As the highly anticipated meeting of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the G-20 economic summit in Hamburg inched closer, I found myself having the same conversation over and over with friends who only casually follow politics.
How could you possibly think that the Russia story isn’t worth covering? they’d say. Isn’t it an enormous deal that Russia hacked the election? And Trump might have been colluding with them the whole time!
Like many who follow politics full-time, I am exhausted with the Trump/Russia narrative, in no small part because it forces me to defend the president from mostly baseless charges rather than challenge his progress on repealing Obamacare, balancing the budget, and filling his own staff positions.
Months of theatrics from cable-news hosts and hysterical print journalists alike have crafted a false dichotomy in the minds of the public: Either Russia never even attempted to interfere with the election, or Trump colluded directly with the Kremlin to “hack” the results. The reality of the Trump-Russia question lies in between these two ridiculous strawmen.
David French scrupulously detailed the existing evidence and falsehoods back in March in “A Beginner’s Guide to the Trump/Russia Controversy.” Today I will try to get to those who are still falling for false narratives, and to cut through the bogus arguments perpetuated through the 24-hour news cycle. Here are the key facts you should know.
1. The Russians meddled in the election. Only members of the Kremlin and deep corners of the alt-right are denying that.
The official stance of the Russian government is absolute denial of any attempted or successful interference in the American election. Putin, Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and a number of other Kremlin officials have claimed there was no attempt to hack into the DNC’s servers or American voting systems. But both illicit leaks (such as from former NSA contractor Reality Winner) and official announcements from the American intelligence community have unanimously affirmed that Russia did access and leak DNC information and try — if unsuccessfully — to rig the actual votes. That Russia tried to undermine the United States’ democratic process is not the assertion one should question.
Even within the alt-right, few high-profile members have categorically denied Russian involvement. Mike Cernovich and the like have continually written it off as unimportant in comparison with our relationship with Russia, rather than outright deny it.
2. We have no evidence that Trump knew about this or ordered the Kremlin to sway the election in his favor.
Trump did make a series of questionable and ill-advised hires over the last two years, namely former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former campaign adviser Carter Page, and former national-security adviser Michael Flynn. (Others, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, have been called into question with less evidence.) Manafort, Page, and Flynn all had irrefutable business ties to Putin’s allies. Most egregiously, Flynn received $500,000 to lobby on behalf of the Turkish government — an increasingly close ally of Russia — and acted in its interests while involved in the Trump campaign. Trump’s oversight is indicative of his carelessness and lack of discipline.
But it does not implicate him in Russian collusion. As a Trump campaign operative put it to the Washington Post, “anyone” who came to the campaign “with a pulse, a résumé and seemed legit would be welcomed.” In fact, Flynn’s, Manafort’s, and Page’s ties to Russia do not even indicate complicity on their part, only conflicts of interest.
In other words, eight months of investigating and media speculation has produced no public evidence that Trump directly colluded with Russia to rig the election.
But still, isn’t it a big deal that Russia tried to warp one of the most fundamental processes of the American republic? you may ask. Well, of course. The American government should be investigating Russia’s behavior — but the public probably won’t know all the details until the investigation is complete, if ever. As James Comey said in his testimony in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sources who leak classified information about the Russia investigation tend to be the people who do not know what is actually happening. This informational disconnect renders it difficult for reporters to produce verifiable, thorough reports of the proceedings.
We can certainly ask, however, how such a breach of national security happened — and on that matter we have to point to the administration that had power during the alleged hacking.
3. If we want to focus on an American who bears some responsibility for Russia’s meddling, look no farther than Barack Obama.
Last month, Obama’s former homeland-security secretary Jeh Johnson confirmed that the Obama administration held back on designating elections systems as “critical infrastructure,” which would have increased their cybersecurity. Johnson told the House Intelligence Committee that they waited at least five months after receiving the first CIA intelligence pointing toward Russia’s criminal actions before publicly stating that the Russian government had leaked information “intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.” It took until December for Obama to take his first concrete actions to punish the Russian government.
The ranking Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, claimed that the Obama administration “should have done a lot more” to stop the Russians, a view echoed by a former Obama official who told the Washington Post in a bombshell report that the administration “sort of choked.”
To be clear, this does not indict the Obama administration for the crimes committed by the Russian government, but the bystander defense applies equally to Trump, given the evidence at hand.
4. The allegation that Trump obstructed justice is different from (and newer than) the baseless collusion charge.
There are legitimate questions here, but they’re not the ones the media are obsessed with.
While then-FBI director James Comey looked into Trump associates’ involvement with the Russians, Trump wanted to be publicly exonerated. He insisted multiple times that Comey state that he, personally, was not under federal investigation for collusion, and he overstepped his bounds in his requests for Comey to profess “loyalty” to him and drop the criminal investigation of Flynn. The obstruction-of-justice charge has far more of a basis in evidence than the collusion charge ever did. Still, this investigation also relies on highly classified information, the sort that reporters would have a difficult time verifying.
In short, the legitimate Russia controversy still includes the FBI investigation into the criminal actions of the Kremlin, inquiries into the links between Trump’s associates and the Kremlin, and the charge that Trump tried to obstruct justice. However, nearly a year after the highest levels of the U.S. intelligence community discovered Russia’s attempts to influence our elections, we have no proof that Trump had any knowledge of collusion — much less colluded himself — with the Russian government in these efforts. Every minute spent by the media sifting through nonexistent evidence and throwing out baseless accusations feeds directly into Trump’s derisions of the “fake news MSM.”
Like most things of value, credibility is finite. The media look intent on spending all of theirs on a cause célèbre that in all likelihood will prove to be nothing more than a witch hunt.
— Tiana Lowe is an editorial intern at National Review.