What’s so terrible about Russia? Serious question.
Trump is doing nothing less than destroying American democratic institutions and principles by turning the presidency into a profit-making machine for his family, by poisoning political culture with hateful, mendacious, and subliterate rhetoric, by undermining the public sphere with attacks on the press and protesters, and by beginning the real work of dismantling every part of the federal government that exists for any purpose other than waging war. Russiagate is helping him…
Among the things that unite President Trump and his cabinet picks is their propensity for lying. ProPublica recently offered a list of lies made by Trump nominees in confirmation hearings in Congress, mostly under oath. Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt lied when he claimed not to have used a private email account as Oklahoma attorney general (Vice President Mike Pence used one too, as governor of Indiana); Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price lied about a suspect stock purchase; Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin lied about his firm’s history of profiting from the housing crisis; Education Secretary Betsy DeVos lied that she was not involved in her family foundation, which has supported anti-LGBT causes and funded a variety of conservative think tanks and colleges, though tax filings show she has been its vice president for seventeen years. And, as we now know, Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied about contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Lying to Congress is a criminal offense. But Pruitt was confirmed in a 52-46 vote, with two Democrats voting in favor; Price got confirmed 52-47; Mnuchin’s tally was 53-47; and even DeVos, whose utter lack of knowledge about public education led two Republicans to vote against her, squeaked through with a 50-50 vote broken by Vice President Pence. These affirming votes took place despite the fact that it was clear before the decision that the candidates had misled Congress—and despite the fact that each of them supports policies that are deeply threatening to large numbers of Americans.
Lies about Russia are a different matter. Trump’s national security adviser, Mike Flynn, was forced to resign less than four weeks into the new presidency after it emerged that he had lied to Pence about meeting with the Russian ambassador; and Sessions, under bipartisan fire for having lied to Congress about the same thing, now faces calls to step down.
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I am, of course, merely pretending not to know what makes Russia so special. For more than six months now, Russia has served as a crutch for the American imagination. It is used to explain how Trump could have happened to us, and it is also called upon to give us hope. When the Russian conspiracy behind Trump is finally fully exposed, our national nightmare will be over.
A great many journalists and pundits have been convinced of the Russia conspiracy since December, some since October, a few since July. That conviction helps “connect the dots” as more and more dots seem to appear. Every new story makes the evidence pile up, even if it later turns out to be apparently unrelated—as in the case of the cybersecurity experts who were arrested and charged with treason by Russian authorities in December. In January The New York Times, Rachel Maddow, and a slew of other outlets reported on rumors that the charges of treason stemmed from disclosures about the Russian hacking of the US election. But a month later, when Reuters reported that the arrests were the result of an unrelated seven-year-old case, few other publications followed up on the story. The fact is, the Russian justice system is so opaque and so corrupt that it is virtually impossible to know why these men were arrested—but the arrests have long since taken their place in the narrative.
The backbone of the rapidly yet endlessly developing Trump-Putin story is leaks from intelligence agencies, and this is its most troublesome aspect. Virtually none of the information can be independently corroborated. The context, sequence, and timing of the leaks is determined by people unknown to the public, which is expected to accept anonymous stories on faith; nor have we yet been given any hard evidence of active collusion by Trump officials. As a paragraph deep into a New York Times analysis noted on Friday,
vigorous reporting by multiple news media organizations is turning up multiple contacts between Trump associates and Russians who serve in or are close to Mr. Putin’s government. There have been courtesy calls, policy discussions and business contacts, though nothing has emerged publicly indicating anything more sinister….Former diplomats and Russia specialists say it would have been absurd and contrary to American interests for the Trump team to avoid meetings with Russians, either during or since the campaign.
Given that the story has been driven by the intelligence community and the media, it is perhaps unsurprising that each subsequent revelation creates the sense of pieces falling into place. It builds like an old-fashioned television series, dispensed in weekly episodes with no binge-watching allowed. What remains from the earliest installments is not so much information as mood. Take, for example, one of the earliest revelations: in July an opinion piece in The Washington Post claimed that the Trump campaign “worked behind the scenes” to block a platform amendment that would have called for providing lethal aid to Ukraine—including weapon systems, mortars, grenade launchers, ammunition, and other armaments. The article was slightly misleading: it made it seem like Trump’s people made the party abandon a plank that would have called for maintaining or increasing sanctions and lethal aid. In fact, the sanctions part of the plank stayed in the platform—it was the lethal-aid amendment, a step that had hitherto not been taken, even during the height of the Ukraine war in 2014, that was tabled. The issue is far from a clear-cut one: few people in Washington, whether Republicans or Democrats, are on record as favoring lethal aid.
Now, the Republican convention is back in the news because one of the conversations the Russian ambassador had with Sessions, who was at the time an adviser to the Trump campaign, occurred in Cleveland, at a diplomacy panel timed to run alongside the convention. On March 2, USA Today reported that two more members of the Trump campaign—J.D. Gordon and Carter Page—spoke to the Russian ambassador at the same panel. When CNN picked up the story, it reported that “Gordon said that he was a part of the effort that was part of the Trump campaign to put some language in the GOP platform that essentially said that the Republican Party did not advocate arming the Ukrainians in their battle against pro-Russian separatists.” Correspondent Jim Acosta continued,
Of course, that was a big issue that was flaring up at the time. That effort was ultimately successful. They were successful in having that language in the Republican Party platform. I asked J.D. Gordon, ‘Well, why is that? Why did you go ahead and advocate for that language?’ He said this is the language that Donald Trump himself wanted and advocated for back in March at the meeting at the unfinished Trump Hotel here in Washington, D.C. J.D. Gordon said then-candidate Trump said he did not want to, quote, ‘go to World War III over Ukraine.’ And so, as J.D. Gordon says, at the Republican convention in Cleveland he advocated for language in that Republican Party platform that reflected then-candidate Trump’s comments.