In early September, after Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was poisoned, Western leaders like Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel issued sharp condemnations and demanded explanations from Russia’s government. President Trump told reporters he hadn’t yet made up his mind who was responsible. “So, I don’t know exactly what happened. I think that it is tragic. It is terrible. It should not happen. We have not had any proof yet, but we will take a look.”
Two and a half weeks later, having given him more than enough time to digest all the intelligence, a reporter asked him again. “Ahh, we’ll talk about that at another time,” Trump demurred. The other time has not come. Three months later, that remains Trump’s last word on the matter.
In the wake of news of Russia’s massive cyber-intrusion into a swath of private and public networks, including, alarmingly, agencies controlling the nuclear stockpile, the main lacuna of the story, as it has been for four years, is the president’s subservient relationship with Russia.
There is a sharp ongoing debate over just what sort of response Russia’s hacking operation merits. Some members of Congress likened it to an act of war, or at least something close. (Mitt Romney’s comparison was Russian bombers flying undetected over U.S. airspace.) Jack Goldsmith has made the contrarian case that Russia’s hack was merely a larger and more successful version of normal spycraft in which the United States also engages. But even normal spy operations can be met with some kind of government response short of war, or even sanctions. Russia and the United States have frequently expelled officials from the country or given verbal warnings in response to major espionage escalations.
Trump, though, said nothing for days. He has mentioned Russia a few times since news broke of its massive operation, but only in the context of complaining about “the Russia hoax.”
Reporters found that Trump was privately describing reports of of Russian responsibility, which even his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have endorsed, as a “hoax.” Throwing aside whatever caution had held him back, Trump claimed on Twitter that Russia was being picked on by the media, and it might be China:
When Russia stole Democratic emails in 2016, Trump also insisted it might be China. His apologists suggested he was simply defensive about Russian intervention tainting his election. But this hack has nothing to do with a Trump election. Trump just reflexively insists on Russia’s innocence. In his mind, “hoax” describes any charge of wrongdoing by Putin. The Associated Press reports that administration officials were ordered “been prepared to put out a statement Friday afternoon that accused Russia of being ‘the main actor’ in the hack, but were told at the last minute to stand down.”
The “Russia hoax” describes a wide array of charges against Trump, the main one being that his relationship with Vladimir Putin has compromised his ability to assess Russia’s behavior with the appropriate critical distance. Trump, in other words, is ignoring Russian misconduct to complain that he has been accused of being willing to overlook Russian misconduct.
Robert Mueller was famously unable to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. In part he failed because the two figures in Trump’s orbit who coordinated with Russia’s election operation, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, refused to cooperate with the investigation. He also was limited by his mandate to pursue crimes, and behavior like Trump secretly negotiating for a huge payoff from Russia during the campaign may have given Putin leverage over Trump, but it did not violate any U.S. laws, so Mueller didn’t and couldn’t charge anybody over it.
And yet the Republican Party has coalesced around Trump’s “hoax” interpretation of this episode. One of the favored defenses that Trump and his allies have employed in the postelection period is to equate the charges faced by Trump on Russia with Trump’s attempts to undo the election results. Since the Russia investigation undermined Trump’s legitimacy, he’s justified in undermining Biden’s. And since the “Russia hoax” was built on lies, Republicans are justified in spreading Trump’s lies about the election.
Senator Josh Hawley, an aspiring Trumpist successor, explained the “logic”:
“These are reasonable people and who, by the way, have been involved in politics. They’ve won, they’ve lost. They’ve seen it all. These are normal folks living normal lives who firmly believe that they have been disenfranchised. And to listen to the mainstream press quite a few voices in this building tell them after four years of non-stop Russia hoax — it was a hoax. It was based on the whole Russia nonsense. It was based on, we now know, lies from a Russian spy!
The Steele dossier was based on a Russian spy. After four years of that, being told that the last election was fake and that Donald Trump wasn’t really elected and that Russian intervened — after four years of that — now these same people are told ‘you just sit down and shut up if you have any concerns about election integrity. You’re a nutcase. You should shut up.’”
Even if we grant his absurd logic that lies against your own side justify lying in return, Hawley’s factual account is simply wrong. The truth is that neither the Russia investigation nor the mainstream media’s coverage of the issue was based on the Steele dossier, which was a compilation of tips. The actual basis of the suspicion around Trump’s subservience to Russia was built around proven facts: Paul Manafort’s links to Russian oligarchs and intelligence agents; the Trump campaign’s meeting with a Russian agent offering campaign help; Trump literally requesting Russian help in stealing Clinton emails on camera, and on and on.
In 2017 he boasted that he had discussed forming a joint cybersecurity unit with Putin, the very person who is trying to penetrate American cybersecurity:
Incredibly, the two men discussed the absurd idea again the next year, at the Helsinki summit where Trump appeared almost creepily submissive. Stopping Russian hackers may be hard, but it’s a lot harder if the president believes that they’re his friends.
It has become common for Trump and his aides to insist that he is, in fact, some kind of Über-hawk on the subject of Russia. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, “No one has been tougher on the Russian government than this president.” Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, wrote, “No president since Reagan has shown such resolve to Moscow.”
It’s transparently false. It’s true that the Trump administration has taken some anti-Russia steps. One of the oddities of the situation is that Trump is so idiosyncratically a Russophile that he doesn’t have any staff he can appoint to high roles who share his view of Russia. But the fact that Trump is the most pro-Russian figure in the Trump administration by far is not evidence against the proposition that there’s a nefarious element to his relationship with Putin. It’s the definition of the problem.
Trump is surrounded by supporters whose interest in the Russia question is wholly partisan. They would love for him to own the libs by making a forceful statement against some of Putin’s acts of internal violence or aggressive hacking. That Trump can’t bring himself to do it tells us a great deal.
This post has been updated.