President Donald Trump is his own worst enemy. Vanity always gets the best of him. Presented with the perfect opportunity on Monday at the Helsinki summit to repudiate Russian President Vladimir Putin for what increasingly appears to be Russian state interference in the 2016 presidential election, Trump chose to defend his own interests—and Russia’s—instead of America’s.
“My people came to me, Dan Coates, came to me and some others they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump equivocated when asked about the U.S. intelligence community’s universal assessment that Russian cyber operatives meddled in the 2016 presidential election. “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
I watched the live stream of the press conference, which concluded with Trump once again declaring Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian collusion with his campaign a “witch hunt.” Then a media feeding frenzy, the likes of which I’ve never seen exploded on the internet. Blood was in the water—Trump’s.
The president’s remarks forced Coates, his Director of National Intelligence, to immediately issue a statement that Russia did indeed interfere in the election, as alleged by a Department of Justice indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officials issued 72 hours before Trump’s meeting with Putin.
“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” Coates said.
Former CIA director John Brennan called Trump’s remarks “nothing short of treasonous” on Twitter; all the mainstream channels, including Fox News, picked the tweet up. New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer called for more economic sanctions against Russia. Anderson Cooper declared Trump’s performance “disgraceful.”
Then the Republicans chimed in. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed that Russian interference took place in the election and reminded Trump that Putin is our enemy. Even Sean Hannity admitted Russian election interference had occurred and probably helped Trump win the election—in Trump’s presence, no less.
How exactly did the Russian hacks of the Democratic National Committee’s server undermine our democracy, besides being a flagrant violation of an agreement between the U.S. and Russia not to engage in such activities?
The theory is that leaked internal DNC communications demonstrating bias in favor of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the primaries caused Sanders’ supporters, already convinced the primary process was rigged, to either not turn out for the general election or vote third-party. Thus Trump eked out an improbable electoral college victory.
Until U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosentein, who oversees the Mueller investigation, announced the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officials last Friday, I was highly skeptical of this theory. Now I’m not so certain.
According to the detailed indictment, Russian agents used the fictitious online identity Guccifer 2.0 to disseminate the hacked DNC emails to news organizations, including Wikileaks, perhaps without publisher Julian Assange’s knowledge. They also set up DC Leaks, which appeared to be an American website but was actually a Russian front.
It so happens that I regularly visited both Wikileaks and DC Leaks during the campaign. As a Bernie Sanders supporter, I was infuriated with the DNC’s manipulation of the primaries in Clinton’s favor. I didn’t stay home on election day. I didn’t vote third party. I voted for Trump, in protest, knowing my vote wouldn’t swing the election because California is a solid blue state. If the allegations in the indictment are true, it’s fair to say Russian meddling influenced me to some extent.
Perhaps my vote, which I’ve since come to regret, didn’t count for much. But what about people just like me, in swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which Trump won by a total of a less than 80,000 votes?
Obsessed as Trump is with winning, he has never acknowledged the narrowness of his electoral college victory. In his mind, he has a mandate, and the possibility that Russian interference threw the election in his favor is unthinkable. It irks him that he might not have won the election all on his own, fair and square.
So naturally Trump isn’t going to admit that Russia interfered in the election, even as Putin presented a perfectly plausible explanation why it might: In the campaign, Trump had expressed a willingness to have better relations with Russia, pretty much the opposite of Clinton and the Obama administration’s policies. For Putin, what’s not to like?
This is where things get a little complicated, at least for me. Trump, in my opinion, was more than a little bit right when he stated in Helsinki that both sides share blame for the present tensions between Russia and the United States. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S.-led NATO has expanded to Russia’s borders, in violation of an agreement between the two countries.
NATO’s disastrous intervention in Libya in 2011, scripted by then-Secretary of State Clinton, destabilized northern Africa, created a refugee crisis in Europe and allowed ISIS to spread to Syria. There, they almost achieved the U.S.-desired goal of toppling Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad—until the Russians stepped in, at Syria’s request, and stopped the Islamic State in its tracks.
Trump rightly criticized the Libyan intervention during the campaign and pledged to halt our endless wars in the Middle East. His overtures to Putin and Russia were along similar lines. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had peace with Russia?” Trump intoned at his rallies. Yes, it would be nice, and completely counter to the polices of both the Bush and Obama administrations, not to mention the whims of the military industrial complex.
Like a lot of people who consider themselves anti-interventionists, conservative and liberal alike, I bought into Trump’s proposal for peace with the Russians during the campaign. Syria remains a hot spot where a chance incident between Russian and American troops could spark WW III between two super powers possessing 12,000 nuclear weapons between them.
Yet peace with Russia has never looked more distant than it does now, in the wake of Trump’s Helsinki debacle. Moreover, as the Mueller investigation builds momentum and the midterm elections approach, America is as divided as it’s been since the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights era. We’re on a collision course with a Constitutional crisis that threatens to wreck the republic.
Fasten your seat belts.