Well, we knew it would happen. We just didn’t know how.
We pretty much knew that between now and November, an already absurd presidential campaign would somehow produce story lines even more bizarre than those that have played out to date. And indeed it has, with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, the release of embarrassing DNC emails and allegations that the leaks were orchestrated by the Russian government to aid the election of Donald Trump.
Personally, I did not see that one coming.
In assessing such claims, I think it’s important to distinguish clearly between what we know, what we might be able to conclude from what we know, and what at this point remains mere speculation.
WHAT WE KNOW:
1.) Based on assessments by cyber-security experts in the federal government as well as in private industry, we know that the DNC hackers are probably linked to the Russian government. The computer breaches were reportedly perpetrated by the same Russian-backed outfits that had earlier hacked the White House, State Department and other federal agencies, using the same tactics. (UPDATE: Those wanting a more in-depth, technical assessment of the hacker question can find it at defenseone.com, a defense and national-security site.)
2.) The hacked information includes almost 20,000 internal emails to and from DNC officials, including off-the-record discussions with the media and a suggestion by a high-ranking DNC employee that it might be politically useful to highlight Bernie Sanders’ alleged atheism. The material has led to the resignation of U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz as head of the DNC, a step that probably should have been taken months ago. All in all, though, there’s nothing really shocking in those emails and little that is actually surprising. My biggest surprise is that they didn’t contain bigger surprises, although later email releases still have the potential to produce bombshells.
3.) In a separate line of inquiry, we know that Donald Trump has voiced sympathy and support over the years for Russia and Vladimir Putin, climaxing with Trump’s statements last week that as president, he would not necessarily honor treaty commitments to defend NATO allies in the Baltics should Putin decide to invade those countries, either directly or indirectly.
That statement was greeted by widespread horror by foreign policy leaders of both parties. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to dismiss that suggestion as a “rookie mistake” by Trump, saying that “I don’t think that view would be prevalent or held by anybody (Trump) might make secretary of state or secretary of defense,” as if Cabinet members might somehow overrule a President Trump or that he might appoint officials willing and able to stand up to him. There is nothing in Trump’s style to suggest that might be true.¹
In fact, over the weekend Trump baldly reiterated his position on NATO and directly chastised McConnell for suggesting otherwise. “He’s 100 percent wrong. OK?” Trump told “Meet the Press.” “He’s 100 percent wrong if he said that.”
4.) We also know that Russia’s government and government-controlled media have embraced the possibility of Trump as the next American president. (Fans of former MSNBC host Ed Schultz will read this example with particular dismay.) We know that as a businessman, Trump has in turn long courted Putin and other Russian officials, both because he has wanted to build projects there and because he has become dependent on financing from Russian oligarchs. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” as Donald Trump Jr. put it back in 2008 in a speech to a real-estate trade group.
WHAT IT MEANS:
1.) It’s hard to dismiss the claim that the release of Russian-provided emails on the eve of the Democratic convention is designed to harm the Clinton campaign and bolster Trump. We don’t know that to be true for certain, but the timing is suggestive.
2.) There’s no evidence whatsoever that Trump and Putin have any kind of arrangement or understanding, or that Trump is anything but sincere in his statements. The problem is more subtle. Given Trump’s repeated statements of admiration for Putin’s autocratic leadership, his clear business dependence on Russian capital and his desire to play in the Russian market, combined with his foreign-policy naivete and ignorance, it’s safe to say that Trump has a personal perspective on Russia and Putin that is very much at odds with that of most American foreign policy experts. It’s also say that given that perspective, Putin in turn has every reason to want the Trump campaign to succeed.
3.) This is not some conspiracy. Trump is not some Manchurian candidate, nor is he Putin’s dupe or puppet. Any claims to that effect are clearly unfounded. Instead, it seems to be a case in which two very avid opportunists recognize opportunity in each other, and are proceeding accordingly. As Trump put it back in April, “I like (Putin) because he called me a genius. He said ‘Trump is the new world leader, Trump should be the leader and a total genius’.”
4.) So American voters have to ask themselves a series of questions:
- Do they agree with Trump’s assessment of Putin, NATO and Russia? If so, fine. If not, then …
- Do they believe that Trump’s position on Russia is relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things? If so, fine. If not, then …
- Do they accept McConnell’s description of this as a “rookie mistake” that Trump will reverse once it’s explained to him, a claim that Trump himself has directly contradicted?
- What does this say about Trump’s overall competence in foreign policy, a field in which a U.S. president and commander in chief has a great deal of leeway under the Constitution, with Congress lacking the means to interfere?
- Trump talks loudly and vaguely about being “strong,” and about the importance of American leadership and commitment to our allies. In this one foreign-policy area in which that talk is fleshed out by details, does his rhetoric match or contradict his action?
¹One of the few who defended Trump’s statements was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg,” Gingrich said last week. “I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg. I think we have to think about what does this stuff mean.”
The Estonian border is some 85 miles from St. Petersburg.
Geography aside, the idea that the West might surrender Estonia to Putin as a way to avoid a larger war is a stunning statement coming from Gingrich. Throughout his career, Gingrich has used the example of Neville Chamberlain and his 1938 agreement with Adolph Hitler as a hammer against anybody whom he wanted to accuse of appeasement. It is probably the single most consistent theme underlying Gingrich’s foreign-policy approach.
Gingrich wielded it against President Reagan in 1985, accusing Reagan of acting like Chamberlain for agreeing to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He has also trotted it out in discussions of Saddam Hussein, North Korea and most recently President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran, among many others. His point has always been the same: If you try to appease an opponent, you show weakness that will encourage further adventurism and guarantee an even larger war later.
Now, you can certainly argue that American interests do not include guaranteeing the independence of Estonia and other Baltic nations from Russia. The problem is that the time for that argument was 15 years ago, when President George W. Bush first announced that “all of Europe’s new democracies, from the Baltic to the Black Sea and all that lie between, should have the same chance . . . to join the institutions of Europe.” Among those who challenged that approach at the time was Georgia’s own Sam Nunn, who argued that we were making a commitment that we might not want to keep. He lost that debate.
However, Gingrich and others were strong advocates of expansion. In fact, NATO expansion was one of the main foreign policy goals of Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America.” To now watch him completely reverse himself and suggest that maybe we could placate Putin by surrendering the Baltics — the functional equivalent of Chamberlain surrendering the Sudetenland — is rank political opportunism of a degree that is shocking even when the person in question is Gingrich.