Everyone who has studied the facts – a notable exception being the president of the United States – knows that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin directed specific measures to help elect Donald Trump in 2016.
All the nation’s intelligence agencies, the relevant Congressional committees, numerous independent analysts, volumes of reporting and a special counsel confirm what the Russians did. That elements of one political party and its leader dismiss the Russian malevolence simply cannot change the facts.
Vladimir Putin, the man along with Donald Trump, who has remade the Republican Party
Nor does it help GOP credibility that some like Idaho Senator Jim Risch cheerfully dismisses the seriousness of the Russian effort by saying Russians have been doing this kind of thing for a long time. Almost identical words come out of the mouth of Trump’s new hyper-partisan and demonstrably unqualified director of national intelligence.
The “this is nothing new” rationalization is, of course, preposterous. Only recently have American political campaigns involved massive use of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and only a sophisticated former KGB operative like Putin could elevate international mischief to a foreign policy, which is precisely what the Russians have accomplished.
Amid the Trumpian chaos it’s easy to forget that the president’s former campaign manager is in jail for hiding his financial involvement with Russian-connected Ukrainian oligarchs and his former national security advisor and oldest political advisor are headed to jail for lying about various aspect of their own involvement with Russia.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev with then Vice President Richard Nixon in 1959. Republican skepticism of Russia goes way back, but has effectively ended with Trump
It must be particulary gratifying for Putin that he has helped install a Republican president and assisted in the profound corruption of a political party that in no small sense owes its modern existence to decades of hostility to Russia. From Warren Harding to Ronald Reagan, the GOP warned of the evil intentions of an evil empire. Republicans, led by Joe McCarthy and a generation of Cold War hawks, both politicized and profited by their anti-communism.
American foreign policy from 1945 to the 21st Century was defined by a contest between the Kremlin and American leadership of a western alliance determined to check Russian advancement. While much of the blustering was overblown, not all was mere partisan hyperbole. Stalin and a successor of Russian dictators did foment revolution, did vie for global dominance and did threaten American interests. Putin is cut from the same cloth.
Yet, now a Republican president and much of the party’s rank and file dismiss Russia as Risch does as “overrated” and Putin and his henchmen as, “These guys, they are all bluster.”
“I suspect that, for our people [at the top], [Bernie] Sanders looks like the mad professor from ‘Back to the Future,’” Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann told Julia Ioffe, the Russian-born American journalist who provides some of the most searching current insight into Putin’s motives.
Bernie Sanders, the would-be Democratic front runner, is a convenient vehicle for sowing discord in American politics. Putin knows it if many of us don’t
In essence the old lefty Bernie, always willing to put the best gloss on Castro or the Sandinistas, is a great vehicle for Putin, “very convenient for starting a pan-American brawl,” in the words of the Russian political scientist. Sanders is, of course, less dangerous than Trump, but such an easy mark for Trump’s demagoguery, and Putin’s. The Russian manipulator loves it, Schulmann said recently, when Americans “fight each other while we lay another gas pipeline somewhere!”
Amid the clear evidence of Russian support for Trump is the equally obvious fact, as American intelligence agencies have reportedly confirmed, that Putin will advance Sanders’ candidacy because he knows it will both help his favorite Republican and sow discourse in the American body politics. Again, the Russian political scientist, Schulmann, puts a fine point on the Kremlin strategy: “Our candidate is chaos,” she says.
Putin has a plan and it is succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. He elevates his own economically challenged and ethically bereft country by diminishing western democracy. To disadvantaged Russians, plagued by a police state mentality, bombarded with official propaganda and held in check by a collection of corrupt oligarchs who loot the nation’s resources, Putin’s rule doesn’t look so bad particularly compared to an American democracy divided by race and class and ruled by a narcissistic authoritarian who constantly attacks the courts, the press and his opponents. Our chaos is Putin’s catharsis.
A divided Europe works to Vlad’s advantage, so he generously encourages Brexit and cheerleads to weaken NATO. Putin longs to control and plunder Ukraine, as Stalin once did, and Donald Trump is his useful idiot in helping with that strategy. Since the time of the czars Russia has lusted after a starring role in the Middle East. Trump has obliged.
If there is any doubt that the modern Republican Party – what’s left of it – is playing out its role in this brutal strategy you need look no farther than Trump’s recent dismissal of Joseph McGuire, the former Navy Seal admiral cashiered as director of national intelligence. McGuire was fired for doing his job, especially warning about Russian methods and intentions. The silence over the firing and the subsequent promotion of a Trump loyalist to the critical role garnered nary a word of pushback from GOP politicians. Risch, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was silent, signaling his acceptance.
It was left to retired Admiral William McRaven, the guy who led the effort to find and kill Osama bin Laden, to speak the truth about Trump and the GOP. “As Americans, we should be frightened — deeply afraid for the future of the nation,” McRaven wrote in the Washington Post. “When good men and women can’t speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security — then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.”
We should be frightened. The courage is running out of American democracy. It’s happening right in front of our eyes.
In 1965 when Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright publicly expressed the private concerns he had long harbored about growing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson blew his top.
LBJ had known for some time that the influential chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee had profound misgivings about the president’s policy, systematically shifting the burden of waging a Vietnamese civil war from the South Vietnamese army to American soldiers. Fulbright had been privately pressing his view on Johnson to little effect, so he went public.
Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright and President Lyndon Johnson
Johnson, who could be almost as mean in private as President Donald Trump is in public, complained to an aide that Fulbright “is a cry baby — and I can’t continue to kiss him every morning before breakfast.” The public criticism by a Democratic senator of a Democratic president effectively ended Johnson’s relationship with Fulbright.
But, occasionally history has an interesting way of rewarding political dissent. Today Fulbright is remembered as among the earliest and most prescient voices in opposition to the American tragedy in Southeast Asia. Johnson’s presidency was destroyed over the war and the 58,000 Americans and the millions of Vietnamese who died will forever define his legacy.
The Johnson-Fulbright history is worth recalling in the context of how virtually every other senator who has chaired the Foreign Relations Committee in modern times viewed that role in relation to the White House. The words that define that relationship would be “independent” and “equal.”
By contrast, a year into his tenure as chairman of the committee, the approach of Idaho’s James Risch stands out like a skunk at a garden party. Risch contends his approach — maintaining access to Trump, but never publicly taking issue with anything — is working because as he put it during a recent interview with Boise’s KTVB, “I think it’s good for Idaho and it’s good for me.”
The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee is among the most consistent endorsers of Trump foreign policy
But the evidence in plain view tells an entirely different story. If Risch really enjoys the vaunted influence at the White House he claims — “I have some influence on what happens in the White House,” he told KTVB — it’s difficult to see how that influence is impacting American foreign policy in any positive manner.
“His death presents an opportunity for Iraq to determine its own future free from Iranian control,” Risch said just hours before the Iraqi parliament voiced support for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, a decision, should it happen, that would turn Risch’s assertion on its head. Rather than diminish Iranian influence the administration has enhanced Iranian influence.
Meanwhile, while endorsing the “we must act” mantra of the administration, Risch has squandered a chance to help craft something approaching a coherent policy to replace Trump’s ignorant, impulsive and frightfully dangerous policy of threat by tweet. Additionally, Risch has yet to answer why the attack on Soleimani, an option open to previous presidents but rejected by them, happened when it did.
As Bloomberg News put it: “If Soleimani presented an imminent threat, why was Trump given several retaliatory options that didn’t include Soleimani? If there was an imminent threat, how would killing the top general end that threat? And if Team Trump has lied about everything, why wouldn’t they lie now?”
The administration’s justification for the attack has shifted with the news cycle and you can bet Risch will stay the course with Trump, no matter how scattered and incoherent the ration-ale becomes. Yet, the bigger question is simply: What now?
An independent chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee would have moved immediately to conduct hearings, sought the advice of experts on the region and attempted to shape what happens next. But Risch knows that any real effort to grapple with the reality of what Trump hath wrought would involve stinging bipartisan criticism of Trump’s haphazard, dangerous “make it up as you go” foreign policy.
Trump, a thin-skinned, pseudo tough guy, would interpret any critique as disloyalty and almost certainly would lash back. So complete is the president’s hold on people like Risch that the senator dares not utter an even remotely critical comment, even when the stakes amount to war and peace.
The funeral of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Teheran
Risch admitted as much in the Boise interview. “Look, I don’t go out and criticize him publicly,” he said, claiming “spirited conversation” takes place in private, where he’s able to exercise influence. Yet, consider the facts behind Risch’s assertion.
