Did Vladimir interfere enough in an American election to get his pal Donald elected president?
Nobody really knows, but that cannot be the end of the story. What matters is that Russian President Vladimir Putin tried. And anybody who cares about American democracy should be worried that Donald Trump’s surrogates and apologists spent the weekend trying to make the issue go away.
They asked, in so many words, “What’s the big deal?” They insisted nobody cares except for a bunch of sore losers.
On one Sunday morning news show, President-elect Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, tried to shift the blame for Russia’s hacking to the Democratic National Committee, saying the DNC was a “sitting duck” because it failed to protect its computers. On another Sunday show, Trump’s former campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, declined to go even that far. There were only “alleged attacks, alleged,” she said, and Hillary Clinton’s loss in November “had nothing to do with Moscow.”
Even if that is true — and close victories for Trump in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania call Conway’s assertion into question — where is the Trump camp’s outrage over even the possibility that Russia tried to tilt the outcome of an American election?
What we are witnessing — and must resist — is a further attempt to normalize the most abnormal behavior in modern times by an elected American leader.
Trump was a preposterous candidate, bullying and lying his way to victory. People weirdly got use to it. Now he’s an equally boorish president-elect, much to the disappointment of those who predicted he would grow up once elected. That’s the new normal, too.
We barely blinked last week when Trump, in a tweet, called Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer the “head clown.” We took it in stride when, in another tweet, he taunted Arnold Schwarzenegger for pulling lower ratings as the new host of “Celebrity Apprentice.” Yep, that would be the next leader of the free world, fighting the good fight.
But it is one thing to become inured to Trump’s name-calling and pettiness. So it goes. It is quite another to allow Trump and his enablers to downplay or even dismiss the great danger that any foreign nation — but most especially autocratic and menacing Russia — presents when it tampers in an American election. Trump’s tactics during the presidential race, in which all inconvenient facts were disposable, cannot be allowed to prevail here.
Already, Trump’s alternate reality is taking hold. We have confidence that the two leading Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee — John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — will conduct a solid investigation into Russia’s meddling. But a third Republican on the committee, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who was quick to overlook all kinds of stupid behavior by Trump during the presidential race, could be inclined to sell out again, given half a chance. And, as reported Sunday in the New York Times, many Trump supporters already have swallowed his line that this is all sour grapes by sore losers.
It would be bad for America if that false narrative gained strength, especially as other big events in the next two weeks, including Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, crowd the headlines. So let’s revisit the strong and unequivocal conclusions about Russian meddling in a report released Friday by our nation’s top spy agencies, including the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency.
The report concludes with “high confidence” that Russia’s main military intelligence unit, the G.R.U., created a website, DCLeaks.com, to release the emails of the Democratic National Committee and of the chairman of the Clinton campaign, John D. Podesta. When the G.R.U. decided the website wasn’t making enough of a splash, it relayed the hacked emails to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.
The report says Putin favored Trump because the Russian leader liked dealing with “Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia,” and because he thought Trump saw eye to eye with him on how to combat the Islamic State.
The report says Russia’s motives “evolved over the course” of the presidential election and that its original aim, when Putin thought Clinton would win, was “undermining her future presidency.” Russia’s interference began as early as July 2015 with the hacking of the DNC.
There is more evidence cited, but for our money the real topper is that senior Russian officials, including some suspected of running the cyber-attack campaign, whooped it up and congratulated each other after Trump defeated Clinton. That telling fact, from an intercepted communication, contributed to the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow’s efforts were aimed at least in part at helping Trump win.
Donald Trump insists this is much ado about nothing, and that his critics are just gunning for him. That is Trump’s way. He is either the winner or the aggrieved.
Nobody should be fooled. It is crucial that Congress get to the bottom of what Russia did and why — and who knew what and when. The integrity of our democratic process is on the line.
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