The notion that Russia tried to interfere in our elections this year is neither new nor surprising. What is new is the reported belief at the CIA that Russia’s intention was to help Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.
This is a serious charge, and it deserves to be treated seriously — and viewed with a bit of skepticism.
First, it should go without saying that Americans should not tolerate foreign interference in our elections. But I’ll say it anyway. Trump’s supporters shouldn’t brush off these allegations, and the attention they’re getting from Clinton’s supporters, as mere sour grapes. If you would find this story deeply troubling with the facts reversed, you should find it deeply troubling now.
That said, Clinton supporters need to be very careful about the “Manchurian candidate” talk. I suppose it’s possible Trump is a Russia plant designed to undermine our national interest to further Moscow’s ambitions. But it is far more likely that Russia simply wanted to inject even more mistrust into what already promised to be a divisive election. If Vladimir Putin thinks it would be nice but highly implausible to have a puppet in the White House, a close second would be a U.S. president who’s seen by his own citizens as illegitimate and is doomed to spend at least four years focused on his nation’s internal divisions while Moscow makes up for lost time enlarging its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and beyond. By meddling, Russia could achieve this goal no matter who ended up winning the election; that makes it far more likely this sowing of division, rather than the election of a particular person, was the real goal.
In other words, before talking about “useful idiots,” consider just what kind of reaction might be “useful” from Moscow’s perspective.
So it is a very good thing that congressional Republicans sound firm about investigating just what Russia did to interfere. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell today threw his support behind such an inquiry. Good; it should have bipartisan support, because Americans of all political stripes should be concerned. But it will only amount to anything worthwhile if the goal is to prevent such meddling from happening in the future, rather than seeking to undermine the result of this election.
It will be up to Democrats to ensure that’s the case. They could start by acknowledging all the conventional reasons Clinton lost — chiefly, that she is a mediocre politician whose campaign took its eye off the ball, failing to lock down crucial Midwestern states while indulging, however briefly, fantasies of winning red states such as Georgia, Arizona and even Texas. Not to mention that there were also questions about Clinton’s distance from Moscow. Take Russia out of the equation, and you still had two deeply flawed and unpopular candidates standing before an anxious electorate. It really shouldn’t have come as such a shock to Democrats that they failed to keep the White House in those circumstances. It doesn’t bode well that Democrats are desperately trying to use this issue to sway Electoral College voters just one week before they make it official.
For his part, Trump has to stop acting petulantly when people bring up the subject. He also needs to understand the terrible optics of hiring people friendly toward Putin for two of the three top foreign-policy jobs in his administration. Rex Tillerson may be a brilliant businessman and a real-life Boy Scout, but his ties to Putin (via the oil business) mean he’s not the right person to serve as America’s top diplomat in this context. (The same goes for retired Gen. Mike Flynn, minus the compliments.)
Just four years ago, President Obama cracked wise about Russia’s being our top geopolitical adversary. In the interim, we’ve seen numerous examples of just how wrong he was about Moscow and Putin. For the next four years to go any better, Americans need both Republicans and Democrats to get serious about Russia.