On Risch’s watch, the efforts at detente with a North Korean dictator who sent Trump “beautiful letters” continues to unravel. Trump’s precipitous decision to withdraw U.S forces from Syria has strengthened Russia in the region and enhanced Turkey’s reach. Both countries, by the way, are close to Iran. Iran has resumed its nuclear weapons program after Trump’s Risch-endorsed decision to abandon an international agreement to contain such an effort. NATO is weaker than it has been at almost any time in the post-World War II period. And the post-Soleimani turmoil seems almost certain to give ISIS a new lease on life.
If Risch truly has exercised positive influence behind the scenes, it’s far from evident. In fact, the opposite seems more probable in that whatever influence he has is lost on Trump, a reality Risch came near to admitting in that recent interview. “He is different,” Risch said of Trump, “his decision-making is different.”
No kidding, which is why a person holding the premier position in Congress related to foreign policy must be more than a partisan determined to hold his tongue to maintain dubious “influence.” Risch’s servility enables, even encourages the reckless Trump activities we’ve seen in the first days of 2020.
“What is the point of having a Congress if it has no say about a new American war?” The Atlantic’s George Packer asked recently. Good question. And why have a Foreign Relations Committee chairman if he’s not willing to publicly engage the president?
Risch actually had an answer for that during his KTVB interview. “When I’ve (privately) disagreed with (Trump) he has never, ever treated me with anything but the greatest respect. Now, I’m sure that would change dramatically if I went out on TV and tried to take it on like that. But, but, you have to deal with it as it is.”
By choosing to follow, not lead, the senator has made a historic, career-defining blunder. The mistake has never been more obvious than it was this week.
I came of age in politics when it was considered a sin – a near mortal sin – to be caught in a lie or to be deemed guilty of a flip-flop. Now shameless lying and blatant position shifting are at the center of American politics.
It is a bad, awful, distressing time for facts. Everywhere you look politicians are shading and shifting or more often bald faced lying and changing positions for political advantage.
America’s chief dissembler.
Nowhere is this denial of facts more obvious than Republican efforts to shuffle off the extent to which Russian influence has come to rest at the center of American politics. Republican senators and members of Congress regularly repeat Kremlin talking points on national television. The attorney general dismisses his own Justice Department inspector general’s report that concluded that the 2016 counter intelligence investigation of Donald Trump’s campaign was justified. And on the very day articles of impeachment are prepared against the president, Trump invites the Russian foreign minister to the Oval Office, a blatant display either of the president’s hubris or proof that he really is under Vladimir Putin’s thrall.
It is worth remembering, which is difficult to do amid the chaos that has marked American politics for the last three years, that the trail that leads to Trump’s seemingly inevitable impeachment by the House of Representatives always arcs back to Moscow, and not the one on the Palouse.
Trump will be impeached, of course, if not convicted for his efforts to bribe the president of Ukraine into announcing an investigation into a political rival. The operative word here is “announcing” since Trump could care less about political corruption in Ukraine. He merely wants a Twitter bat to swing repeatedly at Joe Biden, an outcome he has perhaps already succeeded in achieving. The mere announcement of investigations could be used, in the absence of real facts, to bludgeon a political opponent in the same way Hillary Clinton’s emails drove the narrative for Trump in 2016.
In 2014, Russia “annexed” Crimea, a part of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. Subsequently pro-Russian forces invaded eastern Ukraine. The Obama Administration led a unanimous Europe in condemning these actions, forced Russia out of the bloc of leading economic nations and imposed the first of a series of sanctions. Obama later sanctioned Russia for election interference.
Putin rebuilds the Russian Empire with an assist from the White House and Republicans
For Putin these moves against the old Ukrainian Soviet republic, as Konstantin Skorkin wrote earlier this year in Foreign Affairs, “signaled Russia’s rebirth as a great power, ready to ignore world opinion in the pursuit of its national interests.”
Enter the whole Trump-Russia thing, which is explicitly connected to Ukraine in a dozen very specific ways.
“The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” Trump told an interviewer in 2016 as he echoed Kremlin talking points. Earlier this year Trump bizarrely claimed Crimea “was sort of taken away from President Obama,” effectively absolving Putin of his obvious responsibility for an invasion and the resulting deaths of 10,000 Ukrainians.
The Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election makes clear – you really should read it – that Russia broadly and blatantly interference with the election to assist Trump and that he encouraged and welcomed the helped. Putin has admitted he was happy to see Trump elected knowing he would be a soft touch for continued Russian interference in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Former national security advisor Michael Flynn is awaiting sentencing for lying about contacts he had with the Russian ambassador in December 2016 aimed at signaling the incoming administration would work to ease Obama’s sanctions related to Ukraine. Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort is in jail for, among other things, money laundering related to work he did for pro-Russian elements in Ukraine, almost certainly at Putin’s behest.
Trump yucks it up with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador the day after he fired the FBI director as part of the “whole Trump-Russia thing”
When Trump first met with Russian diplomats in the Oval Office shortly after he had fired the FBI director, he boasted that James Comey’s dismissal took the heat off him. For good measure Trump then disclosed national security secrets to his Russian friends. That information was subsequently leaked to the Washington Post and Idaho’s Jim Risch – bizarrely is the word here too – blamed the leakers and said Trump was within his rights to cavalierly declassify secret information. Risch was correct that Trump has that right, but doing so doesn’t make it right.
In the summer of 2018 Trump met face-to-face with Putin in Helsinki and when asked if he believed Russia had interfered in the election the American president sided with the former KGB operative over the unanimous opinion of U.S. intelligence officials. He then spun a word salad of misdirection and lies about the FBI, “the server” and Clinton’s emails, a debunked conspiracy theory that Trump eventually connected back to… Ukraine.
This chain of events, a Manchurian Candidate-like screenplay, rolls off the backs of Putin Republicans like water off a duck. Or perhaps a more apt metaphor: Russian disinformation clings to these Trumpian disciples like breadcrumbs on Chicken Kiev.
Now we daily confront the systemic lying by Republican elected officials who join Trump in advancing a totally fanciful narrative that Ukraine, the country Putin continues to war with, was really responsible for American election interference. Congressman Russ Fulcher has been sipping this crazy conspiracy Kool Aid lately, suggesting without a thimble of evidence, that former vice president Joe Biden is corrupt and that’s why Trump was justified in pressuring the Ukrainian government.
Trump meets with Putin in Helsinki and sides with the Russian dictator rather than U.S. intelligence agencies
You’re left asking – and every member of Congress should be forced to answer – who really benefits from this embrace of Russian propaganda inserted into the American political bloodstream? Who benefits from advancing a false narrative about Ukraine and working to weaken a new pro-western government there? Who benefits from efforts to delegitimize career diplomatic officials, intelligence agencies and the press that has uncovered much of this sordid mess? Who benefits when Republicans like Fulcher side with Russia over the Constitution and labels an impeachment inquiry, one obstructed from the get go by the president, as a “shameful, sham of a coup.”
How did the Republican Party get from Ronald Reagan’s condemnation of “the evil empire” – the Soviet Union in the 1980s – to the embrace of a president who has courted, praised and enabled a Russian president who was once an intelligence agent of that evil empire and today seeks to rebuild it?
The times are ripe with irony. The party that once prided itself on tough-minded reality in opposition to brutal authoritarians now celebrates a homegrown con man who embodies the kind of lawless thuggery Reagan once condemned.
Congressman Mike Simpson, the last Republican I would expect to embrace Russian fables, lamented Trump’s looming impeachment by saying, “today is a dark day for our country.” Simpson is right, but for all the wrong reasons.
On April 6, 2017 President Donald Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on airfields in Syria in response to Syrian dictator Basher al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Idaho Senator Jim Risch immediately praised Trump’s action as “a game changer” that signaled a new American approach to the entire Middle East and would impress the international community.
“The airstrikes of April 6 were a good first step,” Risch wrote the next day in piece in TIME, “but the United States must go further to push back against Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran. This will require a more comprehensive strategy toward Syria.”
Risch went on: “We also need to build and support a coalition that can effectively ensure the safety of Syrians at home and ensure neither Assad nor the Islamic State can destabilize the country. This would include working with our Turkish allies and Syrian opposition, and supporting Kurdish forces fighting on the ground against both the Islamic State and Assad’s forces.”
The senator, now the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, assured us that the “Trump Administration has proven to the people of Syria, and the world, that the United States is once again willing to confront growing instability and inhumanity.”
Of course, Risch could not have been more wrong as events of the last week gruesomely prove. In fact Risch has displayed a stunning combination of ignorance and arrogance over the last two and half years in his unconditional support for the administration’s persistently failing foreign policy.
