By now you have read that a grand jury has indicted several Russian nationals for conspiracy and aggravated identity theft in connection with the Special Counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election. There is already plenty of news and commentary out there. Here for what it is worth is my reaction to the news.
- The indictment shows that the US has really remarkable counterintelligence capabilities. Indeed, there is so much detail in the indictment that I am a little surprised the intelligence agencies agreed to allow the prosecutors to use the information in a public document, particularly because there is essentially no chance that the Russians will ever be brought to the United States to answer the charges (assuming they are now in Russia). Perhaps the thought was that given the abdication of leadership by the White House and Congress on defending against foreign interference in our elections and confronting Russia about its past interference, it was imperative for the public to know, in detail, some of what happened, so that the public can pressure the government.
- The President’s reaction was both predictable and dispiriting. His narcissism was on full display. He tweeted: “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong—no collusion!” Leave aside the fact that the President is obviously misreading the indictment, which doesn’t absolve him or his campaign or even address the issues of collusion. Even if the indictment had absolved him, is that really the most important thing about it? I can think of no brighter green light for our adversaries in future elections than the President’s obvious lack of concern.
- I preface this next point by admitting that most of my knowledge of Russian intelligence comes from my careful study of the works of Alan Furst and John le Carré. Probably one could do worse! The indictment says that the Russians communicated with “unwitting” members of the Trump campaign and others. I suppose it’s better to be an unwitting dupe of the Russians than their willing co-conspirator. But it seems to me that not all “agents” of a foreign intelligence service have to know that they are agents of the foreign power. Sometimes, they can be maneuvered into doing the bidding of the foreign intelligence service by someone who, say, knows their weaknesses or has a good understanding of their motivations and psychology.
- It’s deeply concerning to think that the intelligence service of one of our main adversaries believed that the best way to weaken the United States in the 2016 election would be to work for the defeat of Hillary Clinton, not just by a generic Republican, but by Mr. Trump specifically—the Russian interference campaign targeted Sen. Cruz and Sen. Rubio, two of the candidates for the Republican nomination, too.
- I admit I am a bit of a hawk on this stuff. Foreign interference in our elections is unacceptable and needs to be countered and deterred—neither of which seems to be happening. But I think it is important to remember that aside from its source, the Russian disinformation and propaganda is not that different from the disinformation and propaganda that has infected our politics for years now. I am sorry to say that the Republican Party’s media apparatus has been the main purveyor of this. Of course, foreign governments shouldn’t be allowed to distort our politics by publishing misinformation and stirring up irrational ideas, hatreds, and passions. But that’s something we have been allowing big parts of the American media to do for many years now. We need to get to the bottom of the Russian plot and to take real steps to deter a repeat. But we won’t have solved our political problems until we address our problems at home. The problem is both on the demand side and on the supply side. On the one hand, there are a lot of suppliers of news and opinion who do not respect journalistic standards and who do not seem to have the best interests of the country at heart. On the other hand, there are a lot of Americans who choose to get their news from such sources. My unrealistic wish is that Americans of all political stripes could simply stop reading political twitter, stop reading opinion columns, and stop reading partisan news sources for a month or two. We would all be happier and healthier.
- Of course the Russian propaganda affected the election. The point of propaganda is to have an effect, just like any advertising. Whether it had a dispositive effect is not clear and probably will never be clear. But the President’s denial of this simple point, apparently motivated entirely by his own insecurities, is troubling and bizarre. The President criticized his own national security advisor on just this point: “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems.” The Democrats have long been sounding the alarm about this fecklessness, as have the so-called “Never Trump” wing of the Republican Party. But what’s needed is for the leadership of the Republican Party to exercise its responsibility to put country before politics.