The more I read about the firestorm that has erupted over possible contacts between officials of and advisers to President Trump’s campaign for the White House, his transition team, and members of his new administration on the one hand, and the Russian government and/or its agents on the other, the less sense any of it makes to me.
That goes double – at least – for the charge that is only rarely made explicit but that is central to this entire uproar: that Trump’s outsider nature and supposedly authoritarian, anti-democratic instincts opened the door to an alliance with Russian leader Vladimir Putin that aided his November victory. More specifically, insinuations have been made that figures either officially or unofficially associated with Mr. Trump “colluded” with the Russians in their efforts to undermine Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.
Of course, the fire keeps getting fueled by the failure of the supposed Trump-ist conspirators to provide forthright answers to questions about their recent contacts with Putin’s aides and surrogates. By their own belated admissions now, the president’s briefly serving White House national security adviser Michael T. Flynn and his Attorney General, former Senator Jeff Sessions, held either meetings or communications with Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the transition and campaign, respectively, that they did not originally acknowledge.
Nothing could have been easier, the entirely reasonable argument goes, than for them to have been up front right away. Flynn, for example, is alleged to have broken with an important American tradition that only one person serves as president at a time when he spoke with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about America’s anti-Russia sanctions. It’s true that former President Obama’s second term ran through midday, January 20, and that he and his officials alone possessed the authority to conduct the nation’s foreign relations. In addition, Flynn might have violated a law preventing private citizens from interfering with official American diplomacy – though it’s unclear whether the Logan Act applies to transition team officials like Flynn at the time.
But wouldn’t the former general have been much better off – let alone Mr. Trump – had he simply stated that he broached the subject of sanctions (as opposed to simply introducing himself and starting to get acquainted) because Russia is an important country and he wanted to help the administration hit the ground running?
And Sessions has now stated that his original answers at his Senate confirmation regarding such meetings assumed that the questions were focused on meetings dealing with his position in the Trump campaign and that concerned campaign matters. But why engage in such Clintonian parsing if everything was on the up and up?
After all, his first such contact with Kislyak took place at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, at a meeting co-sponsored by the Obama State Department. The second – also with Kislyak – took place in his Senate office, in September. As a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, what could be more natural than a lawmaker meeting with a representative of a major power? The answer? “Nothing.” Such events have become routine – and should be, if Congress is to play the important role in foreign policymaking assigned it by the Constitution. How difficult would it have been for Sessions to make these points in the first place?
One obvious retort is that the president’s enemies are so loaded for bear that even such reasonable explanations wouldn’t have satisfied them – and were likeliest to egg them on further. But it should be equally obvious that the real political prize here is the American middle, which historically has a knack for distinguishing the truth-tellers from the fear-mongers.
Even more bizarre, however (and that’s a high bar!), is the more fundamental notion that the Russians thought a concerted effort to fix the U.S. election was a stroke of genius. That may indeed have been the case – I sure don’t have any inside info on the Kremlin. But let me count the biggest reasons why Putin should have laughed out of his office anyone who made this proposal.
First, with his KGB background, Putin of all people should know that it’s almost impossible to keep any significant secrets in the American political world, let alone one this big. One major reason, of course – this plan would have had to have been kept from any number of foreign intelligence services as well, if only because so many other national governments have big stakes in American presidential elections, too.
Second, precisely because of these excellent chances of discovery, the upside of any successful election rigging would have been severely limited. Had Clinton won, after all, at least for the medium term, Moscow would have guaranteed that Barack Obama’s successor would have taken much harder-line anti-Russian positions across the board in American foreign policy. But even had the alleged plot succeeded, every word or action taken by Mr. Trump suggesting a more conciliatory policy would – as has been clear already – have come under the harshest suspicion. Indeed, the new administration has faced continuing heavy pressure to demonstrate what might be called some anti-Russia street cred – on top of already having named some prominent Russia hawks to key posts.
Third, the cost-benefit calculus of a political interference campaign looks even worse upon recalling the conventional wisdom that Mr. Trump was heading toward an historic defeat at the polls. Why take major chances on behalf of such a likely and big loser? In this vein, it’s fascinating to note that the January American intelligence community report on the Russian influence campaign suggested that the Kremlin (as with so many others) anticipated a Clinton win as late as election night.
Fourth, if Russian intelligence was even minimally competent, it would have known that a Trump presidency would have been more favorable to Moscow even without actively cooperation with his presidential campaign. For Mr. Trump had long criticized U.S. foreign policymaking for picking needless overseas fights that too often turned into bloody and hideously expensive quagmires (like the second Iraq war). And for even longer he had insisted that America’s military actions abroad be restricted to crises where the nation’s security was directly threatened.
But as indicated above, the American intelligence community has stated that Putin – although concerned about a “backfire” effect from direct Putin praise of candidate Trump – did in fact order precisely this kind of anti-Clinton, pro-Trump “influence campaign”. Given all the claims from every quarter of American politics that the Russian leader is a diabolically dangerous mastermind, this decision simply adds to my list of “Russia-gate” developments that I find completely mystifying.
Not that my own befuddlement means that there’s no fire behind any of this smoke, or that Russian interference in U.S. elections should be accepted simply because it might have been ineptly conceived or carried out. (What if Moscow or others one day get the hang of this?) Until and unless much more serious disclosures emerge, however, it could well mean that Trump-haters and the Mainstream Media need to hold their hysteria about the Trump-Russia connection. And the president and his team stop needlessly shooting themselves in their feet.