Not only has Risch been wrong about Syria, but also about Iran, North Korea, China and a dozen other places where the chaotic and feckless Trump foreign policy has produced one disaster after another, fracturing what is left of U.S. global leadership, strengthening Russia, creating the opening for a revived ISSI, weakening NATO and leaving America increasingly without dependable friends in the world.
Perhaps never before in Idaho political history has one member of the state’s congressional delegation been in such a position of potential power and influence at such a perilous time and squandered it all in subservience to a failed president. It is simply a shocking display of political and moral misconduct.
Risch has made much of his access to the president, regularly bragging about his phone calls, briefings and ability to influence Trump. As Risch told the Idaho Press’s Betsy Russell recently he intends to maintain influence with Trump by never uttering a public criticism. Well, if Risch’s logic is correct and he is only able to exert influence over U.S. foreign policy by not exercising independent leadership then he also owns the outcome of Trump’s disastrous policy.
We should assume that Risch is in the group that David Sanger, the New York Times national security correspondent, wrote about this week. “Mr. Trump ignored months of warnings from his advisers about what calamities likely would ensue if he followed his instincts to pull back from Syria and abandon America’s longtime allies, the Kurds. He had no Plan B, other than to leave.”
Among the many Trumpian disasters arising from the precipitous decision to cut a run on the Kurds in Syria is the opportunity it affords Vladimir Putin to obtain what every Russian leader since Stalin has desired – a lead role in the Middle East.
“Putin continues to get whatever he wants and generally doesn’t even have to do much,” said a NATO official quoted by the Washington Post. “He got to sit back and watch the Turks and the Americans unravel five years of success and not only did it not cost him anything, he didn’t even have to try to make it happen. Small wonder he’d interfere on Trump’s side in an election.”
And here is Martin Indyk, a two-time U.S. ambassador to Israel, writing this week in Foreign Policy: “The Trump administration likes to see itself as clear-eyed and tough-minded, a confronter of the hard truths others refuse to acknowledge. In fact, it understands so little about how the Middle East actually works that its bungling efforts have been a failure across the board. As so often in the past, the cynical locals are manipulating a clueless outsider, advancing their personal agendas at the naive Americans’ expense.”
“So, Turkey and the Kurds have been fighting for hundreds of years,” Trump said this week. “We are out of there.” That may well turn out to be “the Trump Doctrine.”
For days the junior senator from Idaho said exactly nothing beyond an innocuous, boilerplate statement of “serious concern” about Turkey’s invasion of Syria in the wake of U.S. troop departures. By week’s end he was promising to introduce “soon” legislation to sanction Turkey, but without acknowledgment that the president himself had made such legislation necessary.
Meanwhile, daily revelations about Ukraine continue, a scandal that one commentator reduced to its essence: “The president’s personal lawyer was paid by crooked businessmen from a foreign country, and then the president gave him authority over American policy toward that country. This is precisely what the founders meant by ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’” Risch has not answered a demand from Democratic members of his committee that he hold hearings on this debacle and he dodges questions about his views.
When Boise State Public Radio reporter Heath Druzin attempted last week to ask Risch about the appropriateness of an American president asking a foreign leader to gin up dirt on a political opponent, Risch refused to engage. “I’m not going there,” he said before walking away and then adding “Don’t do that again.”
In a subsequent interview with KBOI Radio’s Nate Shelman, a venue where conservatives comfortably expect to be offered up softballs, Risch fell back on the oldest and most discredited line in American politics. Shelman asked Risch if pulling U.S. troops and green lighting Turkish attacks on the Kurds was correct. “I’m not in the position right now to criticize,” Risch said, “what I want to do is get behind our troops and get behind our commander, and where we are right now and get us to a better place.”
Trump has facilitated a wholesale disaster in Syria that will ripple and roll across the region for years. American credibility has never been lower or our security so abruptly and catastrophically threatened.
But politically Jim Risch relies up on the same thing Donald Trump counts on – the credulity and partisanship of supporters, each man hoping they can get away with fomenting a catastrophe because, well, in the name of Trump they can do anything.
Little wonder Risch wants to avoid answering legitimate questions about the president. He’s like a guy caught at the scene of a crime that wants you to believe he’s had nothing to do with all the blood on the floor.
(Note: Since this piece was written a “cease fire” was agreed to by the Turkish government. Senator Risch applauded that move – without referring to the president – and said the situation remains “very fluid.” But as Eric Schmidt and David Sanger wrote in the Times: “The cease-fire agreement reached with Turkey by Vice President Mike Pence amounts to a near-total victory for Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who gains territory, pays little in penalties and appears to have outmaneuvered President Trump.”)
Nine days ago Robert Mueller III, the decorated former Marine Corps officer, the former assistant attorney general who prosecuted Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and helped put crime boss John Gotti in jail, the former FBI director, the life-long Republican finally spoke.
“I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments,” Mueller said at the conclusion of his less than 10 minutes in front of the cameras, “that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”
During a Boise TV interview a few days later Idaho Sen. Jim Risch dismissed Mueller’s statement as – he actually said this – “a nothing burger.”
Near as I can tell Risch, or for that matter no other member of the Idaho congressional delegation, has said anything about the substance of Bob Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference or the efforts by the president to obstruct the investigation. They’re all like Sgt. Schultz in the old Hogan’s Heroes television show – they see nothing, nothing.
Yet, if you actually read Mueller’s report you’ll understand his detailed analysis of ten different and very specific instances when Trump sought to impede the Russia investigation. First by firing the FBI director and then ordering Mueller’s firing, a decision he lied about and told others to lie about.
Then, as the report says, “the President engaged in a second phase of conduct, involving public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation.”
And here is Mueller from his “nothing burger” statement: “As set forth in our report, after that investigation, if we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.”
Risch leads the thoroughly effete Idaho delegation in his unrelenting effort to minimize Russian electoral interference and Trump obstruction. In February, as reported by the Idaho Press, Risch said he was not worried about any threat from Russia, calling it “the most overrated country on the face of the planet.”
In March Risch dismissed the attorney general’s initial summary of Mueller’s report – we now know that summary was highly misleading and designed to confuse and minimize the findings – by saying: “For me, there was no news in Mueller’s report.” Later in his statement, Risch criticized Democrats and the media, calling claims against the president a “charade.”
When it was first disclosed that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had talked about sanctions with Russian officials prior to Trump’s inauguration Risch’s only comment: “I have thoughts, but I’m keeping them to myself.” Flynn, of course, later admitted to lying about his Russian contacts and still faces jail time. The former Ada County prosecutor has been silent as obstruction – denying subpoenas, resisting court orders, hiding documents – continues across the Trump Administration.
In his rare public statements addressing specific presidential acts, from North Korea to tariffs to Russia, Risch always toes the Trump line and dismisses any inconvenient truth. “I really don’t believe Trump acts in ways that help Russia,” he told the PBS NewsHour.
When questioning former FBI director James Comey, who was fired, by Trump’s own admission to “take the heat off” the Russian investigation, Risch dismissed the president’s statement that Comey just “let Flynn go” as nothing more than a “hope” by Trump.
For the record, the Mueller’s report lists Trump’s “let Flynn go” comment as its very first example of presidential obstruction.
Conservative columnist George Will compares the “supine behavior” of Republicans like Risch and the rest of the Idaho delegation to “fragrant memories” of pre-World War II American communists who performed amazing mental gymnastics to keep on the right side of Josef Stalin.
Or perhaps the more apt comparison is to the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who recently repeatedly refused to admit that Trump’s “birther” attacks on Barack Obama were racist. This is the awkward reality of Trump’s enablers, the partisan promoters like Sen. Risch: if you admit the truth you risk earning the president’s ire (or that of his all-accepting base) or you can, as the senator choses, find a way to repeatedly justify and dismiss any damaging evidence of Trump’s actions, even when that evidence is accumulated by a Republican former director of the FBI.
After all, who you gonna believe? A president who uses lies as a governing model or your own eyes?
Set aside, if you prefer, clear and compelling evidence that the president of the United States tried repeatedly to obstruct Mueller’s investigation, lied about it and influenced others to lie. One thousand former Justice Department officials are on the record saying he did.
Set aside, as Mueller’s report says that the Russian government’s interference was clearly designed to help “presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.”
Set aside that Trump’s campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” and it “welcomed” the help. Set aside that the Russian “social media campaign” and the Russian military’s computer hacking operations “coincided with a series of contacts between Trump Campaign officials and individuals with ties to the Russian government.”
