Perhaps because I’m in Italy, I’ve not been infected by the contagion that has spread more rapidly than the Zika virus: the febrile notion that Russian president Vladimir Putin is subverting our electoral process in an effort to elect Donald J. Trump as president.
Never has such conspiratorial speculation mutated so quickly into received wisdom.
Writing in yesterday’s Washington Post from that mother of all ivory towers, the Kennedy School of Government, Bruce Schneier lapsed into near apoplexy. “If Putin’s government has already used a cyberattack to attempt to help Trump win,” he writes, using the word “if” rhetorically, “there’s no reason to believe he won’t do it again.”
Putin will “do it again,” Schneier warns, by hacking into our voting machines and delivering the race to Trump. Be very afraid.
Our intellectual betters, having agitated themselves into delirium over the prospect of a Trump presidency, have summarily dismissed the most straightforward explanation for the email leak: a DNC employee or contractor — either a Sanders backer or someone understandably offended at his colleagues’ misbehavior — stole the trove of emails and provided it to WikiLeaks.
The “Siberian Candidacy”
A Clinton campaign aide originated the Putin Theory, peddling it on the Sunday morning shows as I was leaving for the airport. I dismissed it as a transparent and somewhat desperate effort to put down a rebellion among Sanders supporters. The emails confirmed that the DNC was lying all along when it denied that it was secretly undermining Bernie’s campaign.
Sacking Debbie Wasserman-Schultz hadn’t appeased Bernie’s backers, so why not throw a Hail Mary by blaming the whole thing on Putin?
Had Trump alleged that the Mexican or Chinese government was trying to get Hillary elected, he would have been met with well-deserved derision.
But by the time my flight had crossed the Atlantic, the Clinton diversion had taken root. Instead of delving more deeply into the content of the emails, otherwise rational people have been falling all over themselves to “prove” that no less than Putin himself (or one of his operatives) was the leaker and, worse, that his motive was to advance Trump’s “Siberian candidacy.”
Writing in The National Interest, the Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter characterizes the “mounting allegations that [Trump] is a Russian sycophant, if not a Russian agent,” as a “smear [that] constitutes a new McCarthyism.”
Carpenter has hit the mark. As in the days of the notoriously anti-Russian Wisconsin Senator, respected corporate news outlets are devoting enormous energy to proving that those sinister Rooskies are trying to take control of the U.S. government.
The allegations have become ubiquitous, prompting the FBI to investigate. The FBI statement on the investigation is intriguing. The agency says it “is aware of media reporting on cyberintrusions involving multiple political entities, and is working to determine the accuracy, nature and scope of these matters.”
No mention of Russia. Or Putin. Or evidence. Just “media reporting,” the wildfire ignited by a Clinton political operative. The media have taken the mere fact that there is an investigation (launched in response to “media reporting”) as confirmation that their speculations are true.
What If It’s True?
It is of course possible that the investigation will establish the Russians as the leakers. But even if that bears out, it would hardly prove that Putin was trying to install Trump as President.
After all, the President told us not all that long ago that the prospect of a Trump presidency had “rattled” foreign leaders. Now we are to believe that a foreign leader is so enthusiastic about Trump’s candidacy that he is trying to rig the election in his favor.
Nor is it entirely clear why Putin would prefer Trump to Hillary. She was the one, after all, who presented the Russian foreign minister with a reset button shortly after she became Secretary of State, pledging to repair relations between Washington and Moscow.
When Xenophobia Was Socially Acceptable
During her tenure as Secretary of State, her family did well by Putin and his oligarchy. Her husband helped facilitate a series of rather lucrative deals for Frank Giustra, a Canadian mining financier and one of the Clinton Foundation’s largest benefactors. Those deals helped enrich both Giustra and, through him, the Clintons.
That series of sales and acquisitions culminated with a Putin crony buying a controlling interest in Giustra’s Uranium One, whose holdings included 20 percent of America’s uranium deposits.
Because of uranium’s strategic importance, the transaction required the approval of the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS). Then-Secretary Clinton was one of nine members of the panel.
There was good reason to believe Secretary Clinton would move to block the sale of our uranium mines to the Russians. As a Senator, she successfully led the charge to reverse the Bush Administration’s agreement to allow the sale of six port management businesses to a company based in the United Arab Emirates.
The campaign against the sale smacked of xenophobia, according then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England [CK]. “The terrorists want our nation to become distrustful,” England said. “They want us to become paranoid and isolationist, and my view is we cannot allow this to happen.”
