National Security & Defense

About That Russian ‘Interference’

Vladimir Putin appears on a video screen at an economic forum in St. Petersburg. (Reuters photo: Sergei Karpukhin)
Of course Moscow tries to influence U.S. elections

So Sean Spicer says he’s not sure whether President Trump believes there was concerted Russian “interference” in the 2016 presidential election. I’m not sure whether I believe there was, either.

If by “interference” we mean monkeying around with the voting process itself, adding Trump votes and subtracting votes for Hillary Rodham Clinton, then, no: No person or organization of any consequence seems even to take seriously the possibility that this was the case. The votes were counted as cast, and Donald J. Trump, strange though the fact may be, was elected president of these United States, fair and square.

What the Democrats and the media seem to mean by “interference” is an attempt to influence the election through such means as establishing a Russian-run pro-Trump social-media campaign, cooking up “fake news” meant to be damaging to Mrs. Clinton, and, especially, stealing and releasing confidential e-mail embarrassing to Mrs. Clinton and her allies in the Democratic-party apparatus.

Foreign powers attempting to influence U.S. elections is not new. It is a normal part of politics, albeit one that ought to be resisted and, where appropriate, policed.

Moscow-based attempts to influence U.S. elections far predate the rule of Vladimir Putin — indeed, they predate the establishment of the Russian Federation by many years. The most dramatic case in recent history involved a proposal by Senator Edward Kennedy to collude with Russian operatives to undermine President Reagan with the hopes of staging a successful challenge against him in 1984. The quid pro quo proposal was communicated to the Soviets by John Tunney, a longtime Kennedy family friend, and forwarded to Yuri Andropov in 1983 by Victor Chebrikov, the head of the KGB. If Democrats want an example of what collusion looks like, they needn’t look far.

But that was hardly the only attempt. The Communist Party USA existed for almost no other reason than to act as Moscow’s cat’s-paw in U.S. politics, and it enjoyed some success in that: It maintained a close relationship with Henry Wallace, who served as Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president and editor of The New Republic. He was a good progressive who managed to convince himself that gulag encampments were collective farms and spent a great deal of time discussing sensitive government information with Soviet agents.

Turnabout, and all that: U.S. political operators regularly attempt to influence elections abroad, as do, I suppose (and hope), our own covert agencies.

That’s not to say that this is all legal or unremarkable, or that it ought to be met with blasé indifference. It is perfectly legal for Democratic operative Jeremy Bird to work to unseat Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is perfectly legal for Netanyahu to give a speech in the United States that creates political difficulties for Democrats before an election. And if our spooks are not working behind the scenes to do in the government of Nicolás Maduro, then we need new spooks. On the other hand, if Donald Trump or a member of his campaign were in fact shown to have been working in secrecy with Russian authorities or mobsters to compromise Democrats’ computers for political ends, then that would involve a couple dozen prosecutable crimes.

But I wouldn’t bet on that.

Even if one assumes the very worst about President Trump and the people around him (as I am inclined to do), it is unlikely that evidence of collusion would be uncovered because — this is key — it almost certainly is not there. I don’t expect to see any evidence of collusion between Trump and the Russians for the same reason I did not expect to see any evidence of collusion between Lois Lerner’s politicized IRS and President Obama: The invisible hand of the corruption marketplace can do its work without a lot of committee meetings. Lerner didn’t need to be told to persecute conservative political groups, and the wild boys in Moscow weren’t waiting for the keen thinking of Donald J. Trump before they got moving on whatever it is they were actually up to. Contact between the two wouldn’t serve anybody’s interests — it would have endangered both parties’ interests.

It is unlikely that evidence of collusion would be uncovered because it almost certainly is not there.

Which is to say: If you expect to find evidence of active collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign, you would have to believe not only that Trump is corrupt and immoral, which is easy enough, but also that Russian intelligence operatives are both stupid and too timid to act without approval from Trump or someone in his circle. That is a stretch.

Some Russia-watchers believe that the goal of the 2016 Russian campaign shenanigans was not to elect Trump but to damage Clinton before her election. That would make a certain kind of sense: Putin does not want a President Trump or a President Clinton — he wants an American president so hamstrung by political rancor, personal weakness, and petty venality that American leadership around the world is compromised.

Mission accomplished.

“Russia” is now shorthand for what will be an open-ended investigation of Trump and everybody around him, one that probably will last throughout his term. That may not have been part of Putin’s plan, but it unquestionably serves Putin’s interests. That is something worth keeping in mind.

It undeniably is the case that Moscow wants to have a hand in influencing U.S. elections. But other than use this ordinary fact of geopolitical life to bludgeon Donald Trump, what does anybody — Democrat or Republican — propose to do about that?


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