And set aside one of the most politically intriguing details of this whole spectacularly un-American affair, that the Trump campaign shared with Russian operatives its own polling information before the election. Mueller’s investigation was unable to figure out what happened to this information because the special counsel “was not able to corroborate witness statements through comparison to contemporaneous communications or fully question witnesses about statements that appeared inconsistent with other known facts.”
Set all that aside and consider again what Mueller left us with: “There were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”
Then ask yourself: What has Jim Risch, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee (also a senior member of the Intelligence Committee) done about that? The only possible answer is nothing. Then ask yourself why?
(This piece first appeared in the June 7, 2019 edition of the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune.)
So, the Mueller report is released, but not really released. We have a four-page summary written by a guy who owes his job to the guy who the four-page letter exonerates. And the guy who wrote the four-page letter went into his job having established that the guy who appointed him couldn’t be guilty of obstruction of justice.
We’re told we may eventually see some of the real Mueller report, a document assembled over a two-year period during an investigation that established beyond a reasonable doubt that Russia interfered in an unprecedented way in the 2016 election. That investigation resulted in the indictment or guilty plea from 34 individuals and three companies. Not exactly a run of the mill definition of a “witch hunt,” but we must be very careful says the attorney general (seconded by the Senate Majority Leader) not to tell the public too much about such sensitive matters.
In the last few days we’ve witnessed merely the latest example of the American penchant for secrecy.
Idaho Senator Jim Risch quickly embraced the attorney general’s four-page summary as the definite word on all things Trump and Russia. “For me, there was no news in Mueller’s report,” Risch said in the statement, passing judgment without having seen the actual Mueller report.
“We have reviewed thousands of documents including dozens of witness statements throughout the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation, and I reached the same conclusion as Mueller,” Risch says with absolute certainty. “President Trump did not collude with the Russians.” Fair enough, but what about the rest of the report, a document the Justice Department has described as “comprehensive?” The Clift Notes are good for cramming for a test, but real understanding means reading the actual text.
By the way, a poll from Quinnipiac University found that 84% of voters they surveyed think Mueller’s report should be made public, while only 9% disagree.
Despite public support for much greater transparency across the board, Congress routinely joins the Executive branch and defaults to secrecy. Many if not most congressional hearings dealing with Russian involvement in the 2016 election – we are told that Putin-inspired activity remains ongoing – have been conducted behind closed doors. If Attorney General Robert Barr ever manages to get to Capitol Hill to answer questions from our representatives it’s a even bet the questions will be asked in secret and we’ll depend on second, third or fourth hand spinning of the answers from sources granted anonymity in order to, as the saying goes, “discuss sensitive matters.”
This kind of secrecy rarely happened in the past. The Teapot Dome scandal and the Watergate hearings were held in full public view. The penchant for congressional secrecy has increased in parallel to the penchant for extreme partisanship.
And Laura Rosenberger, who heads the Alliance for Securing Democracy, says transparency might force a bipartisan response that would address the next Russian influence operation. “Addressing Russia’s interference is a matter of national security,” Rosenberger told New York Magazine, “and will require partisanship to be put aside to take real steps to harden our defenses, deter Russia and other countries that might seek to follow suit, and build societal resilience.”
More secrecy, she says, “would play directly into Putin’s hands.”
The intelligence agencies are among the worst at overdoing secrecy and the congressional committees overseeing the agencies now routinely aid and abet the lack of transparency. We are assured that every thing is under control, while a senator bent on secrecy in service to partisanship can conveniently say – Risch does this all the time – that he has secret information that proves his partisan position.
The National Security Agency (NSA), one of the worst of the secret keepers, was, as Conor Friedersdorf has written, “maximally secretive from the start: President Truman created the NSA with the stroke of a pen at the bottom of a classified 7-page memorandum. Even the name was initially classified. Decades later, the memorandum that acted as the agency’s charter remained secret. Reflect on that for a moment. In a representative democracy, the executive branch secretly created a new federal agency and vested it with extraordinary powers. Even the document setting forth those powers was suppressed.”
Some things are so secret we can’t even admit they exist. NSA, it’s often been said, really stands for “No Such Agency.”
The Idaho Legislature is hardly immune from this epidemic of government by secrecy. Lawmakers have been debating legislation that would essentially do away with the ability of citizens to place an issue on the ballot and the origins of the awful idea to gut the initiative process has in no way seen the light of day. Increasingly what happens in public view during the lawmaking process is pro forma, developed and rehearsed in a back room and sanctified in public procedures that appear to include citizens, but really only involves the public as a prop in the process.
How else to explain the legislature’s headlong rush to destroy the initiative in the face of overwhelming public opposition? This whole smarmy mess was birthed in secret, hatched by lobbyists over lunch. It brings to mind Art Buchwald’s observation about where real political power resides. “Lunch is the power meal in Washington, D.C.,” Buchwald wrote, “it’s over lunch that the taxpayer gets screwed.”
Government secrecy is endemic, but even more it’s dangerous. As Frederick A.O. Schwartz has written – he was the chief counsel for the Senate Committee that investigated the intelligence agencies, the Church Committee – we need to understand the cost of all this secrecy.
“Too much is kept secret,” Schwartz wrote in his book Democracy in the Dark, “not to protect America but to keep embarrassing or illegal conduct from Americans.”
And while we’re thinking about secrecy, ask yourself what the last two years might have been had a certain political figure accepted the tradition that has existed since Richard Nixon, a tradition now shattered, of a president being transparent about his tax returns?
(This piece originally appeared on March 29, 2019 in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune.)
In the wake of the latest revelations about the president of the United States the extent of the intellectual and moral rot of the modern Republican Party has – again – come into sharp focus. A party that once built a brand around “family values” has decided that Donald Trump’s involvement in a scheme that paid off a porn star and a Playboy model to hide affairs shouldn’t be treated as criminal.
The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, no squishy liberal, says the party – leadership and followers – is guilty of “outsourcing our moral, our political judgment to legalisms.”
The new GOP brand: moral relativism.
South Dakota Senator John Thune, the third ranking Republican in the Senate, dismisses Trump’s involvement in felony campaign finance violations, crimes that Trump’s one-time lawyer Michael Cohen will serve jail time for, as essentially a paperwork mistake. “These guys were all new to this at the time,” the senator says and besides what’s a little hush money to quiet a scandal during a presidential campaign. “Most of us have made mistakes when it comes to campaign finance issues,” Thune says.
Or this from Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, a pillar of propriety on everything but presidential misconduct: “President Trump before he became president that’s another world. Since he’s become president, this economy has charged ahead … And I think we ought to judge him on that basis other than trying to drum up things from the past that may or may not be true.”
You can search high and low for any Republican concern that Rex Tillerson, the former Secretary of State and CEO of Exxon, said recently, “So often the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do, and here’s how I want to do it’ and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”
Few Republicans have bought more heavily into the party’s moral and intellectual rot than the Idaho delegation. After a brief flurry of indignation when Trump was caught on videotape bragging about assaulting women the get-along-go-along Idahoans have been pretty much lock step with Trump and they generally decline to say anything even remotely critical regarding his behavior.
Senator Jim Risch is the worst offender.
Risch, soon to be carrying Trump’s water as the high profile chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, couldn’t even bring himself to condemn the administration’s handling of the brutal murder of a Saudi national who was also a columnist for the Washington Post. The CIA has concluded that the Saudi crown prince ordered the murder, a position Trump refuses to accept presumably because it would cause him to have to do something that might upset oil prices or more likely his own business interests.
In an interview with the editorial board of the Idaho Falls Post Register last week, Risch said that he had reached a conclusion about who was responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but that he couldn’t discuss it without revealing classified information. That is simply an absurd statement. Other senators in both parties have laid the responsibility directly at feet of Mohammed bin Salman, but as the Post Registernoted “on all questions having to do with bin Salman’s direct responsibility, [Risch] deflected,” obviously in deference to Trump.
Meanwhile, as the New York Times has reported, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been counseling his Saudi pal, the crown prince, “about how to weather the storm, urging him to resolve his conflicts around the region and avoid further embarrassments.” Or as one wag put it “the president’s son-in-law is giving the Saudi prince some tips on how to get away with murder.”
Trump deference – or better yet servile submissiveness – is a pattern with Risch. In the face of much evidence that North Korea’s dictator snookered Trump during talks in Singapore in June Risch has helped maintain the fiction that Trump knows what he is doing. Risch has backed administration policy in Yemen where the Saudi’s, with U.S. help, have bombed the country back to the Stone Age. By some estimates 85,000 children may have already died in Yemen, with as many as 12 million more people on the brink of starvation.
