“Thank God no one is accusing us anymore of interfering in the U.S. elections,” Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said. “Now they’re accusing Ukraine. Well, they should figure it out among themselves.”
Putin has every reason to gloat. The most successful intelligence operations are not only destructive but deniable. And this has been Putin’s masterstroke—to disrupt America’s electoral system while framing a country that Russia has invaded, dismembered and seeks to destroy.
How does Putin measure his success? Well, there is the July 25 call between the presidents of America and Ukraine in which Donald Trump regurgitated the fabricated Russian charge. That was quite a coup. And then there is the case of Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., who, over the weekend, told a Fox News audience that Ukraine might have been responsible for the hacking of Democratic emails in 2016. “I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any others,” he explained.
While we have no reason to dispute Kennedy’s confession of ignorance about the nation’s security, we do know a great deal more than he lets on. We know that Russian military intelligence broke into Democratic Party computers and stole damaging information. We know this information was selectively revealed to bloggers, political operatives and the media, with the goal of harming Democratic candidates including Hillary Clinton. We know that Russian agents hacked state election boards, and weaponized social media to feed American social divisions. We can affirm these things with confidence because they are the consensus of American intelligence and law enforcement agencies—a consensus fully briefed to members of Congress and set out in the 29-page criminal indictment against 12 Russian conspirators, whose names and faces now adorn the FBI’s wanted list.
Trump’s complicity in spreading the Russian version of these events—and in disputing the one conspiracy theory that turns out to be valid—is partially understandable and partially mysterious. The president clearly views any admission that Russia aided his 2016 victory as a concession of electoral illegitimacy. But this comes in the context of a broader deference to Russian influence in Ukraine, the rest of Europe and the Middle East that indicates some deeper motive. Through all Trump’s erratic policy wanderings, submissiveness to Russian aims has remained his North Star. Is this explainable by sympathy for Putin’s ruling style, or secret admiration for a system in which journalists fear for their lives? Is it just a function of Trump’s general determination to free the world from American influence? Or is some private interest at work?
Determining the motivation of Trump’s followers is easier by far. Politicians such as Kennedy must know the truth about Russian aggression. But still they choose to suck up to the president by reflecting his manias and sharing his blind spots. Loyalty to Trump among Republicans is proved by the loosening of all other loyalties—to truth, to honesty and to the national good. By this measure, Kennedy is profoundly loyal to the president.
Whatever the reasons, the results have been galling. The infrastructure of American democracy was essentially bombed by a foreign power. And the president has responded by giving the attacker an alibi. Trump’s new nationalism, it turns out, involves an awful lot of flinching and cringing.
During World War II and the early days of the Cold War, it was portions of the left that downplayed Soviet influence and suppressed evidence of Soviet crimes—even as Russian espionage breached President Franklin Roosevelt’s inner circle, the upper ranks of the State Department and the American nuclear program. Success in the Cold War eventually required seriousness about Soviet aims—particularly its desire to dominate its neighbors, to sow discord and chaos in the democratic West, and to exercise global influence at American expense.
While Russia has become more frankly tsarist in political orientation, these goals have remained the same—to dominate neighbors such as Ukraine, to sow chaos in American and European elections, and to contest American influence in regions across the world. Now, however, it is portions of the right that downplay Russian influence and suppress evidence of Russian crimes. And for what? To serve the endless vanity of our own bargain-basement Putin.
Of all the flips by the GOP in the Trump era, this ranks among the most extraordinary. And disappointing. And disgraceful. The accommodation of Russian aggression serves as an embossed, White House invitation for future interference. And it reveals a Republican administration and party determined to end, not with a bang, but a simper.