President-elect Donald Trump, to no one’s surprise, chose to attack BuzzFeed for releasing a salacious, unconfirmed 35-page dossier from a claimed former member of British intelligence. He will get some sympathy — from the press, no less — in condemning the publication of unproven allegations. However, he leaves a raft of questions and puts Republicans on the spot in a number of ways:
1. Asked at the end of the news conference if he could say that no one connected with his campaign had contact with Russia, he did not reply. He answered the remainder of the question having to do with Vladimir Putin’s hacking. “Russia will respect our country more. He shouldn’t have done it.” Because the allegation concerns the incoming president of the United States, shouldn’t an independent commission or prosecutor be enlisted to investigate, at the very least, that part of the issue?
2. Trump seems to think it is a good thing Putin wanted him, and that having Trump like him is an asset. This naive, childlike belief in one’s own specialness is not unique. President Obama’s supporters often argued his mere presence on the international stage would help U.S. relations. Will Trump try to get Putin to like him, or, as his secretary of state nominee suggested, respond with strength when Russia acts in ways contrary to international norms?
3. For the first time, Trump said of the hacking, “I think it was Russia.” Later he said that others hack too, quite different from saying other countries were responsible for the Democratic National Committee hacks. Why have he and his surrogates consistently tried to deflect blame from Russia or insisted other countries were responsible? If he now accepts that the intelligence community has been right all along, was the advice he was getting from his own staff faulty or misguided?
4. Republicans who oppose an independent commission, or at least a select committee, and do not want to get to the bottom of his campaign’s relationship, if any, with Russia during the campaign may rightly be accused of failing to uphold their constitutional obligations. Common Cause issued a statement Wednesday that read in part:
President-elect Trump must call for a Joint Bipartisan Select Committee if he wants to clear his name and answer questions concerning the extent to which Russian government interference helped him win the presidency. Trump’s continued dismissals of the U.S. intelligence community’s findings of a coordinated effort authorized by Vladimir Putin and Russian intelligence agencies waging a concerted campaign to help elect him to the presidency are deeply troubling. Blaming the Democratic National Committee for being hacked by Russian intelligence agency assets is irresponsible as is his praise of the information hacked and released by the Russians. If President-elect Trump truly wants to put the 2016 election behind him and confirm the legitimacy of his election he must call for a Select Committee to investigate the matter immediately.
The Select Committee must be comprised of equal numbers of Republican and Democrats to avoid partisan gamesmanship over this vitally important investigation. Too often in the past the party in power – both Democrats and Republicans – has withheld the findings of investigations. The goal of the Select Committee must be to reassure the American people about the security and integrity of our election process. Breaches must be identified and solutions proposed. It is in President-elect Trump’s, and more importantly the nation’s, best interest to fully investigate and vet all the allegations, learn what we can, and move forward. If there is nothing to hide and no concern about the hacks, that will come out clearly through the Select Committee process.
Continuing to allow him to withhold his tax information (which may reveal additional Russia ties) flies in the face of Republicans’ promise to act as a check on Trump. If they continue to defer, voters in 2018 may conclude that a Democratic majority in the House or Senate is needed. Will Republicans stop giving Trump a free pass?
5. Rex Tillerson said he never discussed Russia with Trump. Surely, this was a jaw-dropping oversight on Trump’s part, unless he won’t allow Tillerson to do much. If so, are they on the same page, and who will speak for the president on Russia?
6. The tough bipartisan sanctions bill will likely pass Congress by an overwhelming majority. Will Trump veto it or lobby Congress not to act? (He seemed to take issue with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) when told Graham he was one of the co-sponsors. Trump acts as if sanctions directed at Russia are a challenge to him.)
Trump’s presidency will begin under a cloud. His relationship with Russia, his ability to act purely in American interests rather than his own, and his obliviousness to the degree to which unanswered questions will dog every decision remotely related to Russia (Is he afraid Putin has something on him? Does he have a loan with a Russian bank?) go to the center of his ability to lead. The sooner he puts questions to rest, the better. Otherwise his presidency, pardon the phrase, will be compromised.