In those days, Democrats thought it socially acceptable to exploit populist anti-Arab Muslim sentiments, just as they now are seeking to use Russophobia to their political advantage. Mrs. Clinton’s successful campaign to nix the deal certainly benefited from those sentiments.
A Mutually Beneficial Deal With The Russians
As a member of CFIUS, she proved rather ecumenical in her suspicions of foreign acquisitions of U.S. assets. As Secretary of State, she led efforts, for example, that resulted in CFIUS rejecting applications from Chinese companies to acquire everything from mining interests to fiber optic companies to an Oregon wind farm.
So it was natural to expect that she would object to Russian acquisition of the raw material for nuclear weapons. If any member of the CFIUS had registered an objection to the Uranium One deal, the matter would have landed on the President’s desk.
Secretary Clinton did not object. The deal went through without requiring the President’s direct intervention.
Someone of a more conspiratorial bent might allege that she approved the deal because of the financial benefits her family received from its association with Giustra, who profited most from the sale of Uranium One to the Russians. Although the circumstantial evidence for such a quid pro quo is much stronger than for the idea that Putin is secretly plotting to promote Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations, such an allegation requires more specific evidence.
Clinton’s role in approving Russia’s acquisition of Uranium One does, however, cast doubt on the idea that Putin would be uncomfortable with having a Clinton (or two) in the White House. Previous interactions between the Russian kleptocrat and the Clintons, after all, have proven to be mutually beneficial.
More Serial Capitulations Ahead?
Putin also no doubt takes heart from the expectation that Clinton would continue the Obama administration’s foreign policy. That policy has helped Putin enlarge his influence both in his “near abroad” and beyond. Its leitmotif has been to launch bellicose rhetoric against Russian action before slowly bending to Putin’s will.
When Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed President Obama’s “red line” in Syria by using chemical weapons against his own people, Putin dissuaded Obama from pursuing the threatened military intervention against his client. Putin instead prodded Assad to destroy his stockpile of chemical weapons. Obama pronounced himself satisfied. Assad has continued to use chemical weapons despite the agreement.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine prompted more American saber-rattling, but the administration has refused the elected government in Kiev the weapons and support it has requested to resist the Russian occupation. Instead, the administration imposed economic sanctions against certain Russian citizens and corporations, a strategy that has proven ineffectual. As a result, Putin continues to exert direct or indirect control over vast portions of Ukrainian territory.
When Russia last year sent troops and air power to Syria to rescue the embattled Assad regime, the administration expressed strong opposition. Having long called for Assad’s ouster, senior administration officials warned that Russian military intervention was “doomed to failure.”
A year later, with the operation jointly conducted by Russia, Assad and the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah on the verge of victory, Secretary Kerry is imploring the Russians to allow us to cooperate with them in military efforts in Syria.
It is difficult to conceive why Putin would not thrill to the prospect of four more years of serial White House capitulations.
Did Trump Urge Putin To Hack Hillary?
We are nevertheless told that Putin is promoting Trump’s candidacy. The press went further this week, reporting that Trump had invited the Russians to hack into Clinton’s missing State Department emails, a charge the Trump campaign denies.
I am loathe to defend Trump, but he did nothing of the sort. He said that if the Russians have the State Department emails that Hillary destroyed, they should release them.
Hacking would be of no use at this point. Federal agents already have tried and failed to recover the emails. They “are now gone,” FBI Director James Comey said in a statement, “because they [Clinton and her associates] deleted all e-mails they did not return to State, and the lawyers [for Clinton] cleaned their devices in such a way as to preclude complete forensic recovery.”
Putin is no more able to obtain those emails than is the FBI. Unless, of course, he hacked the Clinton email server during her tenure as Secretary of State. In that case, he swiped them before Hillary destroyed them.
New Wave Of Russophobia
And that, I suspect, is a big reason Clinton’s team is agitating this new wave of Russophobia. She and her lawyers no doubt had good reason to take care in shielding those emails from the prying eyes of federal investigators. But there remains a possibility — however remote — that someone else obtained them before their destruction.
Should the emails surface and prove politically damaging, Clinton would have few options. Alleging that their release was part of a plot by a hostile foreign leader to put his puppet in the Oval Office might be her only recourse.
Having already staked its diminished reputation on peddling this narrative, the New York Times will buy in. Its acolytes among corporate news outlets will swallow it whole.
The majority of voters may not.
Whatever the outcome, the American people will choose the next president, unaffected by the presumed interventions of any foreign leader.
If we choose Mrs. Clinton, there may well be much rejoicing in the Kremlin.