Politics & Policy

The ‘Russia Hacked the Election’ Narrative Battle Continues—Are Republicans Paying Attention?

Sessions testifies at his confirmation hearing, January 10, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
A Democratic attempt to force Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from investigating Russian meddling in the election is a ploy to make him concede a conflict where none exists.

I contended in last weekend’s column that the Justice Department’s inspector-general investigation, focusing on statements by FBI director James Comey in the stretch-run of the presidential campaign, is part of a carefully orchestrated Democratic scheme to win the narrative battle over the 2016 election. The inquiry into whether Director Comey’s disclosures about the Clinton e-mails investigation violated DOJ standards is merely a pretext. The real objective is to bolster the claim that Donald Trump’s triumph was illegitimate, thus undermining his presidency.

The same strategy informs the Democrats’ continued repetition of the theme that “Russia hacked the election.” Notwithstanding that Putin’s regime did not tamper with the actual voting process and that the embarrassing information released by WikiLeaks (mostly e-mails from the DNC and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta) was true, Democrats are determined to depict President Trump not as elected fair-and-square by Americans but as maneuvered into the White House by Russian “cyber-espionage.”

Now it’s the same old wine in a different bottle.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is currently considering Trump’s nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) to be attorney general. On Tuesday, all nine Democrats on the committee signed a letter demanding that, if confirmed, Sessions recuse himself from any investigation of efforts by Russia to interfere in the election.

Let’s once again take a step back and understand what’s going on here.

If Russia merely tried to interfere in an American election, there is no basis to call for Sessions’s recusal. There is no reason to question Sessions’s motivation and commitment to investigate and prosecute espionage by Putin’s regime. The purported conflict of interest would arise only if we accept the narrative — i.e., the fiction — that “Russia hacked the election.” Had that actually happened, then it could be credibly claimed that Trump owes his presidency, and Sessions his stewardship of the Justice Department, to Russian espionage. That would be a major conflict of interest. Thus, Democrats want Sessions to concede, in effect, that he has a powerful motive to conceal Russia’s espionage — such that he must recuse himself because we cannot trust him to lead a fair and impartial investigation. Implicitly, Sessions would be conceding — and thus cementing — the fiction that “Russia hacked the election.”

In other words, the Democrats’ latest recusal ploy has nothing to do with Sessions, just as the IG investigation has nothing to do with Comey. The objective is to engrave a story on the election: The Democrats lost not because their candidate was terrible and their policies unpopular; they lost because Russia stole the election for Trump — rendering Trump illegitimate, and implicitly obliging Americans to resist him as a Putin puppet.

Democrats are no doubt hoping that their recusal maneuver appeals to some committee Republicans — particularly, Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.). A lawyer and longtime member of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Graham is rightly concerned about Russian aggression. He is also known as a lawmaker who is willing to work with Democrats where there may be common ground. He likes to appear reasonable (don’t we all?), and the suggestion that a lawyer should recuse himself over the appearance of a conflict of interest always sounds eminently reasonable. Perhaps Democrats calculate that Graham will join their recusal proposal as a manner of signaling to the incoming administration that a harder line must be taken on Putin. Perhaps they figure such pressure in the committee that will vote on the nomination would turn the heat up on Sessions to accept their terms.

I am betting, however, that Senator Graham and his fellow Republicans will not like being played. The appearance of a conflict of interest depends on the conflict’s being real, not manufactured. Senator Sessions has no real conflict in pursuing Russian provocations — indeed, we can be certain that he would deal with them far more seriously than the derelict Obama administration has over the last eight years.

Those of us like Senator Graham (and, for that matter, yours truly) who are disturbed by the president-elect’s syrupy tone toward the murderous Russian dictator, and who hope and expect the administration to sound and act much more Mattis-like after January 20, should be capable of two thoughts at once: (1) Russia is an enemy of the United States that uses its capabilities, including espionage, to influence and undermine the United States at every turn; and (2) Russia did not hack the election — however much, and for whatever reasons, Putin may have tried to influence the outcome.

And let’s add a third thought, because it is the competing — and correct — history of the 2016 election: The Democrats lost because their candidate was unpopular and uninspiring, and because their policies — especially on Obamacare, immigration, and national security — are causing real harm and anxiety to ordinary Americans. They lost because they’ve lost much of the country, not because Putin has stolen the country.

The Democrats lost because they’ve lost much of the country, not because Putin has stolen the country.

The Democrats’ sudden interest in conflicts of interest at the Department of Justice is also worth a snicker or two. Democrats saw no problem having the Obama Justice Department investigate the Democratic presidential nominee, notwithstanding that Obama had endorsed Mrs. Clinton and Attorney General Lynch was poised to keep her job only if Mrs. Clinton was elected. Democrats perceived no conflict of interest when the Obama Justice Department purported to investigate and declined to charge anyone at the Obama IRS for using government power to harass and intimidate the Democrats’ political adversaries. There were no calls for recusal when Attorney General Holder went into contempt of Congress rather than cooperate with a congressional investigation of the Obama Justice Department’s Fast and Furious scandal.

None of those manifest conflicts of interest stirred Judiciary Committee Democrats. Only now do they perceive a conflict, not over something real but over their ginned up, counterfactual claims that “Russia hacked the election” and “Trump’s presidency is illegitimate.”

That’s because it’s not about the conflict. It’s about the narrative.

Republicans: Please don’t do the typical Republican thing and say, “What’s the big deal if Jeff recuses himself? Plus, if we show we’re reasonable, maybe the press will say nice things about us.” This is worth fighting over. There is nothing reasonable about being pressured to disqualify oneself when there is obviously no real conflict. And the press is with the Democrats: If you show you’re “reasonable” (i.e., stupid) by pressuring the new attorney general to recuse himself, the press will say: “See? Even Sessions understands that Russia hacked the election.”

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