Risch, with a seat on the Intelligence Committee, has been almost completely silent on Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign, speaking only to dismiss its importance. “Hacking is ubiquitous,” Risch said in 2017 before adding, “Russia is not, in my judgment, the most aggressive actor in this business.”
We now know that at least 14 individuals with direct or close ties to Russia, from the Russian ambassador to the lawyer who set up the infamous Trump Tower meeting during the campaign, made contact with Trump’s closest advisors, his family and friends over an 18-month period and during the campaign. We also know, while Trump’s story continues to shift, that special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted a busload of Russian agents and gained convictions of Trump’s campaign chairman, former national security advisor and many others. The investigation goes on, more indictments loom and Risch seems to care not at all.
When the senator made his Faustian bargain to support Trump after the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape emerged he said he had no choice but to support the con man his party had embraced. “Without any options other than to abandon America to the left or vote for the Republican nominee, as distasteful as that may be, I will not abandon my country,” Risch said. In reality, by ignoring and excusing the inexcusable, he has put party loyalty above both his country and our Constitution.
Paul Waldman in the Washington Post put a fine point on this kind of moral rot when he wrote recently of Trump, “Once he’s no longer president — perhaps in 2021, or perhaps even sooner — everyone who worked for him, supported him, or stood by him is going to be in an extremely uncomfortable position.”
“[Putin] became convinced that the Western strategy was a regime change vis-à-vis Russia. That’s his distorted version of history. He believes that even Gorbachev may have been an unwitting dupe of the West, but he certainly sees Yeltsin, and the whole experience of Russia in the ’90s, as a period in which the West took advantage of Russia and tried to marginalize it as a global power.”
Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow from 2001-2005 under President George W. Bush
We now know – again – that agents of Russian military intelligence hacked emails of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign, her staff, the Democratic National Committee and the party’s congressional campaign committee. Special Counsel Robert Mueller acting, we should remember as a result of a “true bill” approved by a grand jury made up of everyday ordinary Americans, indicted twelve Russian military operatives for those crimes last week.
The indictment alleges “a detailed and wide-ranging conspiracy to hack into the computers” of the aforementioned political people and organizations “and to reveal information in order to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
The latest Mueller indictment also indicates that Wikileaks conspired with the Russians to inject the stolen material into the American political bloodstream and that more than one American citizen communicated with the foreign agents during the 2016 campaign.
As they say just before the commercial break: stay tuned we will be back with more.
“I would call it the rigged witch hunt, after watching some of the little clips. … I think that really hurts our country, and it really hurts our relationship with Russia.”
Despite the president’s many and fervent denials, I have always believed that someone in the Trump campaign orbit “colluded” with these Russians in order to maximize the timing and impact of the release of the stolen Democratic documents. The Trump campaign motive is pretty obvious. They wanted to win. They wanted to win so badly they were willing to countenance widespread foreign interference in an American presidential election. We don’t know this for sure, yet, but the Mueller indictment last week is clearly beginning to connect a lot of dots.
There are, of course, other plausible explanations for why a campaign would get caught up in this kind of sleazy, illegal, borderline treasonous activity. Maybe the Russians really do have some incriminating information on Donald Trump. Maybe he and his family are in hock up to their eyeballs to Russian banks and oligarchs close to Putin. Maybe a naïve Donald Trump, Jr. just got played when he took the now infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian operatives during the campaign. Any one of these explanations has the ring of truth. Perhaps they all ring in unison.
People still wonder why the smart guys around Richard Nixon, not to mention Nixon himself, thought they needed to break in to the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee in 1972. Nixon was going to win re-election against any conceivable Democratic opponent that year, but still he (perhaps) authorized the break in and certainly sanctioned the subsequent cover up. People have long done stupid things in pursuit of political power.
But, while Mueller continues his careful, even scholarly pursuit of the truth in the Trump-Russia matter, it would be wise for Americans – those appalled by what we already know as well as those Trump fans who are still unbelieving that this is as serious as it is – to ponder another question. What did Vladimir Putin want from this Russian meddling with American democracy? What is his game? Why did he authorize this? The Mueller indictment makes clear the Russians, perhaps with American assistance, committed a crime. They clearly had the means and opportunity, but what was the motive?
What Putin Wants….
Here are some educated guesses as to the “why” on the Russian side.
First, Putin, like all dictators, has one overriding objective: he wants to stay in power. One can imagine that he has loved the international attention lavished on the latest news of Russian cyber espionage designed to stir discord in the American body politic. The image provided by the revelations is one of power and that image fits like a glove with Putin’s overarching objective: be seen as powerful to stay in power.
In a particularly perceptive piece in The Atlantic earlier this year, journalist Julia Ioffe recounted a fascinating story of how Putin has created the illusion of success – the U.S. hacking operation helps with this – out of the shambles that is the Russian economy and culture.
Ioffe wrote that, “A businessman who is high up in Putin’s United Russia party said over an espresso at a Moscow café: ‘You’re telling me that everything in Russia works as poorly as it does, except our hackers? Rosneft’—the state-owned oil giant—‘doesn’t work well. Our health-care system doesn’t work well. Our education system doesn’t work well. And here, all of a sudden, are our hackers, and they’re amazing?’”
Ioffe writes that many Russians think the political hacking effort was, at least initially, less a strategic operation than a spontaneous reaction to the release of the Panama Papers, the trove of secret banking information that detailed, among other things, how Putin and his cronies have become very rich while looting the Russian economy. And remember Putin is, if he’s anything, an opportunistic, improvisational former KGB spy.
It doesn’t take the imagination of John Le Carre to see that once Russian military intelligence hacked all that political information and the release of the information deepened divides in the Democratic Party, divides that Trump skillfully capitalized on, and the opportunistic improviser doubled down. Why not implicate the Trump campaign, his son and campaign manager, in the scheme?
After all, if the Kremlin really does have something incriminating on an American political candidate, that leverage is only useful if the compromised candidate actually wins. Therefore they had to do all they could to make sure he won.
Putin’s second objective – remember he is a Soviet era KGB operative – is the age old Russian goal of being taken seriously, to be a world power, to influence events. To him the glory days of his country were when Russia had an empire, a sphere of influence in eastern and southern Europe which insured any Russian leader was a man of worldwide importance and, above all, power.
How best to recreate the old Soviet Empire with its Marxist ideology replaced by oligarchy? How to do what Stalin and every successive Soviet and Russian leader failed to do – divide and conquer the democratic West? Annex Crimea. Destabilize Ukraine. Threaten the Baltic republics. All were once part of the empire and they can be again.
Putin’s tactics aimed at the western alliance were transparently obvious. Sow discord in Britain and weaken the European Union by messing with the Brexit referendum. The same types of anti-immigrant, pro-nationalist agenda that powered Trump to the White House works for the fringe of the political right in the UK, in France, in Austria, in Italy. Putin, often funding such movements, has fanned those flames.
He must be surprised at how completely this strategy has prevailed in the United States. A recent Pew study found that 25 percent of Republican voters now have a favorable opinion of Putin, up from just 11 percent in 2015. A political party that once defined itself by its full-throated support for NATO and its embrace of world trade, a party that would have relegated to the dustbin of history a preening, ignorant con man like its current leader now cheers his every move, including a private meeting with Putin.
Pause for a moment to consider the events of the past week. The president of the United States, having already imposed punitive tariffs on most of our most faithful allies, publicly insults the German chancellor, ironically for being a captive of Russia, a charge on its face that is ludicrous. That performance roils the NATO summit. Then he verbally assaults the British prime minister, rattling the oldest, most enduring American foreign policy relationship. Then on the domestic front twelve Russian spies are indicted for interference with an American election – the president says nothing at all about this development in his Twitter account and dismisses the seriousness in other comments. Meanwhile, he heads to Helsinki to meet with the man who benefits most by this chaos, this assault on the western alliance.
And what does Putin get? Precisely the optics he wants back home.
“The mere fact of the meeting, followed by a joint press conference with the American President, will be a demonstration of power for Putin,” writes Masha Gessen in The New Yorker. “He needs to deliver nothing else. If, however, he is also able to nudge Trump toward a verbal acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Russia’s interests in its old sphere of influence—something that Putin will almost certainly bring up in conversation, making Trump likely to parrot an attitude he instinctively understands—Russians will perceive it as Putin restoring Russia’s superpower status. Putin may also suggest a deal whereby the United States pulls out of Syria. Being able to make such an announcement would make Trump feel like the dealmaker he longs to be. To Russians, it would look like they had won the war. If any deal happens, though, it will be merely an accidental substantive bonus attached to a performance designed to be empty.”
