Since paranoia is a defining feature of political life in Russia, perhaps it is only natural that the controversy over Donald Trump’s alleged Russian connections is blurring the lines between paranoia and reality in the United States. Whichever way you look, it’s a vast conspiracy: either to put a Kremlin stooge in the White House, or to oust a democratically elected American President from office. Often, it seems that the only question is how you like your paranoia: pro- or anti-Trump. And while there may well be facts behind the fears, this hyperpolarized, overwrought atmosphere is not conducive to fact-finding.
For now, claims and counterclaims, revelations and counter-revelations are coming so fast that anything one writes in likely to be outdated in hours, not days. Everybody who’s anybody in the Trump camp seems to have met or chatted with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., the ubiquitous Sergei Kislyak.
A Trump aide says Trump was more involved than previously admitted in softening the GOP party platform’s language on Ukraine. An ex-aide is caught admitting to “backchannel communication” with WikiLeaks, the guerilla journalist site that published hacked documents damaging to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats prior to the election — and then to exchanging private messages with one of the DNC hackers. Trump tweets explosive allegations that President Obama had him illegally wiretapped during the campaign. Trump-supporting right-wing pundits such as Sean Hannity embrace the WikiLeaks-based conspiracy theory that the CIA hacked the DNC and made it look like the Russians.
Predictably, opinions on the scandal are shaped largely by politics and allegiances. Those strongly convinced that the Trump campaign was in active and treasonous collusion with the Russians are, for the most part, zealously partisan Democrats and Hillary Clinton supporters, or hardcore “Never Trump” Republicans; also in the same camp are some intelligence community loyalists such as the well-connected former National Security Agency analyst John Schindler. Those who pooh-pooh all talk of the Trump/Russia connection as absurd and self-serving fantasies are devoted Trump Republicans, such as Hannity or anti-Clinton, left-wing Democrats like independent journalist Michael Tracey, who believe that the establishment robbed Sen. Bernie Sanders of the Democratic nomination. To them, the Russia obsession is the Democrats’ way to distract our attention from Clinton’s loss avoid taking responsibility for their fiasco.
No less predictably, there has been no shortage of hypocrisy on both sides. Consider:
Hannity once demanded the resignation of Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, over a comment comparing some of the mistreatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay to Nazi and Soviet cruelties; yet he did not spare a single word of criticism when Trump that, even if Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is a killer, we too have “a lot of killers” and are hardly “innocent.”
Meanwhile, Democratic strategist and AMERICAblog editor John Aravosis has waxed indignant at Trump for implying that the U.S. is “as bad as Putin” — but in a blogpost a decade ago, he assailed George W. Bush for having the “nerve to lecture Putin about democracy” while supposedly destroying democracy at home and acting no differently than Putin or the Soviets. More generally, the Democrats’ past dismissals of warnings about Russia as a dangerous adversary has not helped their case now on the issue of Trump’s Russian ties.
Wild conjectures, too, have abounded on both sides. Trump and his supporters have been mocked for their conspiracy-theory penchant; yet according to one poll, half of Clinton voters actually believe Russia tampered with the voting tally to help elect Trump (for which there is not a shred of evidence). Even journalists and high-level Democratic politicians have recycled some far-fetched claims. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has had to backpedal on the assertion that salacious sexual allegations in an unconfirmed intelligence dossier on Trump published by Buzzfeed were known to be true. Some Democratic pundits have engaged in fevered speculation about alleged murders linked to the Trump/Russia scandal, including supposedly suspicious deaths of people with remote connections to Trump and Russia. Respected media outlets such as The Washington Post have jumped to conclusions to report alleged evidence of Russian hacking targeting the U.S., only to retract those claims later.
Is there any smoke behind the raging fire?
Attempts by Fox News to show that Clinton got away with a Russian connection of her own only highlight, inadvertently, just how much more extensive and recent the Trump camp’s contacts were. Such interaction is certainly not criminal or inappropriate per se, and some elements of the “scandal” may be quite innocuous. It is plausible, for example, that Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions did not regard his brief chat with the Russian ambassador at the GOP convention as having “communications with the Russians” when he testified under oath at his Senate confirmation hearings.
Yet looking at the total picture, it’s difficult not to see, pardon the expression, red flags given the Trump team’s secrecy surrounding some of these communications — such as a December visit by Kislyak to Trump Tower for a meeting with high-level Trump aides, including then-incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn, (who later resigned from that post after the disclosure that he had misled officials about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador).
It’s an indisputable fact that Trump and his top people openly pursued the goal of an improved relationship with Russia. In July, then-campaign advisor Carter Page gave a speech in Moscow that attacked U.S. policies toward the former USSR — and particular the focus on democratization — as “hypocritical”; we now learn the Trump campaign green-lighted that trip, though on the condition that Page go as a private citizen and not an official campaign representative.
It is a very likely fact that Russia hacked the DNC and the Clinton campaign and fed the stolen documents to WikiLeaks — whose disclosures, openly praised by candidate Trump and spun as proof that the Democratic primaries were rigged against Sanders, may well have swayed enough voters to affect close races in key states. Maybe the Russians’ goal was to help Trump, or simply to muck up the democratic process and set the stage for claims that Clinton won the presidency by cheating. This is far more plausible than the notion that the CIA carried out a convoluted conspiracy with the schizophrenic goal of damaging a future Trump presidency after helping it happen.
It is also very likely that after the election, the Trump camp tried to neutralize the effect of President Obama’s new sanctions intended to punish Russia for election-meddling.
However, there is no proof that either Trump or any of his associates actively colluded with the Russians’ covert effort to undermine Clinton, or was aware of that effort. That said, there is enough to warrant a full independent probe; but Trump foes hoping to find enough evidence for impeachment should be prepared for disappointment.
That said, the Kremlin meddling we do know about is deeply disturbing — particularly when seen as part of a larger Russian effort to build an international alliance of authoritarian populist forces that reject liberal values and openly espouse intolerance and xenophobia, often including anti-Semitism.
No matter what the outcome of the investigation, the Russian connection will almost certainly continue to haunt the Trump presidency. But that makes it all the more essential to get at the truth, and do our best to look past partisanship and scaremongering.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and is the author of “Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality.” Follow her on Twitter, @CathyYoung63