The evidence that Vladimir Putin would prefer Donald Trump to win the American Presidential election is, by this point, pretty overwhelming. Whether or not Putin is behind the Wikileaks dump of hacked DNC emails, Russia Today’s coverage should make it clear enough who the Kremlin is behind. But should it matter to American voters?
It obviously matters if Trump is actually beholden to Putin for financial reasons, which is an extremely good reason to demand that he rise to the level of financial disclosure that has become standard practice for Presidential candidates. Republicans who raise completely legitimate questions about the Clinton Foundation’s buck-raking can’t really dispute that. It also obviously matters if Trump is a man of such weak character that cheap flattery from a foreign despot would readily sway his administration’s policies.
But does it matter what Russia wants? Should we be outraged if they are trying to influence the American election? Should we be incensed if they stooped to dirty tricks to do it? If so, I’m having a hard time figuring out why.
It should come as a shock to exactly nobody that Russia spies on American political institutions. Nor should anyone paying attention be at all surprised that Putin would resort to dirty and underhanded means to achieve his political objectives – he’s done far worse – and not only in his own back yard. If there’s a scandal about the email hacking, it’s that the DNC was so vulnerable to being hacked.
And it should be even less shocking that Russia would care to influence an American election. We do it all the time – and we use tricks at least as dirty. We’ve even done it in a partisan manner, with Republican and Democratic Presidents backing horses abroad who are more favorable to their partisan agendas. And other countries have done so as well with us. Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his preference for Republican Presidents, nor did Chiang Kai-shek before him. Nor were our European allies’ Democratic preferences in the 2004 Presidential election exactly a secret.
The Wikileaks dump itself is both appalling and banal. It’s appalling because of the outrageous breach of privacy. If a rival American campaign, or a domestic interest, engaged in those kinds of dirty tricks, criminal prosecution would be in order. But it’s banal because what has been revealed (so far) is merely embarrassing, and barely that. As anyone with eyes could have seen beforehand, the DNC was not as neutral as it formally claimed to be. This should be just as shocking as the revelation from the Sony hack that male Hollywood stars are paid more than women, or that behind closed doors executives make racial and other comments that are decidedly not appropriate for public disclosure.
But precisely because this kind of behavior from Russia should be no surprise, there’s no obvious reason why it should prompt a change in policy, or in America’s voters’ preferences.
Trump is running on policies that are more-favorable to Russia’s interests than Hillary Clinton is. He’s also running on policies that are less-favorable to Chinese interests. Either Trump or Clinton could be wrong about one, or the other, or both, or neither. But what really matters is whether those policies would be good for American interests, and whether either of them would be effective at implementing them.
And no: saying “I’ll put America first” doesn’t get you a pass on either question.
UPDATE: Let me be clear about what I’m saying. I don’t think it matters much if Russia wants Trump to be President. I also don’t find it especially shocking that Russia is engaged in espionage, and would resort to dirty tricks to win the election. None of this as such should especially affect our opinion of Russia — or of Trump.
But Trump’s actual ties to Putin, financial or otherwise, do indeed matter — enormously. And Trump’s reaction to the revelations most certainly matters as well. The only appropriate response is to condemn foreign interference. Today, Trump did exactly the opposite. He explicitly cheered on Russia’s hacking, and said he hopes it proves even more fruitful.
Trump will undoubtedly defend himself by saying that we don’t know whether Russia is even behind the hack, that the American people deserve the truth from whatever source, etc. There is absolutely no defense for his comments, or for his attitude. Trump is calling on a foreign power to break American law in order to influence an American election in his favor. If that’s fair game then, to use a phrase Trump likes to use in another context, we don’t have a country.
None of which means Victoria Nuland was right about anything, or that I would expect anything good to come of following her preferred course in handling Russia. But seriously — if you wanted to prove David “Unpatriotic Conservatives” Frum right after all, you could not do better than to continue to support Trump.