Putin’s game is to preserve his power at home and extend it abroad. He controls, with the firmness of a secret police thug, all the Russian levers of power – the courts, the press, the economy. He is the master manipulator of Russian opinion. For most Russians the economy is a shambles and daily life a constant struggle, but Russian nationalism is a powerful thing. Putin is the symbol of that nationalism and he is poised, with the help of a profoundly flawed American president, to stand astride the globe as the powerful man of history he longs to be.
How did we get here? Why have so many once wise Republican politicians, foreign policy experts and Russian skeptics allowed Donald Trump to let Vladimir Putin win? The mere fact that a Republican president and the party that now slavishly follows him have so warmly embraced such a thuggish dictator is Trump’s greatest con and Putin’s greatest win.
Russian strongmen once based foreign policy on the acquisition of “warm water ports” – the last Czar thought his spoils of the Great War would be control of Istanbul – but Putin has something even better now. He is enjoying the spectacle an increasing divided western alliance, relishing an American sponsored trade war that holds the potential to destabilize the western economy; he delights in the rise right wing populism in Europe and U.S., particularly including its racist, nationalist, press hating authoritarian antecedents. And Putin has, perhaps most importantly, the luxury of having helped put in place a compliant, ignorant American president who revels in the kind of democracy busting behavior that Putin himself has mastered.
In 1954, Republican Dwight Eisenhower struggled mightily to dissuade British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from meeting with Russian leaders in the wake of Stalin’s death. Ike fearing a “propaganda feast” for the Russians at the expense of the western alliance. “[We must] throw back the Russian threat and allow civilization, as we have known it, to continue its progress,” Eisenhower wrote Churchill. “Unless [we] are successful . . . there will be no history of any kind, as we know it. There will be only a concocted story made up by the Communist conquerors of the world.”
The Communists are gone, as are the Eisenhower Republicans. But the motives of Stalin and a succession of Russian dictators, the motives of Vladimir Putin, remain very much with us. It is a truly amazing turn in American politics that a Republican president and the Republican Party are enabling this history-bending occurrence.
“Not everything done by Lenin was carefully conceived. In particular, he had little foresight about what he was doing when he set up the centralized one-party state. One of the great malignancies of the twentieth century was created more by off-the-cuff measures than by grandiose planning…Lenin eliminated concern for ethics. Lenin justified dictatorship and terror. Lenin applauded the political vanguard and the need for firm leadership. Lenin convinced his party that his Marxism was pure and that it embodied the only correct policies.”
In many ways the “revolution” that toppled the Russian Czar and ultimately led to the formation of what we used to call the Soviet Union was an unthinkable event in both Russia and in the rest of the world. Across the political spectrum, American politicians, with a few exceptions, recoiled at the thought of a Lenin, a Stalin or a Trotsky establishing the first communist state and not incidentally a bridgehead from which to export revolutionary political thought and action. The coming to power of the Bolsheviks was, in many ways, just as unthinkable in Mother Russia.
As Anne Applebaum, an insightful historian of all things Russian, pointed out in a recent Washington Post essay: “At the beginning of 1917, on the eve of the Russian revolution, most of the men who would become known to the world as the Bolsheviks had very little to show for their lives. They had been in and out of prison, constantly under police surveillance, rarely employed. Vladimir Lenin spent most of the decade preceding the revolution drifting between Krakow, Zurich and London. Joseph Stalin spent those years in the Caucasus, running protection rackets and robbing banks. Leon Trotsky had escaped from Siberian exile was to be found in Viennese coffee shops; when the revolution broke out, he was showing off his glittering brilliance at socialist meeting halls in New York.”
A few months later these losers of distinction were in power exercising a ruthless stranglehold on the population and eliminating every visage of what had been for a few months a fledgling democracy. Oh, and of course, they brutally eliminated their opponents.
At the heart of the “revolution” of one hundred years ago – Applebaum says it was more correctly a coup d’état – was, for sure, violence, but also audacious and persistent lying.
“All through the spring and summer of 1917,” Applebaum writes, “Trotsky and Lenin repeatedly made promises that would never be kept. ‘Peace, Land, and Bread’?” The Bolshevik leaders lied about their own past and they lied about the scandalous deal Lenin struck with the Kaiser’s Germany that allowed him to return from exile to be in Petrograd when his moment came.
Putin and the Politics of Lying…
It was the birth moment of decades of lies, misdirection and tragedy that finally seemed to end with the dramatic break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. But, that conclusion may well have proven to be premature – or fatally incorrect – given the state of the Russian experience since Mikhail Gorbachev gave the world fleeting hope that the old Soviet empire might indeed enjoy a new birth of freedom. Vladimir Putin took care of that hope.
The former KGB goon now stands astride a government as corrupt and venal as most anything Lenin could have dreamed up. Putin has also succeeded where so many of Lenin’s successors failed. He has gotten the United States and much of the West to question its own democratic exceptionalism, while helping advance a new narrative based on old Soviet tactics of constant misrepresentation, doing away with opponents, press manipulation and – that word again – steady, unremitting lying.
As a special counsel and several Congressional committees probe the level of Russian influence in the last election and quite potentially the active collaboration with Russian actors by a host of individuals in Donald J. Trump’s political orbit, we should remember some recent and not-so-recent history.
How far we have come, or better yet how far we have fallen.
During decades of Communist rule in the old Soviet Union, skepticism or outright hostility to the leaders in the Kremlin became an article of political faith for American political leaders. Presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan were always wary and occasionally warlike in denouncing the dangers emanating from a non-democratic state ruled by greedy men consumed by their own lies. Stalin pioneered the Russian practice of simply erasing his opponents from history. Putin, his modern day successor, now controls a vast international propaganda network – it operates openly and brashly in the United States – that embeds the modern Kremlin line in your daily social media feed.
In the not too distant past most Americans who argued for some type of accommodation with the Soviet Union – think of Henry Wallace, a one-time vice president who saw his political career crumble under allegations of being “soft on the Reds” – were relegated to the political margins, their reputations tainted.
Skepticism of Russia Was Once Just Good Politics…
Entire political careers – Nixon, Joe McCarthy, Reagan, even JFK – were built around the belief that Soviet Russia presented an existential threat to the west and, in particular, to the United States. Few elections were lost from 1920 to 1990 by candidates who adroitly played this Russia card. The last real Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, was mocked for his prescient observation that Putin’s Russia continued to present the gravest kind of threat to American interests.
My how things have changed. With Trump in the White House his Republican Party appears to work every way from Sunday to cozy up to Putin, the new Russian Czar. On this level alone Putin’s classic disinformation campaign directed at western democracy has succeeded beyond Lenin’s wildest dreams.
As conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin observed recently, the Trump Administration is up to its neck in Russians. “We have never seen such a multiplicity of connections,” Rubin wrote, “to a hostile foreign power and lack of transparency in a presidential campaign or administration — nor have we ever had a campaign in which Russians interfered in such a widespread and deliberate manner.”
Up to Its Neck in Russians…
Consider just some of the news of the last several days:
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was found to have his own Russian connections – with members of Putin’s own family no less – thanks to the leak of a trove of offshore banking and corporate documents. It was reported earlier in the year that Ross had helped engineer deals with Russian oligarchs while the vice chairman of that interesting little Cypriot bank.
The comically inept Carter Page, another Trump campaign operative, appears destined to become the G. Gordon Liddy of the current Russian caper. (Liddy, for the post-Watergate generation, helped plan and carry out the break in of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex in 1972. He was a conspiracy theorist and more than a bit odd. Liddy served nearly a year in prison for his Watergate role before becoming a rightwing radio talk show host.) Page’s recent testimony to a House committee marks this nutty Trump campaign character as either a fool or as a deeply implicated collaborator with the Russians, or perhaps both.
Facebook, Twitter and Google have recently testified about the extent – as far they know or are willing to admit – of Russian propaganda contaminating their technology platforms. It is now beyond any reasonable doubt that Russian agents accomplished a massive disinformation campaign designed to influence the 2016 presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor, while generally creating havoc in the American body politic.
The conservative Drudge Report website, the second most visited Internet site in the United States, has also repeatedly linked to stories that originated within the Russian propaganda universe. One headline posted at Drudge on November 7, 2016 – Election Day – simply said “Obama Encourages Illegals to Vote.” The story was total B.S. and totally manufactured by Putin’s RT.com lie factory.
