After President Trump’s ghastly performance in Helsinki, a few sober conservatives joined a wide assortment of Democrats in observing that it is not irrational to presume that Trump is in some way “compromised.” Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), a former CIA agent, wrote in the New York Times on Thursday:
Over the course of my career as an undercover officer in the C.I.A., I saw Russian intelligence manipulate many people. I never thought I would see the day when an American president would be one of them.
The president’s failure to defend the United States intelligence community’s unanimous conclusions of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and condemn Russian covert counterinfluence campaigns and his standing idle on the world stage while a Russian dictator spouted lies confused many but should concern all Americans. By playing into Vladimir Putin’s hands, the leader of the free world actively participated in a Russian disinformation campaign that legitimized Russian denial and weakened the credibility of the United States to both our friends and foes abroad.
In other words, Trump is acting an awful lot like a man under the sway of a hostile foreign power. Hurd is not alone in thinking this.
Former House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) observed Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union”: “The worst — the worst possible thing you can do is give information from your own words that they can use against the credibility of our intelligence and defense services around the world. That’s exactly what the Russians are doing.” He added: “They’re taking the president’s words. They’re injecting it into the influence operations and that’s causing a problem.” Trump, in other words, is acting no differently from the way an effective Russian asset would.
A third Republican steeped in national intelligence matters agrees. NPR reports:
A GOP Congressman and former FBI agent says he thinks President Trump was manipulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Brian Fitzpatrick told NPR’s Michel Martin on “All Things Considered” that he drew that conclusion after the two leaders appeared in Helsinki.
“The president was manipulated by Vladimir Putin,” Fitzpatrick said. “Vladimir Putin is a master manipulator.” …
Fitzpatrick sits on the House committees on Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security. In his previous role as an FBI special agent, he said he was assigned to Ukraine and worked on counterintelligence, collecting Russian propaganda reports.
He told Martin he was “frankly sickened by the exchange” between Trump and Putin.
The congressman, who represents Pennsylvania’s 8th District, said he shared his view with former CIA agent and fellow House Republican Will Hurd of Texas. Hurd wrote recently in The New York Times that Trump “actively participated in a Russian disinformation campaign.”
The voters at large have figured out that Russia is not a friend that deserves the benefit of the doubt. According to the most recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, “65 percent of voters believe the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election (up 12 points from a year ago); 41 percent say the interference affected the election’s outcome (up 8 points from a year ago); and 30 percent think Democrat Hillary Clinton would have won without the interference (up 6 points from last year).” Trump, however, continues to stick with Putin’s line that the investigation into Russian manipulation of our election is all a “hoax.”
Perhaps the Russia investigation will solve the mystery of exactly what Putin has on Trump — or whether Trump’s solicitude is settlement of a debt (figuratively, if not literally) for bailing him out when he couldn’t get U.S. banks to lend him money in the 2000s. It hardly matters what precisely is the source of leverage — or even if Trump personally and privately colluded with Russians in the campaign. (He did so publicly in calling for Russia to release emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee; his son, son-in-law and campaign chief Paul Manafort did so by meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer for the purpose of getting “dirt” on Clinton.) Rather, the crucial problem is what to do about a president beholden to a hostile power.
Democracy activist and former Russian chess impresario Garry Kasparov knows a thing or two about Russian intelligence operations. “While it’s irresistible to theorize about what exactly Putin has on Trump to keep him on such a tight leash, it’s more important to accept the fact that it is happening,” he writes. “With the Mueller investigation indicting more Russian agents and a potential Democratic takeover in the midterm elections threatening to curtail Trump’s authority, Putin is rushing to squeeze everything he can from his prized Oval Office asset before it is devalued.” He warns, “Aside from a few notable exceptions like Sens. John McCain, Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse, the Republicans in Congress have been far too quiet. They are afraid of losing in primaries to Trumpist extremists, and fear has made them swallow their tongues. Many of these quietly critical Republicans hope to outlast Trump by not confronting him and his voters.”
This “dangerous delusion,” as Kasparov describes it, results not only from naivete but also from Republicans’ self-interest. They fear the GOP base; they cannot bring themselves to admit that they have enabled a pro-Russian operator. They surely don’t want a full accounting of Russian infiltration of the National Rifle Association. In their refusal to admit error and risk the wrath of the increasingly irrational GOP base, these lawmakers turn their foolish bet — that they would mitigate Trump’s unfitness to serve in order to obtain policy goals — into a conscious decision to put partisanship over country at a time that Russia continues to wage a cyberwar against our democracy. (As #NeverTrump conservative Charles Sykes puts it, “Many Republicans have rationalized their support for Trump by pointing to tax cuts, rollbacks in regulation and Trump’s appointments of conservative judges. But last week reminded us how many of their values they have been willing to surrender.”)
It’s not only politicians who have fallen into this trap. Upwards of 80 percent of GOP voters support Trump, and a throng of conservative media apologists insist daily that it has all been worth it (to get tax cuts or judges or whatever). Now, however, the issue is not whether it was “worth it” to have a racist president, or an irrational one, or one who wasn’t Hillary Clinton, but whether it was worth it to elect a president who takes the side of a hardened enemy of the United States. No decent, self-respecting American patriot should answer in the affirmative. Alas, far too many in the GOP still do.