From hacking the DNC to chemical attacks in the U.K., the president always seems unsure of what Russia is truly capable
Perhaps it is only coincidence that Donald Trump announced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's firing only one day after the ersatz diplomat had staked out a position in support of Britain and against Russia that was, at the time, stronger than Trump's or his administration's.
Trump, by comparison, had delivered a characteristically wobbly performance in the face of an attack allegedly involving a Russian-made nerve agent in the United Kingdom. While British Prime Minister Theresa May laid responsibility for the attempted murder of former Russia spy Sergei Skripal at the feet of his former government — and expelled 23 Russian diplomats — Trump and his administration initially equivocated in the way he often does when Vladimir Putin is involved, promising to "condemn Russia or whoever it may be." (That evasion conjured Trump's memorable suggestion that perhaps Russia didn't hack the Democratic National Committee but some random "400-pound genius siting in bed and playing with his computer" did.)
By day's end Tuesday, Tillerson was out and Trump had promised May forthright U.S. support in a telephone call, though she may wish to review Trump's other seemingly ironclad pronouncements (like his promise to raise the legal age for buying guns) and Russia-related rhetorical blandishments (professing admiration for Putin, believing his protestations of innocence, refusing to enforce sanctions against Russia or direct a concerted response to the 2016 meddling) before banking on Trump.
But largely eclipsed by the rise of British-Russia tensions and the fall of Tillerson on Tuesday was a domestic development on Monday: Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee declared the abrupt conclusion of their inquiry into the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections in a one-page summary.
In doing so, the committee embraced a partisan, minimalist "chaos" theory of the hostile meddling, illustrating the extent to which the Trump-Russia nexus has infected and distorted U.S. politics. This has ominous portents for the political system's ability to competently handle the next attack — or, potentially, the situation evolving in the U.K.
Committee Republicans have promised a 150-page report which will eventually agree with the intelligence community's judgments about the Russian active operations in all aspects — except, crucially, "with respect to Putin's supposed preference for candidate Trump."
Sure, Russia interfered in the election, goes this theory, but not with a specific aim or outcome in mind, merely to sow chaos. But that theory neither stands up under factual nor logical scrutiny.
It is true, per the intelligence community's January 2017 analysis of the Russian effort, that Russia initially aimed to simply undermine the U.S. political system. But, the reported added, over time, President Vladimir "Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for ... Trump." The Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee disputes that analysis.
The House GOP also seemingly ignored the more detailed case laid out in last month's indictment by Special Counsel Robert Mueller against 13 Russians which cited "operations ... supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump." Their marching orders, per the indictment, included using "any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them.)"
The House assessment also apparently overlooked or disregarded studies showing that fake news about the campaign skewed heavily pro-Trump and anti-Clinton and that three of the five hashtags most used by Russian bots were #maga, #Trump and #NeverHillary (the other two were generic: #politics and #news).
Beyond that, it's also telling that the Russians targeted supporters of independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders well into the fall, after he'd dropped out and endorsed Clinton, in an attempt to divide Clinton's base, but they made no corresponding effort to support Evan McMullin, the former CIA officer who mounted a #NeverTrump general election bid from the right. No one thought that McMullin had a serious chance of winning the White House, but manyspeculated that he could have snatched super-conservative Utah from Trump, potentially throwing the race to the House of Representatives. That would have been real chaos.
And while dozens of Republicans publicly called for Trump to drop out in the wake of the "Access Hollywood" tape, Russian forces moved decisively bolster him. With one major political party on the brink of bedlam — no one was clear whether Trump could have even been removed from ballots at that late date — a truly chaos-focused operation would presumably have tried to nudge the political system into the yawning gyre.
Instead, Twitter bots tried to reframe the story as one of "mainstream media" bias and unfair attacks against Trump, and WikiLeaks started releasing emails hacked from Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta.
Either the Russians running the active operations to sow true, deep chaos in the U.S. were incompetent beyond reason, or they had more on their agenda than merely undermining America's (limited) faith in the system.
So what are the larger implications here? That Russia favored Trump doesn't mean that he or his campaign colluded, conspired or cooperated (though there's ample public evidence for people to make that case), but the problem is that House Intelligence Committee Republicans don't seem to care to find out. Taken in tandem with Chairman Devin Nunes' previous publicity stunts - the manufactured "unmasking" fiasco and his weirdly self-destructive memo attacking the FBI and Department of Justice - it seems clear that he sees his role as protecting Trump rather than national security.
That creates two problems going forward. The first is domestic: If Mueller does find something implicated the Trump campaign — in, say, conspiring to defraud the U.S. by using fraud and deceit to interfere with the U.S. political process, the crime with which Mueller charged the Russians last month — by laying the groundwork for a political (and not a legal) defense, Republicans like Nunes practically ensure the chaos that they supposedly believe the Russians wanted, where sober, bipartisan action may be required.
The second, though, is international. By refusing to acknowledge that Russia took sides, Republicans help foster an environment in which all of Russia's actions are viewed through the lens of being with or against Trump. In combination with Trump's apparent personal affinity for Putin and his kneejerk reaction to see the enemy of his enemy as a friend, Republicans' willingness to humor and even encourage this perspective will hamstring U.S. efforts to prepare for the (inevitable) next Russian attack, both here and abroad.
The U.K.'s own experience here is instructive: When a radioactive cup of tea ended former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko's life, almost certainly on the orders of Putin's government, the British government chose to handle the matter gently. Now there are nerve agents in Salisbury. The lesson is that an anemic response only invites more; Russia will be back.
One obviously can't expect Trump to declare that Russia played a decisive role in his victory any more than one would look to Nunes to jump on the "collusion" train. But a baseline level of, to borrow a phrase, putting America (and its allies) first, ahead of partisanship, doesn't seem unreasonable in our national leaders.
When the "blame Russia last" reaction leads to unsteady support for a close ally in the face of a reckless assassination attempt on its own soil, it brings clarity to the chaos Trump and his allies are wreaking all by themselves.
Robert Schlesinger is a veteran Washington journalist and commentator. He is the author of "White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters."
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