Meanwhile the president of the United States continues to side with Vladimir Putin against the unanimous conclusion of the nation’s intelligence services on whether Russia meddled in his election.
“He says that very strongly,” Trump said in describing his conversations with Putin during a summit meeting in Vietnam, “he really seems to be insulted by it, and he says he didn’t do it. He is very, very strong in the fact that he didn’t do it. You have President Putin very strongly, vehemently, says he has nothing to do with that. Now, you are not going to get into an argument, you are going to start talking about Syria and the Ukraine.”
For good measure Trump described the former directors of National Intelligence and the CIA, men who have testified under oath about Russian interference, as “political hacks.” As The Atlantic’sDavid Frum notes, “These are not the actions of an innocent man, however vain, stubborn, or uniformed.”
Back to Anne Applebaum, the Russian scholar. “Remember: At the beginning of 1917, on the eve of the Russian revolution, most of the men who later became known to the world as the Bolsheviks were conspirators and fantasists on the margins of society,” she wrote recently. “By the end of the year, they ran Russia. Fringe figures and eccentric movements cannot be counted out. If a system becomes weak enough and the opposition divided enough, if the ruling order is corrupt enough and people are angry enough, extremists can suddenly step into the center, where no one expects them. And after that it can take decades to undo the damage. We have been shocked too many times. Our imaginations need to expand to include the possibilities of such monsters and monstrosities. We were not adequately prepared.”
Who You Gonna Believe…
And, of course, we wait with trepidation to discover if the president of the United States, a man woefully ignorant of history and consumed by ego was himself an active Russian collaborator, an ignorant dupe, a greedy businessman or, as seems increasingly likely, all of the above.
As Chico Marx – no relation to Karl, but Groucho’s brother – once said, “who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes.”
Putin has already won a great victory in the West by using disinformation to fuel deep doubts about American institutions and the fundamentals of a democracy, particularly a free press. His victory has advanced the interests a perverted and dangerous 21st Century version of the kind of tyrannical state that Lenin set out to create a century ago, a place were truth and reason are turned upside down.
The questions for us a year into the Trump presidency is whether Putin will continue to get away with sabotaging American democracy or whether American institutions, including what remains of the political party Trump has hijacked, can end the corruption and begin to roll back the damage already done.
Jared Kushner [the president’s son-in-law] and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports.
“I have a sense that Americans are only now beginning to realize what has happened. Even leading Republicans are demanding to know what is going on. But unless something even more extraordinary occurs in the next few weeks, Russia’s American coup has already succeeded. No matter what happens next, the United States, its institutions, its place in the world, all have been left dangerously weakened, fractured, diminished.
“European leaders are openly questioning America’s role in NATO. Beijing is flying nuclear bombers over the South China Sea. Russian and Syrian troops are retaking Aleppo from the rebels. That’s the sound of thunder in the distance; the world has changed.”
How do we explain the reality of the president of the United States?
At his core he is a reality television host with a string of real estate bankruptcies and a host of conflicts of interest. He’s had three wives. He settled hundreds of claims for operating a fraudulent “university.” His long, long record of mendacity about everything from the number of floors in his Manhattan high rise to the size of his inaugural crowds has now carried over to his presidency where he continues to change positions like the rest of us change socks. The man clearly suffers from a severe personality disorder that requires constant affirmation of all that he does, but simultaneously seems to prevent him from exhibiting even a sliver of empathy, self-reflection or sense of remorse.
That he is a deeply flawed individual is obvious even to many who voted for him and yet millions continue to pretend there is nothing to see here. On one level you can understand that Trump voters made a commitment last year and, unlike their hero, they find it difficult – even impossible – to shed a commitment.
Yet, how to explain the political loyalty on the part of elected Republicans to a man who hijacked their party and by all accounts has never exhibited any loyalty to anyone? Most elected Republicans came only reluctantly to Donald J. Trump after trying out other alternatives. Meanwhile Trump stormed his way through the GOP field with an outrageous helping of bombast, hyperbole and insult, while his chief competitors largely attacked one another hoping to be the last man standing against a huckster. The last campaign may go down in political history as the first where virtually everyone abandoned the classic strategy of attacking the front-runner, while the frontrunner attacked everyone. Republican failure to see Trump for what he is and campaign accordingly was a fatal mistake compounded by even more fatal mistakes from Democrats.
And, now again we confront an astoundingly chaotic and dispiriting few days that only accumulate the sins of the president against American democracy.
Bear with me while I recount and know that this accounting leaves for another day the president’s trip to the Middle East and Europe and the new revelations about his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Russians in the Oval…
The director of the FBI, leading a national security investigation into possible collusion between the president’s election campaign and the Russian government, was fired. The handling of the firing and its aftermath compromised the integrity of the deputy attorney general and many of the White House staff, not to mention the president himself.
Then the day after James Comey’s dismissal the president invited the Russian foreign minister – described by one foreign policy official as “a complete asshole” – into the Oval Office in the company of the Russian ambassador, a man implicated in Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election. The optics alone were awful, including the fact that U.S. journalists were barred from photographing the meeting, but Russian cameras recorded the event and the Russians released the pictures for the world to digest.
During the meeting the president shared some of the deepest secrets from within the United States government with Vladimir Putin’s principle deputy in his mission to discredit western style democracy and weaken the NATO alliance. No wonder the photos show a smiling Sergei Lavrov.
The president’s defense of the indefensible was simple and simply incredible: I can do it and I did, he said. It is true that a president can declassify information whenever he wants, but that crazy and ludicrous justification came only after the administration’s national security advisor attempted to mislead the country about the substance of what his boss had done.
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, a three-star Army general who you may remember authored a splendid book called Dereliction of Duty about why people who knew better failed stand up to another flawed president in an earlier generation. General McMaster is now an object lesson in what duty actually requires. Hint: duty is not covering for a nitwit.
It was also widely reported in the midst of all this chaos, and without contradiction, that the president of the United States leaned on the director of National Intelligence and the head of the National Security Agency to support his contention that the Trump campaign has not colluded with Russia. Both men refused and apparently considered the request completely inappropriate.
Remember all of this happened in the space of a few days, hours really.
Next a senior American official shared with the New York Times the specific words Donald J. Trump shared with those crafty Russians. Trump said he fired the “nut job” FBI director in order to take the heat off the investigation into his own campaign’s conduct. Think about that for a moment.
A senior staffer to the president of the United States is sharing the most damning information possible about his boss with newspaper reporters. You have to wonder why. There is only one plausible explanation: some on the White House staff have concluded what the vast majority of Republicans in Congress have not tumbled to – the president is reckless and ignorant about national security matters or even more seriously a genuine danger to the country and the world.
Just for good measure add this context: amid the wringing of hands about what was said in the Oval Office and how damaging it might be, Vladimir Putin smilingly offered to provide a Russian account of the meeting. That could only have been a threat to expose what some on the White House staff immediately rushed to expose themselves. Slap your forehead in disbelief. This is not fake news. This is the Republic of Trump.
The many and constantly shifting explanations of why we have Donald J. Trump in the White House are mostly inadequate to explain why a manifestly unfit individual has his finger on the nuclear button. Disdain for “elites” doesn’t explain it, nor does the economic condition of too many white working class Americans. The strange attraction of Americans to the simple and often wrong answers of a “strong man” who acts “decisively” remains inadequate to explain this weird moment in our history. The only real explanation is the simple one on display daily in the Republican controlled Congress. Twenty-plus years of Republican intellectual rot and ultra-partisanship have combined to give us Donald Trump.
I’m a member of the old school. I learned my journalism and politics generations ago in the school of, if not perfect objectivity, then at least rigorous fairness. In those days there was a rough equivalence between the major political parties. No one group or faction had a lock on wisdom or truth. You could report the position of a Republican and a Democrat with a sense that each point of view had a large measure of value and intellectual honesty. But something changed.
The change in politics we are now living with came at first gradually. It was a trickle in the beginning, but then a dam gave way. And we all find ourselves engaged in a running and increasingly destructive national argument that is about little more than tribal partisanship where facts disappear and lying multiplies.
The explanation for “why Trump” is actually quite simple and political scientists Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann have described it with great precision in their important book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. “However awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge,” Mann and Ornstein note,“one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
That explanation was written in 2012, long before we could envision the Age of Trump.
Here is a more current assessment from Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s top strategist in 2008, who says the “rotten, fetid and corrupt culture that has metastasized around an intellectually bankrupt GOP” is horrible for the country and will take years to correct.
