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Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
Last September, in a classified briefing, the CIA told senior lawmakers that Russia was working to elect Donald Trump president. In that meeting, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed skepticism of the intelligence and questioned its veracity. And he made a threat of sorts. At the time, the Washington Post reported that McConnell “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.” Put simply, if President Obama spoke out on Russian interference, McConnell would turn it into a partisan football. The president kept quiet.
Of the turning points that brought us to our present crisis, this is among the most consequential. McConnell’s stance in that briefing didn’t just enable Russian hacking, it precluded official scrutiny and criticism of that hacking and effectively gave cover to key members of Team Trump as they sought information to use against Hillary Clinton. McConnell downplayed Russian interference for what were likely partisan reasons, with little knowledge of the scope of and even less fear for the far-ranging implications of what he was covering up. And in that, he presaged the response of the entire Republican Party, which didn’t just utilize the hacked and leaked information but has looked the other way at every sign of something untoward involving Donald Trump and the Russian government.
Republicans are still looking the other way, even as that stance becomes more and more untenable. And they are looking away—as well as downplaying the seriousness of the issue—despite the real chance that the truth is more damning than what we know at the present, and that it may damage our country more than we want to believe. This “see no evil” response is especially egregious given recent revelations around Donald Trump Jr. and his efforts to obtain favorable information for his father’s campaign. We now know Trump Jr. responded enthusiastically to what was communicated as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” and arranged a meeting between himself, the lawyer in question, Jared Kushner, and then–campaign manager Paul Manafort—as well as, we’ve just learned, a former Soviet intelligence official.
The Trump Jr. meeting is just the latest revelation in a kaleidoscope of connections that, even if not illegal (that we’re aware of as yet), should be alarming to anyone regardless of party. We know of a GOP operative who said he had contacted Russian hackers in an effort to find deleted emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server, and we know the operative said he was coordinating with Trump loyalist (and later short-time national security adviser) Michael Flynn. We know that Jared Kushner and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have had several contacts with Russian officials—including Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak—that they omitted from official documents, and we know of various contacts and meetings and relationships between various Trump associates and assorted Russian business. It is true we have no concrete evidence of direct cooperation between Team Trump and the Russian government. There is no fire, so far. But there are thick bellows of smoke. We at least know that Trump’s campaign was receptive to Russian help, even if they didn’t coordinate or “collude.”
There is a response to this, increasingly popular among Trump’s defenders: Collusion isn’t illegal. But that’s almost beside the point. Democracy is only possible if there is confidence in the process, and foreign intervention—potentially solicited by one campaign—is deeply damaging to that confidence. It threatens the legitimacy of the entire enterprise. For our system of government, the question of Russian interference—and the extent of Trump’s awareness and involvement—is existential.
But that fact, and the steady stream of damning revelations, has not kept GOP lawmakers from giving Trump and his team the benefit of the doubt. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch called the Donald Trump Jr. story “overblown,” praising the 39-year-old as a “very bright young man, a very nice young man.” North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis called the Trump Jr. emails a “distraction.” House Speaker Paul Ryan has been subdued, declaring it “absolutely unacceptable that Russia” has “meddled in our elections” but also refusing to say if he would have accepted a similar meeting with Russian intermediaries. McConnell punted, deferring to the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation when questioned on recent revelations.
And while other Republicans, like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, used harsher language when referring to Team Trump’s dalliances with Russia, there’s no indication that any Republicans have wavered in their overall support for the Trump administration. There have been no calls for an even deeper investigation, no sense from GOP lawmakers that this is an urgent affair. Republicans are playing a dangerous game: covering up a scandal, without knowing the full scope of the offense.
What if future revelations detail actual collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government? Though there is currently no proof, do Republicans really believe the chances are zero that this—or even worse possibilities—are true? What if strategic use of hacked information gave Trump a critical edge in the election? What if we learn that Russia actually influenced the results? Even if its actions didn’t determine the eventual outcome, the resulting doubts would still be real and potent. By allowing the collapse of trust, the Republican Party will have abetted a wholesale subversion of American democracy.
If nothing else, Republican behavior—the extent to which the party is still powering through a hyper-partisan agenda, even as evidence of something untoward mounts—is an implicit statement that foreign interference is an acceptable path to partisan gain. At the risk of cliché, it normalizes outside meddling in American democracy. And the 2016 election won’t even be the end of Russian interference in our elections. There is real potential for further, more damaging hacking aimed at often-obsolete local election infrastructure. Preventing this is of national concern and requires cooperation from both sides at all levels of government. It requires both parties to show a commitment to the ideals of American democracy.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear that both parties have that commitment. The GOP’s recent enthusiasm for voter ID laws (and the voter suppression they cause) has long since thrown that issue of commitment into question. But the institutional indifference to foreign intervention is something different. It signals a dangerously zero-sum attitude, where any price—including subversion from outside forces—is worth paying if it clears a path to partisan and ideological victory. Perhaps the worm will turn and Republicans will join Democrats in demanding real answers from President Trump and his associates. For now, at least, we have a Republican Party that values its success above the integrity of our system.
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