Why was Trump angry? According to sources who spoke with The Washington Post, it was at least in part because Trump thought that the information being provided to the committee could be used against him and, further, was a continuation of what Trump has constantly argued is a false narrative about Russia’s efforts to boost his candidacy in 2016. Republicans on the committee pushed back during the hearing in a way that Trump would appreciate: Why would Russia want to aid Trump’s reelection when his administration had levied sanctions against the country?
Step back and think about all of the ways the preceding paragraph reveals the hollowness of key aspects of Trump’s rhetoric.
We can begin with Trump’s continued insistence that Russia didn’t assist him in 2016. It did, as established robustly in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s assessment released in April. Hackers working for Russian intelligence agencies stole information from the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman and published it in two tranches over the course of the election — one timed to muddy the Democratic convention and the other to affect the general election. (Last week’s briefing, incidentally, included an assessment that Russia would again try to influence the Democratic primary.) While the effects of those releases are difficult to calculate, it’s hard to argue that they had no effect on how voters cast their ballots that year.
Why Trump continues to insist Russia wasn’t involved isn’t clear. At one point, it was obviously a function of wanting to separate actions taken by his campaign from the interference effort — a dangerous link that was rendered largely inert by Mueller’s failure to prove a connection. At other times, he’s seemed to want to establish that he won the presidency on his own merits and not with assistance. During his impeachment, though, he and his allies repeatedly insisted that there had been interference, but by Ukraine. This claim, a pastiche of inferences and anecdotes, is easily dismissed, but it does make clear what Trump finds objectionable: allegations of Russian interference in particular.
That Russia is continuing its efforts to shape U.S. elections should surprise no one for a variety of reasons. Congress has been warned repeatedly that Russia’s efforts were continuing or anticipated. For Trump, though, noting that threat to the attention of the committee responsible for tracking such threats is equivalent to attacking Trump’s rhetoric itself. Which, of course, it is — but the problem is with his rhetoric, not with the reality of what’s happening.
One way in which Trump frequently tried to wave away the idea that Russia was intervening on his behalf was by insisting that Russia would have preferred a Clinton presidency. After all, hadn’t he been the one to increase U.S. energy exports and to impose those sanctions? Well, yes on that second point, but he wasn’t always a willing participant in doing so.
Those are relatively minor compared with the benefits Russia gets from Trump’s presidency. Tensions with traditional U.S. allies. A freer hand for Russia in international affairs. Questions about the efficacy of NATO. A distrust of international accountability institutions. Perhaps the person who can speak most directly to what Russia wants is the country’s president, Vladimir Putin.
At a joint news conference with Trump in Finland two years ago, Putin was asked whether he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election. He said he did. There’s not really any reason to believe that he was being misleading then, and there’s good reason to assume that his preference for Trump continues. In June, Trump himself boasted that he “gets along” with Putin.
The more urgent confirmation from the story of Maguire's departure is that Trump's insistence that he puts America first is again undercut by the president's own behavior. During the impeachment, we were assured that his interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were centered on concern about the republic and not his reelection. We were asked to assume that what appeared on the surface to be obvious requests for investigations that would bolster Trump politically — including one aimed at undermining the finding that Russia had interfered in 2016 — were instead largely focused on aiding the American people.
In this new incident, we have a demonstration that the most natural assumptions about Trump’s motivations were correct. An intelligence official warns a legislative-branch committee about a threat to U.S. elections, and Trump’s response is to rage about how the warning is a risk to himself politically. Informing Schiff that Russia might want Trump to win may have been to Trump an unacceptable handing of a political talking point to a sworn enemy and not the proper functioning of the government.
That it could be a useful talking point for Schiff is Trump’s own fault, of course. Trump could actively reject Russian interference and have taken concrete steps to block their interference, but he hasn’t. Democrats can use that disinclination as a cudgel against him.
It seems that, to Trump, anything that undermines him is, by default, something that undermines America. Les cinquante etats, c’est lui, if you will. It’s an actualization of the actual argument made by his attorney Alan Dershowitz during the impeachment trial. Dershowitz claimed that Trump might see his own reelection as essential for the defense of the country and, therefore, that actions taken to ensure that reelection were actions intended to aid the country. It was a ridiculous claim in the context of the impeachment but an insightful argument in the context of Trump’s view of the presidency.
He is not the only one who holds this view of his presidency, that there is greater risk to the country in revealing Russia’s efforts than there is in reinforcing Trump’s preferred, inaccurate worldview. On “Fox & Friends,” the Fox News daily news briefing, co-host Pete Hegseth argued that it was the media who was aiding Russia’s efforts to sow discord by reporting on what happened with Maguire.
He presented the story as somehow coming from Russia.
“This is what they do,” he said. “The Democrats, the media fell for it, and they keep falling for it because they hate Trump so much, they’re willing to parrot what the Kremlin is saying. They are the agents of Russia, not Donald Trump, not this White House.”
The Kremlin denied reports that Russia was looking to interfere in the 2020 election. Hegseth was once rumored to be in the running for a Cabinet position in the Trump administration. He is also credited with persuading Trump to offer pardons to several members of the military charged with war crimes.