Or put yet another way: national Republicans have now for some years advanced an often internally incoherent and essentially dishonest set of policy ideas that have debased the intellectual rationale of a once genuine conservative – and responsible – party. Tax cuts trump deficit reduction under GOP presidents, but are ruining the country when the other party is in power. A “feckless” foreign policy is to be condemned under Barack Obama, but Trump trashing NATO, cooing with dictators and praising Putin is now somehow just fine under a Republican.
Republican leaders are now facing the consequence of such a craven and opportunistic approach to politics. The consequences of misleading, misinforming and misusing their followers now sits in the White House, which brings me to the junior Senator from Idaho, James E. Risch.
Idaho’s Dubious Claims to Political Fame…
Idaho, a state I called home for nearly 40 years and where I worked in and around the state’s politics for all of that period, has a decidedly mixed political history. The state has produced a small collection of truly impressive political leaders, including William E. Borah, an old-style progressive Republican, and Frank Church, an old-style western liberal. Borah chaired the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920s and was a major power in Washington. Church chaired the same committee in the 1970s and investigated the excesses of the nation’s intelligence agencies, probed foreign corruption by American businesses, passed important conservation legislation and stood up to a president of his own party on the issue of a disastrous war. Jim McClure, a Reagan conservative who served in both the House and Senate, could be a tough partisan, but was also known as a serious legislative workhorse. After those three Idahoans of national prominence the state’s Congressional gruel gets pretty thin.
Take George V. Hansen for example. A lumbering six foot, six inch 300 pound ultra-conservative, Hansen in a way symbolizes Idaho on the national stage. As a congressman Big George made a showboating trip to Iran in 1979 to negotiate the release of the American embassy hostages. The move failed, of course, but it generated a lot of news coverage that Hansen milked for all its worth. He was anti-IRS, anti-OSHA and anti-EPA. He voted against civil rights and never passed a piece of legislation even remotely important to his constituents. Twice convicted of various financial shenanigans, a judge actually said Hansen wasn’t really an evil man just a stupid one. Look it up.
The first line of Hansen’s 2014 New York Times obituary captured the essence of his wacky career. Hansen was, the Times noted, “a Republican politician whose open disdain for federal authority made him a popular figure in Idaho, where he was elected to Congress seven times, and who twice landed in federal prison.”
More recently one-time Senator Larry Craig became a laugh line for every late night comedian when his “wide stance” in a men’s restroom in the Minneapolis airport resulted in an arrest by an undercover cop who charged the senator with lewd conduct. Craig plead guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct, quickly said he would resign from the Senate, then reneged and spent months fighting his own admission of wrongdoing using campaign funds to finance his legal action. The Federal Election Commission sued Craig for misusing campaign funds. He lost on appeal.
When a sex scandal involving House members and pages erupted in the early 1980s, Craig denied any involvement even though no one had accused him of wrongdoing. Many Idahoans just shrugged and elected Craig to the Senate where he warmed a seat and engineered earmarks from his perch on the Appropriations Committee. Beyond the sex scandals Larry Craig’s main claim to Senate fame was to champion a balanced budget Constitutional amendment that his own party never supported and to carry reservoirs of water for the National Rifle Association. Although he served in the Senate for 18 years and six years in the House you can search long and hard to find a significant legislative accomplishment with Craig’s name attached.
The Junior Senator from Idaho…
Although never touched by the kind of personal scandal that came to define the careers of Hansen and Craig, current Senator Risch, a wealthy trial lawyer who prides himself on being the most conservative senator, is every bit as much a non-entity. Risch, a senior member of both the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees, has been among the most outspoken defenders of Donald Trump. Risch wears his extreme partisanship and the GOP’s moral bankruptcy on his sleeve.
Without knowing the full extent of Trump’s remarkable sharing of super-sensitive intelligence with the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office, Risch hurriedly regurgitated White House talking points on three different news programs – CNN, Fox and the PBS NewsHour – declaring that the bumbling president did nothing wrong when he shared state secrets. The real offense, Risch insisted, came from “the weasels” within the White House and the administration that leaked the details of Trump’s crazy actions.
“The real story here is there’s a weasel here,” Risch told The NewsHours John Yang. “They betrayed their own country, they betrayed their families and their neighbors, and when you disclose classified information … it is an act of treason. It’s unfortunate we can’t get that person identified, but he or she should be identified and treated as any treasonous person would be.” In another interview Risch said it was time to question the Washington Post about the sources of the leaks.
As a senior member on the two most important committees assessing the extent of Russian interference in the last election, and with extensive access to information and sources in the intelligence community Risch might have chosen to play the role of truth seeker or even wise skeptic. Instead he’s gone full partisan calling Trump’s disclosure “a good act.” You can’t find a person in the intelligence community who agrees with such sophistry. No serious person thinks Trump acted out of anything other than ignorance or arrogance.
“It’s part of this anti-Trump fervor that the national media has to try to make him look bad every time he turns around. This was a good act that he did, not a bad act that he did,” Risch said on PBS.
Risch has found no words to express even mild concern that a president under investigation has fired his investigator. When asked a few months back about Russian interference in the election Risch brushed off any concern. “I don’t think they interfered. I think they attempted to interfere,” Risch told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
The CNN host felt it necessary to remind Risch that 17 U.S. intelligence agencies came to a different conclusion.
These are simply astounding statements by a U.S. Senator with broad access to intelligence and foreign policy knowledge. So astounding in fact that former Idaho attorney general and state Supreme Court justice Jim Jones, a Republican who once harbored his own Senate aspirations, observed in a recent newspaper column that he was “having a hard time understanding the Republican Party that I joined back in the early 1960s.”
With Risch no doubt in mind, Jones, now retired, asked “Has the Republican Party turned into such a hyper-partisan entity that it is not willing to get to the bottom of this alarming mess? Seems so.”
The glaring reality of the “intellectually bankrupt GOP” is clearly on display with politicians like Jim Risch. His knee jerk defense of Trump stands in stark contrast to his knee jerk denunciations of the previous president. He excuses behavior today that he would have condemned as treasonous a year ago. It is the behavior of a political hack, not a serious senator.
Risch’s behavior and hyper-partisanship conjure up memories of another Idaho Republican senator from the 1950s. Herman Welker was another political non-entity with no legislative accomplishments who nonetheless drove fear of Communism into a single, forgettable Senate term. To the extent Welker is remembered at all today relates to his slavish devotion to Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, an earlier demagogue not infrequently compared to our current American demagogue. Welker defended McCarthy to the bitter, bitter end, condemned McCarthy’s “unfair” treatment by the press, berated McCarthy’s critics and voted against McCarthy’s censure. History has treated Welker harshly – there are no monuments to the man in Idaho – and will, I suspect, treat Republicans like Risch just as roughly.
The party that once made it an article of faith to abhor almost any coziness with a dictator in the Kremlin now regularly apologizes for a president who acts more and more in the interest of Putin and at the expense of America’s standing around the world. It is simply a remarkable transformation and unlike anything we have witnessed in politics of our lifetimes.
Pause and review for a moment the developments of the last two weeks, including former CIA director John Brennan’s recent testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, a portion of which is quoted above. Then ask yourself what being a United States senator really entails?
Is independence part of the job? Maybe embracing a penchant for facts over rank partisan obfuscation is what the founders had in mind when they gave the Senate power to check the excesses of a reckless chief executive. Maybe the guts to stand up to a clown is part of the job even if it puts a senator in the uncomfortable position of bucking the prevailing sentiment of his party. Perhaps country really should come before partisanship.
The unprecedented leaking from the White House and the intelligence community might well be a reason for concern if the president of the United States were even remotely capable of exercising his responsibilities. But that is not the state of play in American politics. Jim Risch would shut down the “weasels” that are helping all of us understand the dangers of a president both intellectually unprepared for the job and too ignorant to know what he doesn’t know.
At a moment when history demands political leaders who stand for something bigger than their own party and who believe in something more important than the next election, the junior senator from Idaho is playing a role that has become all too common. It may be politically safe, at least for a while longer, to cozy up to Trump, but excusing his behavior has absolutely nothing to do with duty, honor and country.
There will be a day of reckoning with all the nonsense and incompetence and possibly worse that Republicans have embraced in their subservience to Trump. Some in safe seats will survive the ultimate blowback, while others will be shown the door. All will live and die with the taint – or the stink – of a kind of immoral collaboration that already has them being labeled “Vichy Republicans.”
Meanwhile, looking at the conduct of craven politicians like Jim Risch I almost find myself longing for a politician who was just a stupid crook. Ol’ George Hansen suddenly doesn’t look so bad.