As they fanned out across the Sunday shows, President-elect Donald Trump’s closest aides and a number of GOP spinners evidenced a frightful willingness to deny the existence of a cyberattack on American sovereignty and democracy because it might make Trump feel less like a winner.
Consider this exchange with Reince Priebus:
WALLACE: President-elect Trump told me last weekend that the CIA conclusion that Russia interfered with the election to help him was, quote, “ridiculous,” and it could have been some guy in a basement. Well, now the CIA director, John Brennan, says he’s met with the director of national intelligence and the head of the FBI and, quote, “There’s strong consensus among us on the scope, nature, and intent of Russian interference.”
Question, does the president-elect accept the consensus of the intel community?
PRIEBUS: Well, I think a lot of these things, though, Chris, are coming through third parties. I mean, we haven’t heard from Comey. When Clapper —
WALLACE: This was CIA Director Brennan. You think he’s lying about what Jim Comey thinks?
PRIEBUS: No, I don’t think he is, but it sure would be nice to hear from everybody. I mean, if there is this conclusive opinion among all of these intelligence agencies, then they should issue a report or they should stand in front of a camera and make the case.
But that all being said, let’s put that aside for a second. I think the real question is, why the Democrats and why these electors and why MoveOn.org and all of these organizations are doing everything they can to delegitimize the outcome of the election?
I mean, they started out with a recount in states that they didn’t move the dial anywhere. In fact, President-elect Trump received more votes after that was done. Then they went after this Diebold fiasco, which was proven to be totally untrue. Now, they’re demanding —
PRIEBUS: Right. Now, they’re going forward tomorrow with this attempt to intimidate and harass electors. I mean, we’ve got electors that are receiving 200,000 e-mails. Nothing is going to change.
WALLACE: But, Reince, I’m going to get to that on the electors. I’m asking you a simple question. Does the president-elect accept the consensus — and that’s what John Brennan said it was — the consensus of the intel community about Russian interference and its intent?
PRIEBUS: I think he would accept the conclusion if these intelligence professionals would get together, put out a report, show the American people that they’re actually on the same page as opposed to third parties through The Washington Post.
WALLACE: This wasn’t a third party.
PRIEBUS: Right. But we haven’t heard —
WALLACE: John Brennan issued a statement.
PRIEBUS: I mean, we haven’t heard from Comey. I mean, we — so, look, I think that these guys should be straight with the American people and come out and say it. I don’t think they’ve been clear about it. I think that it’s been all over the map.
WALLACE: So, John Brennan, his statement is not enough for you?
PRIEBUS: Not when you have multiple people saying different things, coming through third parties and media reports.
In other words, the Trump camp insists we must believe — contrary to the overwhelming mound of evidence from all intelligence entities — that Russian responsibility is unproved, for to do otherwise would make Trump’s win seem less convincing. And if U.S. national security interests are harmed, well, that’s a small price to pay for supporting the frail ego of a narcissist.
On “Face the Nation,” Kellyanne Conway similarly went around and around with John Dickerson, dubbing this all a plot to get the “the Russian hacking issue to change the election result.” In her best imitation of a Cold War Soviet propagandist, she refused to accept proof that didn’t mesh with the accepted political talking points:
JOHN DICKERSON: Kellyanne, sorry to interrupt. But just on this question of — Mr. Trump is still skeptical that the Russians were even involved. Leaving aside the question of whether it affected the election or not, you have the CIA, the FBI, the Director of National Intelligence, now a number of Republicans saying it’s clear that the Russians hacked – that, just as a basic premise is clear. Mr. Trump since late September has said that he doesn’t think that’s the case. He still says that now. What does he know that all those intelligence officers don’t know?
KELLYANNE CONWAY: John, where is the evidence? Why, when CIA officials were invited to a House intelligence briefing last week did they refuse to go? Instead, they’re talking to the media. That undermines our national security, our intelligence operations. Why are they doing that–
JOHN DICKERSON: But does he himself have evidence, Kellyanne, that suggests that this isn’t the case?
And on and on it went.
The impression that the GOP has lost its collective wits and foreign policy credibility hardened as hyperpartisan Republican guests on the shows (who supported every half-baked conspiracy theory Trump advanced in the campaign) parroted the willful denial routine and pretended this is simply a Democratic scheme to make Trump’s victory seem less legitimate. These same people for eight years have accused President Obama of not defending America when he voiced viewpoints favored by, for example, the Iranians. Their concern for national security now takes a back seat to partisan hackery.
Republicans would be wise to follow the recommendation of Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) to form a select committee. They want it to investigate the Russian hacking and also to help formulate a strategy to counter cyberattacks from Russia and other powers. Opposition to such an idea is inexplicable and unwise, suggesting that the GOP and incoming administration do not want to pursue a credible, bipartisan investigation. Are they so afraid of what it might uncover?
To be blunt, a legitimate question exists as to whose side Trump is on, at least for now. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) cautioned that “if he can’t be believed because he’s sending out false Tweets or he’s persuaded the American people not to believe what our own intelligence agencies or he’s given the Russians such deniability that they can come back and say are these the same intelligence agencies that the president-elect told us not believe, he is damaging himself and our national security.”
Trump’s pro-Putin spin may vanish once the electors meet and his paranoia about losing the presidency is squelched. (His willingness to act contrary to our country’s best interest still would be horrifying, but at least the mental gymnastics would end, we hope, before taking office.) Alternatively, Trump’s insistence on channeling Putin’s propaganda may reflect a more permanent and creepier mindset that refuses to see Russia as a foe of the West. If the latter, how far will this go — blocking sanctions? Acceding to Russian aggression? The suspicion that Trump is Putin’s lapdog has cast a shadow over his secretary of state nominee, who is distinguished only by his chumminess with Putin.
We do not know if Trump has been bamboozled by pro-Putin aides or has personal/financial reasons for excessive sympathy toward Russia. Either way, his inability to distinguish friend from foe — and his own interests from those of the country’s — should deeply concern all Americans. Republicans who are enabling Trump’s delusions do themselves and the country a great disservice. They need to think long and hard about giving Putin political cover to attack Western democracies.
Let’s hope that, with the electoral college’s vote in the rearview mirror, Trump — and his Republican flacks — starts putting America, not Putin, first.