Election hacks and Russia-friendly nominees pose historic choice of party or principle.
DEC 11, 2016
Imagine that we live in an alternative universe in which Hillary Clinton won the presidential election after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hacked her opponent. Imagine, further, that it emerged after the vote that not only had the Iranians hacked the Republican high command and released a batch of embarrassing emails, but they also had hacked Clinton and kept the results confidential.
Now imagine that Clinton, while publicly pondering the possibility of lifting all sanctions on Iran, had appointed as her national security adviser a retired general who had recently been seen dining with the ayatollah in Tehran and as her secretary of State an executive who had received an Order of Friendship from the ayatollah.
Republicans would be sputtering in outrage, and with good reason. The test for Republicans is how they will react given that it is Donald Trump rather than Hillary Clinton who is guilty of all the transgressions described above — only with Russian President Vladimir Putin rather than Khamenei.
On Friday night, The Washington Post and The New York Times reported that the CIA had concluded Russian hacks of the Democratic National Committee and individual Democrats were designed not just to disrupt the election but also to elect Trump — as witness the fact that the Kremlin also hacked the Republican National Committee but sat on the results. Yet Trump continues to deny any Russian culpability for the hacking. In a Nov. 28 interview with Time magazine, he said, repeating a line he had used during the campaign: “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
In response to the intelligence community assessment, reached with “high confidence,” that Putin was trying to help his campaign, Team Trump defamed the intelligence community: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’ ” On Fox News Sunday, Trump called the assessment “ridiculous.”
It’s true that U.S. intelligence agencies, along with their counterparts throughout the world, erred in concluding that the Iraqi dictator had weapons of mass destruction, but to suggest that intelligence agencies must be wrong about Russian interference in the U.S. election because they have been wrong about some things in the past is a non-sequitur. Trump hasn’t presented any evidence that the intelligence community erred in this case. Rather, he seems to take it on faith that Putin must be innocent — because if he’s guilty then Trump’s election victory will be tainted. (Oh, and Trump’s win was hardly of historic proportions; his Electoral College margin ranks 46th out of 58presidential elections.)
The scandal is only limited because so far, there is no hard evidence of actual collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. But if such evidence were to emerge, or if we were to learn of financial links between Trump and the Russians, Kremlingate would go radioactive.
Rather than dispelling doubts about the nature of his relationship with Russia’s anti-American dictator, Trump has reinforced concerns with his appointments. Already, the president-elect has selected as his national security adviser retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn, who admitted accepting money from RT, the Kremlin’s propaganda outlet, to attend a banquet in Moscow where he sat at a table near Putin himself. (Flynn also has become notorious for his tweets, described as bordering “on the demented” by retired general Barry McCaffrey, which express anti-Muslim animus and promote fake news stories.)
Now as his secretary of State, Trump’s leading choice is apparently Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, considered one of Putin’s closest American friends. The Kremlin even awarded him the Order of Friendship after ExxonMobil reached a lucrative agreement with the Kremlin-owned oil company Rosneft, run by Putin loyalist Igor Sechin, to develop Arctic oil fields. That joint venture was put on hold in 2014 after Russia invaded Ukraine and the U.S. responded with sanctions, but ExxonMobil is eager to resume operations the second sanctions are lifted. It may get its chance if its chief executive becomes America’s chief diplomat.
That is cause enough for senators of both parties to ask hard questions in the confirmation process and not let Tillerson slide by with pat answers. It may well be the case that as secretary of State, he will take a dramatically different view of Russia than he did as the CEO of an oil and gas giant, but if he were Hillary Clinton’s appointee, Republicans would not give him the benefit of the doubt. Tillerson deserves no less scrutiny if he’s chosen by Donald Trump.