“I would not have thought that I needed to say this,” responded Ellen L. Weintraub, chair of the Federal Election Commission: “It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election.”
Next came the gaslighting. Trump indignantly tweeted: “I meet and talk to ‘foreign governments’ every day. I just met with the Queen of England (U.K.), the Prince of Wales, the P.M. of the United Kingdom, the P.M. of Ireland, the President of France and the President of Poland. We talked about ‘Everything!’ Should I immediately call the FBI about these calls and meetings? How ridiculous! I would never be trusted again. With that being said, my full answer is rarely played by the Fake News Media. They purposely leave out the part that matters.”
Actually, the media didn’t leave out any part of his answer. It was the president who, in his ham-handed attempt at cleanup, left out the truth. Stephanopoulos wasn’t asking him whether, as president, it was proper for him to have diplomatic exchanges with foreign heads of state. He was asking whether Trump, as a candidate, would accept help from a foreign government. So Trump is, as usual, throwing out absurdities and falsehoods to distract from what he said and to give his followers — some cynical, others credulous — an excuse to claim that it was all fake news.
Trump’s trucklers did not disappoint. On Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show, Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution said the lesson was that “you shouldn’t ever talk to George Stephanopoulos,” and Ingraham was perturbed that someone (perhaps a 400-pound coach potato?) put Trump “in that situation — I don’t get it.” On “Fox & Friends,” co-host Ainsley Earhardt said it was ridiculous for Trump to report foreign assistance to the FBI: “What’s the FBI going to do?” Uh, stop the election interference?
A common trope among the Trumpkins was that criticism of their idol for making use of foreign election assistance was hypocritical because, as Sean Hannity argued: “Hillary Clinton literally empowered a foreign agent who produced a dossier for the Russian lies.” This whataboutism was echoed by the likes of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who should be smart enough to know better.
In reality (remember that quaint concept?), there is nothing illegal or unethical about the Clinton campaign paying a U.S. research firm, Fusion GPS, which employed a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, who talked to actual Russians to probe Trump’s suspicious Russia links. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee admitted as much: This is standard opposition research. It is not remotely equivalent to the Russian government helping Trump win. It’s actually similar to the Trump campaign hiring Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm. Moreover, Steele did go to the FBI — something that Trump boasts about never having done.
Few Republicans were willing to defend Trump’s egregious comments outright. Instead, they deflected and minimized. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made it sound as if the real problem was Democrats “trying to keep the 2016 election alive.” Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that this was not one of Trump’s “best statements” (please cite Trump’s best statement, Senator), but he praised Trump for his “refreshing habit of saying what he thinks.” I can think of many ways to describe the president bragging about breaking the law, but “refreshing” isn’t one of them. I suppose that’s one reason I’m not a Republican member of Congress.
The final indignity came when Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) led Republicans’ successful effort to block a bill sponsored by Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) to require campaigns to disclose any foreign offers of assistance to the FBI. This is of a piece with McConnell blocking a raft of other bills designed to defend U.S. elections from foreign interference. The most benign explanation is that Republicans are afraid of embarrassing Trump and incurring his wrath. The more sinister explanation is that they are secretly rooting for Russian help again in 2020. The two explanations are not, of course, incompatible. Either way, Republicans are putting partisan self-interest above the nation’s interest.
Beyond the issue of foreign election interference, this sordid episode shows how an utterly amoral president in league with power-hungry Republicans and the ratings-driven conservative media-industrial complex has hijacked U.S. politics. Considerations of truth, justice and the national interest are utterly alien to our new overlords. All that matters is “owning” the “libtards” — and enjoying the spoils of power.