In their zeal to portray Donald Trump as a dangerous threat to national security, the Clinton campaign has taken a starkly anti-Russian stance, one that completes a total role reversal for the two major American parties on U.S.-Russian relations that Hillary Clinton will now be committed to, if she becomes president.
The side switching between the parties on Russia is the result of two converging trends. U.S.-Russian relations have gone downhill since Russian President Vladimir Putin came back to power in 2012, torpedoing the Obama administration’s first term outreach to Moscow, which Clinton led. Then, in the past year, Trump’s Russia-friendly policy has filled the pro-engagement space that Democrats once occupied.
And now, for mostly political reasons, the Clinton campaign has decided to escalate its rhetoric on Russia. After Trump suggested Wednesday that if Russia had indeed hacked Clinton’s private email server it should release the emails, the Clinton campaign sent out its Democratic surrogates to bash Russia and Trump in a manner traditionally reserved for Republicans.
“This has gone from being a matter of curiosity, and a matter of politics, to being a national security issue,” Clinton senior foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan said.
Set to one side that Trump was probably joking. Russia clearly does not need Trump’s permission to hack U.S. political organizations or government institutions. And there’s no consensus that Russia released the Democratic National Committee emails in order to disrupt the presidential election. In fact, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has his own personal vendetta against Clinton, claimed that he alone chose the timing of the release of the DNC emails.
Regardless, the idea that a GOP presidential nominee would endorse Russian cyber-espionage was too tempting for the Clinton campaign to resist, especially on the day their convention was dedicated to painting Trump as dangerous on national security.
At an event on the sidelines of the convention Wednesday, several top Clinton national security surrogates focused on Trump’s latest comments to argue that they embolden Russia in its plan to destabilize and dominate the West. Former national security adviser Tom Donilon said that Russia is interfering with elections all over Europe and said Trump is helping Russia directly.
“The Russians have engaged in cyberattacks in a number of places that we know about, in Georgia, in Estonia and in Ukraine. . . . In the Russian takeover of Crimea, information warfare was a central part of their operations,” Donilon said. “To dangerously embrace a set of strategies by the Russian Federation that are intent on undermining key Western institutions . . . is playing into the hands of Russian strategy.”
Former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta said that if Donilon was still in the White House, he would have tasked the CIA to retaliate against Moscow. Panetta then doubled down on Sullivan’s argument that Trump’s comments by themselves are making the United States less safe.
“This is crazy stuff, and yet somehow you get the sense that people think it’s a joke. It has already represented a threat to our national security,” Panetta said. “Because if you go abroad and talk to people, they are very worried that someone like this could become president of the United States.”
In 2008, the Russian government was definitely not rooting for the Republican candidate for president. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) had made a feature of his campaign a pledge to stand up to Russian aggression and dispatched two top surrogates to Georgia after the Russian invasion.
In 2012, Mitt Romney warned that Russia was the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe.” Then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry mocked Romney at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, saying that Romney got his information about Russia from the movie “Rocky IV.”
This year, the Clinton team is accusing Putin of waging information warfare against the Democratic candidate in order to help elect the Republican candidate. Clinton is also running ads claiming she stood up to Putin. Meanwhile, Trump is called for a weakening of NATO and his staff worked to remove an anti-Russia stance on Ukraine from the GOP platform.
Now that the Democrats are the tough-on-Russia party, they should explain exactly what that means. What would Clinton do about Russia’s increasingly aggressive cyber-espionage and information warfare in Europe and around the world? Would she expand sanctions on Russia in response to the hacks? Would she use U.S. cyber forces to retaliate? Would she abandon President Obama’s plan to deepen U.S.-Russian military and intelligence cooperation in Syria?
The Clinton team hasn’t said. For now, they are content to use Trump’s statements about Russia to make the argument that he’s not commander-in-chief material. But if Clinton wins, she will be committed to implementing the anti-Putin, tough-on-Russia policy she is running on and Democrats will need to fall in line. If Putin wasn’t rooting for Trump before, he is now.