the national interest

Trump, McConnell, Putin, and the Triumph of the Will to Power

President-elect Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Photo: Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images

Of the many things that resulted in Donald Trump’s election, from Hillary Clinton’s own errors to James Comey’s extraordinary insinuations against her in the contest’s final stages, Russian hacking played a meaningful-enough role to tilt a razor-tight contest. Russia successfully riled up Bernie Sanders diehards against the Democratic Party by leaking minor intrigue that fueled Sanders supporters’ suspicions, aggravating a Clinton liability with young voters that never healed. Russia also dribbled out enough emails in the succeeding months to keep stories using the word “emails” in the lead of Hillary Clinton news, adding more smoke to the haze of scandal that permeated coverage of her campaign.

We now know with near-certainty that Russia did this with the goal of electing Trump president. During the campaign, this reality was not quite certain enough to be reported as fact. Trump, of course, insisted there was no evidence Russia even had a hand in the attacks, let alone with the goal of helping him. (It “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”) Elements of the left decried suspicions of Russia’s role as “neo-McCarthyism.” The Nation editorialized, “ liberal-media elites have joined with the Clinton campaign in promoting the narrative of a devious Russian cyber-attack.” Others on the left insisted that the substance of the stolen emails command far more importance than their provenance, which in any case was disputed and unknowable. On October 31, the New York Times reported that the attack was probably “aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.”

Friday, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had concluded well before November that Russia specifically sought to elect Trump. The CIA’s analysis is obviously not infallible, but it fits within a wide array of other evidence. Russia had a clear motive: chilly relations with the Democratic administration that had orchestrated sanctions against it, close ties with Donald Trump and several of his advisers, and a series of pro-Russian positions from Trump on such issues as Crimea, NATO, and Vladimir Putin’s human-rights abuses. Russia also hacked the Republican National Committee but declined to release any of the contents. The disruption was intentionally one-sided. The CIA’s conclusion merely lends incrementally more confidence to a deduction that was already fairly obvious.

What is more interesting in the Post story is the response of various officials to the revelations. The Obama administration declined to publicize, wary of being seen as intervening on Clinton’s behalf. Instead, it devised a fallback plan. Concerned that Russia might attempt to hack into electronic-voting machines, it gathered a bipartisan group of lawmakers to hear the CIA’s report, in the hopes that they would present a united front warning Russia not to disrupt the election. According to the Post, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.” Other Republicans refused to join the effort for reasons that can only be understood as a desire to protect the Republican ticket from any insinuation, however well-founded, that Russia was helping it.

Even the most cynical observer of McConnell — a cynical man to his bones — would have been shocked at his raw partisanship. Presented with an attack on the sanctity of his own country’s democracy by a hostile foreign power, his overriding concern was party over country. Obama’s fear of seeming partisan held him back from making a unilateral statement without partisan cover. No such fear restrained McConnell. This imbalance in will to power extended to the security agencies. The CIA could have leaked its conclusion before November, but held off. The FBI should have held off on leaking its October surprise, but plunged ahead.

Perhaps the most amazing revelation in the Post’s report is, “Some of the Republicans in the briefing also seemed opposed to the idea of going public with such explosive allegations in the final stages of an election.” Almost immediately afterward, Republicans in Congress trumpeted explosive (but ultimately empty) allegations from a different agency. Of the many causes of the election outcome, one was simply that Trump’s supporters in government were willing to put the system at risk in order to win, and Clinton’s supporters were not.

That same bottomless will to power that enabled Trump to win can be seen in the extraordinary statement that his official transition team published in the wake of the Post report. The three sentences distill Trumpism to its essence: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”

Consider the claims in order, beginning with Trump’s dismissal of the CIA. It is true that the CIA, like intelligence agencies in several other allied countries, fell for Saddam Hussein’s bluff that he still had weapons of mass destruction. But the overheated claims of imminent danger, and the ticking bomb of a nuclear program, came not from the CIA’s own analysts but from political pressure exerted by Dick Cheney and the Bush administration, which insisted the CIA’s hesitant conclusions should be discounted because the agency was allegedly filled with doves blind to the real danger only Cheney’s true believers could detect. Trump’s statement is a replication of that same debacle, substituting his own politicized judgments for the analysis of career staff. Cheneyism helped discredit the agency, and Trump is exploiting that discredit in order to impose more Cheneyism.

Next is Trump’s claim to have won “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history.” This is easily falsifiable — Trump won 56.88% of the electoral votes, a percentage that places him in the bottom quarter of electoral history. In this sentence, Trump also states that the election “ended a long time ago” — a curious description of an event that took place four and a half weeks ago.

Having consigned the election to the distant past, the statement concludes with a rousing iteration of Trump’s campaign slogan. The progression of these sentiments is telling. It begins by dismissing the veracity of the CIA’s conclusions, and then immediately proceeds to imply that the truth of the matter is irrelevant, since Trump won. The CIA can’t be trusted, it all happened so long ago, but it doesn’t matter because Trump won.

And that is the nub of it. Very little will come of this, except perhaps that future presidential campaigns may have to account for the political risk of offending the Kremlin when devising their Russia stance (lest they be targeted by hackers). When all the smoke has cleared away and the outrage dissipated, the bottom line will be that Russia set out to influence the U.S. election, Republicans in Congress decided not to speak out against them, and both their calculations were rewarded.

Trump, McConnell, and the Triumph of the Will to Power