilous propaganda outlets. Flynn sat at Putin’s table and was reportedly paid to give a speech during the festivities. Although Flynn’s defenders claim he was tough on Putin in conversation, no independent evidence has emerged to confirm that. Paul Manafort served as Trump’s campaign chairman until controversy over his ties in Ukraine to the pro-Russian former President Viktor Yanukovych forced him off the team in August. Carter Page, cited by Trump as an adviser earlier this year, has had various business dealings in Russia and gave a speech in Moscow in July in which he slammed U.S. policy toward Russia.
All of these individuals have called for lifting sanctions on Russia and returning to a normal bilateral relationship.
Did these advisers promote pro-Putin views or did Trump pick them because he was already favorably inclined toward Putin? Add in Rex W. Tillerson, who has advocated against sanctions and has a chummy relationship with Putin stemming from negotiations between Exxon and Russia. Is this mere coincidence? It is essential that Congress or an independent investigation determine what, if any, financial ties exist between Russia and the Trump team.
How, if at all, will Trump’s Russia policy change because of Russia’s intervention in our election? Trump seems bent on denying Russia did anything wrong, suggesting that far from responding to the attack on our electoral process Trump wants to cozy up to the Russian bear at the expense of allies. “Trump could upend EU policy toward Russia and derail the sanctions regime. Lifting Western sanctions on Russia while it still occupies Ukrainian territory would embolden Putin into thinking he has reconsolidated a sphere of influence along his borders,” Edelman and Kramer write. “It would put an end to the effort to impose costs for his military aggression without requiring him to live up to any of the conditions, including withdrawal of forces and return of control of the border to Ukraine, required by the Minsk cease-fire agreement signed in February 2015.”
If a presidential candidate had fallen under the influence of an ex-KGB agent it is hard to say how he would be doing anything different than Trump is now — hiring Russian sycophants, nixing anti-Russian candidates, denying overwhelming evidence of Russian espionage, suggesting our obligations to NATO are not ironclad, ignoring human rights violations in Russia, etc. Maybe Trump is simply misinformed or careless. But why do all his “errors” tilt in favor of Putin?
The issue then is not whether Putin compromised our election but whether Trump and his advisers are compromised. The latter is a frightening notion, one that should take precedence over partisan backbiting — and every other issue until the questions are satisfactorily resolved.