After the vote results came in last November, many Russians close to the Kremlin celebrated. “Our Trump” — or #TrumpNash, as they tweeted — had been elected president of the United States. Few in Moscow expected Donald Trump to win, but many Russians wanted him to win, including Vladimir Putin. The Russian president so passionately supported the Republican candidate and despised Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton that he brazenly tried to influence our presidential election. As FBI Director James B. Comey described on Monday, the Russians “were unusually loud in their intervention,” violating our sovereignty by meddling in one of our most sacred acts as a democracy and not seeming to care if they were exposed. The Russian theft and then publication of private data from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta produced a significant impact on our electoral process. The DNC chair was forced to resign and Democratic supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) became more enraged at Clinton, causing many of them to stay home on Election Day. Clinton’s image was damaged continuously by daily media coverage of these stolen emails. Of course, many factors combined to produce Trump’s victory, but Putin’s intervention most certainly played a contributing role.
For its efforts, the Kremlin hoped to be rewarded. All it wanted was for President Trump to continue to praise Putin as a great leader, lift sanctions on Russia, stop talking about democracy and human rights, challenge the utility of NATO and look into recognizing Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. Some Russian supporters of Trump dreamed of a Yalta 2.0 at which Putin and Trump would sit down and carve out new spheres of influence between our two countries. Some Russian nationalists went even further, hoping for a new Christian, white alliance between our two powerful nations against Islam and China.
These hopes for a new detente, partnership or alliance are fading now in Moscow, in part because the emerging Trump team on foreign policy is divided over what to do regarding Russia policy — but also because Trump already seems to many Russian observers as a weak president, incapable of delivering on his pro-Russian campaign pledges.
But the spectacle of the House Intelligence Committee’s hearing on Russia must have given the Kremlin renewed inspiration about achieving another foreign policy goal: weakening the United States. In the Trump era, our society is deeply divided, even on the Russian threat. That serves Russia’s purposes well.
Trump most certainly has fueled deep divisions among American elites and society, pushing all of us to focus inward — on our internal polarizing differences — and giving less attention to Putin’s domestic or foreign policy behavior. Stories and discussion about Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria, just months ago the center of attention in U.S. foreign policy debates, have faded from the public eye. Likewise, top leaders in the new administration seem indifferent to the continuing autocratic trends inside Russia. When a Russian opposition leader, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was recently poisoned and almost died, the Trump administration barely took note. (Will that attempted murder be in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s talking points when he meets Putin in Moscow next month? Will he raise concerns about the mysterious circumstances surround the four-story fall of lawyer Nikolai Gorokhov, who was working on behalf of the family of Sergei Magnitsky, killed wrongfully by Russian prison authorities?)
Even more amazing is how the United States’ current ruling party, the Republican Party, does not want to acknowledge the Russian attack on our sovereignty last year, let alone take steps to prevent future assaults in 2018 or 2020. Trump continues to tweet that the “Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story,” still openly contradicting high-confidence conclusions of our entire intelligence community. In a hearing on the “Russian active measures investigation,” Republican members of the committee barely mentioned the Russian attacks on our sovereignty, focusing instead on those who revealed details about these Russian actions by talking to the press. Putin had to delight in watching Republican Party discipline in avoiding the subject of the hearing as they persistently focused on American, not Russian, threats to national security. Putin violated our sovereignty, influenced our elections, smugly dared us to respond and now gets to watch us do nothing because of partisan divides. Imagine hearings after Pearl Harbor or 9/11 that barely mentioned the attackers? Without question, Putin was the big winner from Monday’s hearing.
As a nation, we still have time to understand better and expose past Russian attacks and then respond appropriately to deter and defend against future threats. Future congressional hearings — as well as the FBI investigation and, ideally, a bipartisan independent, 9/11-like commission — have to reveal publicly and more precisely what Russian actors did during our election, including possible collusion with Trump campaign officials. The American people need to know more about Russian capabilities to disrupt our electoral process, even if those capabilities were not used in 2016. For instance, we need to know whether Russian cyber-actors succeeded in accessing computers and networks used to tabulate votes. We also need to have much greater transparency concerning Russian government efforts to use their government-controlled media, social media surrogates and bots, and fake-news producers to influence our presidential campaign. Eventually, we need a serious discussion of remedies, including possible new laws to mandate better cybersecurity for all components of our election process, as well as new laws or regulations for exposing foreign “media” partisan activities, as other democracies already have in place. None of these prescriptions will be pursued, however, if some continue to dismiss the problem because of partisan politics. Do Republicans naively believe that the Kremlin won’t someday use these instruments of influence against them?
Trump has pledged to enhance American sovereignty. Protecting the sovereignty of our elections would be a serious first step toward credibly committing to this objective.