WASHINGTON – Donald Trump has a problem that comes not from the cast of “Hamilton,” but from Hamilton himself.
In Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton deals with that odd, anti-democratic feature of our constitutional order, the Electoral College, which has dictated a different outcome from the popular vote in two of the last five presidential elections. The ultimate goal, he says, is to provide a check on “cabal, intrigue and corruption” – a threat he specifies as coming “chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”
Of a sudden, this fear does not seem quite so paranoid. A cumulative case for concern has been building for months. Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed a soft spot for an oppressive dictator, Vladimir Putin, who is challenging American interests at every turn. As a candidate, Trump publicly invited Russia to hack his opponent’s emails. Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, resigned amid reports that he had represented pro-Russian interests as a lobbyist. Trump’s choice for national security adviser, Michael Flynn, seems to be a Russophile and has appeared on Russia’s propaganda network.
In 2008, Donald Trump Jr. admitted that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” President-elect Trump has consistently refused to be fully transparent about his finances.
Before the presidential vote, the American intelligence community determined that the Russian government directed the illegal hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other political figures. Now the CIA, according to reporting in The Washington Post, has shared with Congress its finding that Russia intervened with the intent of swinging the election toward Trump. And Trump – instead of expressing concern about an act of cyberwar – has essentially come to Russia’s defense and launched an ad hominem attack on the U.S. intelligence community.
A few points:
First, the debate over whether Russia engaged in cyber espionage to help Trump or just to generally mess with American democracy is utter nonsense. Russian espionage resulted in the phased leak of material damaging to the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton at key moments during a presidential campaign. Anyone who finds Russia’s motivation mysterious is being intentionally obtuse.
Second, if the CIA interpretation is correct, this is not just one provocation among many. If Putin actually helped elect an American president more favorable to Russian interests, it is surely the largest intelligence coup since the cracking of the Enigma code during World War II. And it is arguably a bigger deal – more on par, say with German intelligence helping elect Charles Lindbergh as president.
Third, we will never know for sure if Russian espionage caused Trump to win. With Hillary Clinton losing by an 80,000-vote margin in three key states, everything – her poor messaging, her consistently bungled response to the email controversy, FBI Director James Comey’s untimely letter – can be posited as the reason she lost. A hypothetical outcome minus Russian involvement is not just unknown, it is unknowable.
Fourth, Trump’s blanket attack on the intelligence community for incompetence – as though he was still going after “Little Marco” or “Lying Ted” – is an insanely dangerous antic that materially undermines American security. Given the extraordinary range of threats faced by America – Chinese provocations in the South China Sea, Russian attempts to dominate neighboring countries, North Korea’s progress toward nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach California – a mutual trust between the president and American intelligence services is essential. That relationship has already been seriously damaged.
Will congressional Republicans pass the first big test of their integrity by convening a joint committee to investigate Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election? The ease with which Republicans folded under pressure from Trump on trade and refugees does not bode well. But few Republicans share Trump’s sympathy for Putin, and this could be an exception to their general passivity.
Congressional Democrats might take a page from the Federalist Papers and demand that the 538 electors of the Electoral College be briefed on what is known about Russian meddling before they cast their ballots on Dec. 19. This would be very unlikely to change the election’s outcome since the House of Representatives holds ultimate sway. But at least it would demonstrate the type of scrutiny the founders intended.
Has a foreign power gained improper ascendance in our country? Unless that possibility is confronted in forthright fashion, suspicion will linger and fester.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.