Good lord. We are about to inaugurate as president a man whose election, according to the CIA, was aided by a Russian intelligence operation. Try as we might, we cannot pretend this didn’t happen.
We can’t ignore outrageous interference by an adversarial foreign power because President-elect Donald Trump’s actions question his own legitimacy, or at least his fitness to hold the nation’s highest office, virtually every day.
He jets around the country holding adulatory victory rallies in the manner of an authoritarian strongman, preening like some latter-day Juan Peron. Does this worry you? It worries me.
He can’t be bothered to sit through the regular intelligence briefings that have been a vital part of every modern president’s job. “I’m, like, a smart person,” he explained Sunday. Are you reassured? I’m not.
He reportedly is likely to nominate as secretary of state a man – Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson – whose most relevant qualification seems to be his long and cozy friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Does that sound like a good idea to you? It doesn’t to me.
The president-elect appears to be assembling not a government but an anti-government. He said Sunday that “nobody really knows” whether climate change is real, though 97 percent of climate scientists say it definitely is, and he intends to appoint a fervid skeptic as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. He seeks to install a labor secretary who does not believe there should be a minimum-wage increase, an education secretary who shows little or no commitment to public education, and a housing secretary whose only relevant experience is having lived in houses. Is this a recipe for American greatness? Or for incompetence and failure?
Now we have the CIA’s conclusion of Russian meddling on Trump’s behalf. “I think it’s ridiculous,” Trump said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday.” But what about this weird and disturbing transition has not been ridiculous?
Trump notes that the CIA is hardly infallible, citing its flat-wrong conclusion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He has a point. But there is little or no dispute within the intelligence community that operatives linked to the Russian government tried, at the very least, to sow doubt about the U.S. electoral process.
To that end, the Russian government directed the hacking of emails to and from Democratic Party organizations and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and then selectively disseminated this material through WikiLeaks and other outlets. The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reached that conclusion months ago, and said so in a public statement on Oct. 7.
The only real question is whether Russia’s aim went beyond creating confusion to actually helping elect a specific candidate: Donald Trump.
The CIA says yes. The FBI is reportedly unconvinced.
President Barack Obama has ordered a full review that could settle the dispute, with a final report to be presented before he leaves office. Why wasn’t this investigation ordered before the election, since the fact of Russian hacking was known in October? Good question. Perhaps Obama worried about the perception that he was using the tools of state power to influence voters.
Putin apparently had no such qualms.
The hacking, after all, was aimed at Democrats and their party institutions. If the Russians’ goal were simply to undermine confidence in the political process, surely there would have been embarrassing releases of Republican emails as well.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed Monday that there will also be a Senate investigation. The starting point for both inquiries is that the aim is not to challenge the legitimacy of Trump’s victory. But just such a challenge may be the inevitable result.
After all, this was a very close election. Clinton won at least 2.8 million more votes than Trump; she lost in the electoral tally because Trump narrowly won Rust Belt states that were thought to be Democratic strongholds. Would she have won if she had spent more time in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania? Did the last-minute intervention by FBI Director James Comey tip the balance? Did she lose because of the original sin of conducting State Department business on a private email server?
Maybe, maybe, maybe. But also: Maybe she would have won if Russia hadn’t been avidly helping her opponent.
Our president is supposed to be chosen in polling places across the United States – not behind the imposing walls of the Kremlin.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.