The biggest questions looming over Monday’s congressional hearing on Russian interference in the election are ones we may never be able to answer: What exactly did Vladimir Putin think he was going to achieve by meddling in America’s presidential race, and how was Donald Trump supposed to help him achieve it? FBI Director James Comey’s stark confirmation of an active counterintelligence investigation — not only into the Kremlin’s actions, but also into possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign — suggests that pieces of an answer will surface in the coming weeks and months. (Just last night, CNN reported that the FBI has information indicating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump team.) Yet the fact that those pieces may not cohere into a fully satisfying explanation, at least not anytime soon, should not obscure what the hearing, and the Republicans’ role in it, made glaringly clear. In an important sense, Putin has already won.
The key revelations before the House Intelligence Committee did not bode well for Trump. The blunt dismissal of his wiretapping tweets, the explicit reference to “coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” the pointed mention of possible criminal charges: All signal that the scandal will continue to unfold in ways that would have once seemed unthinkable. That sense only deepened Wednesday when committee chairman Representative Devin Nunes, a Republican from California, dramatically broke protocol to hold a series of press conferences seemingly intended to defend Trump’s unhinged wiretapping allegations and turn attention away from questions of possible collusion.
Yet in their basic substance, the statements by Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers mostly confirmed what we’ve known for a while. Even if not a single additional fact about Russian activities or campaign collusion emerges, we know that the Kremlin set out to interfere in the American electoral process, both by hacking and releasing Democrats’ emails, and by helping channel a torrent of disinformation into voters’ inboxes and news feeds. We know that U.S. intelligence agencies have uniformly concluded that these activities were intended not simply to sow general chaos and suspicion, but to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Trump. We know that a slew of top Trump campaign and administration figures had repeated contact with Russian officials and operatives, and perhaps more tellingly, that some felt it necessary to lie about that contact, to their colleagues, to Congress, and to the press. And we know that Trump has been erratic and misleading in describing his own Russian business entanglements, and refused to do the one thing — release his tax returns — that could clear away suspicion.
More disturbing than any specific revelation from Comey or Rogers was what came afterward, over the course of five hours in full televised view of the American public and the rest of the world. The reaction by the House committee was not to close ranks and press for additional facts on what already stands as a singular case of foreign meddling in America’s democratic process. Instead, one side rushed to distract from the main story with a flurry of tangents and misdirection on the matter of classified leaks, intent on protecting their party’s man in the White House with little pretense of interest in determining the truth. For the United States, it was a more damaging display than even Putin could have asked for — proof that a swathe of our political Establishment will not hesitate to dismiss national-security concerns and core democratic principles for the sake of partisan advantage.
The scale of the scandal has reportedly caused wariness in the Kremlin after an initial spell of post-election elation. Trump, who has a hard time staying on message even on issues he claims to care about most, has been eerily consistent on questions of Russia policy. But even if he wants to, he’s unlikely to be able to make major changes along the lines of lifting sanctions or blessing Russian annexation of Crimea. The sheer amount of attention will constrain him.
But for Putin, specific policy objectives may be secondary to broader interests anyway: discrediting American democracy at home and hobbling American leadership abroad. Already, the Trump administration has remained conspicuously silent on matters of human rights and democracy. It has proposed a budget that would destroy the instruments of American diplomacy that Putin fears and despises most, as tools of democratic organizing and liberal values. It has started gratuitous spats with two of America’s closest allies, worked to undermine the European Union, and called into question the American commitment to NATO, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson making the unprecedented decision to skip the first major alliance meeting of his tenure. It has launched a public attack on the intelligence agencies that the government will have to rely on in a moment of crisis.
Most of all, the scandal around Russian meddling has presented a vivid picture of American democracy in disarray. During Monday’s hearings, Republican committee members ranted about the leaks that had brought conspicuous lies by members of Trump’s team to public attention and had little to say about the lies themselves — or the idea that a foreign power tried to turn an American presidential election. Nunes’s inappropriate and not entirely coherent media campaign to bail out Trump made a mockery of his role as chairman of the Intelligence Committee. Partisanship is a hell of a drug, says the political scientist Brendan Nyhan, and the hearings showed how far Republicans would go for a fix. (Not that their supporters will necessarily complain: Since reports of Russian electoral interference began, Putin’s net favorability among Republicans has spiked 50 points.)
There is a myth that, in some golden age of American foreign policy, politics stopped at the water’s edge. That was never really true. Foreign policy, like domestic policy, has always been driven by political imperatives and wielded for partisan gain. But the myth took hold because there were generally accepted norms about just how far politicking should go. Politicians had to at least maintain the pretense of putting national interests over electoral ones.
Ezra Klein has described our current system as a “partyocracy,” with “a quasi-strongman leader empowered only because the independently elected legislators from his party empower him.” As Klein notes, the prospect of such a development was one reason George Washington fixated on the “mischiefs of the spirit of party” in his farewell address. Among the consequences of “partyocracy” Washington specified: “It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.”
More than two centuries later, the warning is uncannily apt. Through those channels of party passions, the Kremlin has shown just how weakened the norms of American democracy have become. “The easiest covert-influence campaigns,” said Bush administration CIA director Michael Hayden after the hearings, “are the ones that try to reinforce preexisting fractures in a society rather than create a fracture.” Putin’s interference first exploited those fractures, and since then has managed to deepen them.
Comey’s precise formulations to Congress offer some hope that a credible investigation will proceed. That kind of credible investigation will be essential to creating a deterrent against future interference. (“They’ll be back,” said Comey, in the United States in 2018 and 2020 and, before then, in French and German national elections.) And attempts to stand in its way, by the White House or Hill Republicans, will reinforce the need for a select committee, a special prosecutor, or a nonpartisan body like the 9/11 Commission.
The post-Watergate cliché is that the cover-up is worse than the crime. The cliché will not necessarily prove true here, given the gravity of the alleged crime. Still, as the scandal unfolds and political maneuvering intensifies, each instance of obfuscation or misdirection or outlandish denial will send a signal to America’s adversaries: Play the right partisan games and, like Putin, you can get away with anything.