Is Russia a Red Herring?

A debate over whether the Left should focus on collusion between Trump and Russia.

Chris Edelson and Bhaskar Sunkara

The Left isn’t quite sure what to make of allegations that Putin helped Trump win the election. (EBET ROBERTS/ARCHIVE PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES)

On Feb. 13, Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advis­er Michael Fly­nn ten­dered his res­ig­na­tion to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump after weeks of con­tro­ver­sy over his alleged com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Russ­ian offi­cials while serv­ing on the Trump cam­paign. The com­mu­ni­ca­tion report­ed­ly includ­ed the drop­ping of U.S. sanc­tions on Rus­sia. The next day, the New York Times report­ed that inter­cept­ed phone calls show that oth­er top mem­bers of Trump’s cam­paign were in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with senior Russ­ian intel­li­gence offi­cials through­out the year lead­ing up to the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Since, calls have increased from Democ­rats in Con­gress and for­mer U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty offi­cials for fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tions into the Trump administration’s deal­ings with Russia. 

This scan­dal fol­lows news that leaked in Decem­ber of an explo­sive CIA brief­ing to Con­gress alleg­ing that Rus­sia had inter­vened in the elec­tion with the express intent of help­ing Trump win. The CIA, accord­ing to the brief­ing, had deter­mined that who­ev­er was respon­si­ble for hack­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee (DNC) and leak­ing thou­sands of emails to Wik­iLeaks had ties to the Russ­ian government.

The alle­ga­tions made sense: Don­ald Trump’s uncon­ven­tion­al­ly pro-Russ­ian for­eign pol­i­cy views and his brand of author­i­tar­i­an far-right pol­i­tics lined up with Vladimir Putin’s inter­ests. Many in the media — and many Democ­rats — have since leapt on the nar­ra­tive of a med­dling Putin installing a pup­pet in the White House.

On Jan­u­ary 6, the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty released a report on the hack­ing to the pub­lic, con­clud­ing that Putin direct­ly ordered cyber-espi­onage aimed at help­ing Don­ald Trump. The cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence is com­pelling, but many, under­stand­ably skep­ti­cal of the CIA, demand more proof.

Many on the Left are not entire­ly sure how to respond to these devel­op­ments. On the one hand, for­eign tam­per­ing threat­ens the integri­ty — and thus legit­i­ma­cy — of U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions, and pro­vides a poten­tial avenue for under­min­ing the Trump régime. On the oth­er hand, even if Putin did order the hack­ing, it is not clear that the emails — while at times unflat­ter­ing for the Clin­ton cam­paign— played a deci­sive role in the elec­tion. Nor is it clear that focus­ing on the Trump administration’s rela­tion­ship with Rus­sia rather than its hard right-wing poli­cies is a win­ning polit­i­cal strategy. 

In These Times asked Chris Edel­son, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty, and Bhaskar Sunkara, found­ing edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine, to weigh in on how seri­ous­ly we should take the Rus­sia alle­ga­tions — and whether it’s a dis­trac­tion from the polit­i­cal bat­tles ahead.

CHRIS: These are extra­or­di­nary times. Our pres­i­dent took office under a cloud of sus­pi­cion that Rus­sia helped him gain his very nar­row elec­tion vic­to­ry. The U.S. intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty seems to agree on that point. Then, uncon­firmed reports sur­faced that Rus­sia may pos­sess com­pro­mis­ing infor­ma­tion it could use to black­mail Trump. Buz­zfeed pub­lished a dossier — nei­ther ver­i­fied nor reject­ed by U.S. intel­li­gence — con­tain­ing lurid details about the infor­ma­tion Rus­sia may pos­sess, includ­ing descrip­tions of an encounter between Trump and pros­ti­tutes in a Moscow hotel. 

This all cries out for inves­ti­ga­tion. The Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, chaired by Sen. John McCain (R‑Ariz.), began hold­ing hear­ings in Jan­u­ary on Russ­ian inter­fer­ence in the elec­tion. That’s a good start, but not enough. As McCain him­self has acknowl­edged, an inde­pen­dent, non­par­ti­san inves­ti­ga­tion is essen­tial. Com­mit­tees like McCain’s divide along par­ti­san lines — as does Con­gress itself, of course. It is impos­si­ble to feel con­fi­dent about the impar­tial­i­ty of an inves­ti­ga­tion con­duct­ed as part of nor­mal con­gres­sion­al busi­ness. As for­mer U.S. ambas­sador to Rus­sia Michael McFaul put it, the only way we get to the bot­tom of this is a bipar­ti­san, inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion, like we had after 911.”

That makes a lot of sense. We’re in an uncer­tain, poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion. As David Ignatius of the Wash­ing­ton Post puts it, peo­ple must be won­der­ing if some­thing is rot­ten in the state of our democracy.”

There are three pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios: (1) the intel­li­gence assess­ments and oth­er report­ing are accu­rate, mean­ing Rus­sia inter­vened in the U.S. elec­tion to help Trump win and pos­sess­es com­pro­mis­ing infor­ma­tion about him; (2) the intel­li­gence assess­ments and oth­er report­ing are incor­rect, and Trump has been unfair­ly maligned; or (3) some of the infor­ma­tion is cor­rect, but not all of it. 

If I were Don­ald Trump, I would pub­licly call for an inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion to clear this all up — unless, of course, I had some­thing to hide. But Trump and most Repub­li­cans in Con­gress are not call­ing for an inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion. Instead, Trump promised on Jan­u­ary 13, My peo­ple will have a full report on hack­ing with­in 90 days!”

Even assum­ing we could take Trump’s tweet­ed dec­la­ra­tion at face val­ue, this would offer no com­fort. If Clin­ton had been elect­ed, would Trump have accept­ed the valid­i­ty of a probe into charges against her that was con­duct­ed by her loyalists?

Here’s the imme­di­ate prob­lem we face. If Rus­sia does indeed have embar­rass­ing infor­ma­tion con­cern­ing Trump, it is in the driver’s seat. It could decide to make this pub­lic at a time of its choos­ing. Or it could hold the infor­ma­tion over Trump’s head indef­i­nite­ly. If no such infor­ma­tion actu­al­ly exists, then Rus­sia is ben­e­fit­ing from false reports that add a mys­tique to its espi­onage capabilities.

No mat­ter what the case is with regard to the alle­ga­tions involv­ing Rus­sia, Trump and the elec­tion, McFaul is right that we need to get to the bot­tom of this as soon as pos­si­ble. The longer we wait, the more harm we do to an already deeply trou­bled U.S. polit­i­cal cli­mate. Only Rus­sia would ben­e­fit from that.

BHASKAR: Chris is absolute­ly cor­rect about one thing — Trump should call for an inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion over Russia’s role in the election.

No coun­try can match the Amer­i­can record at elec­tion inter­fer­ence, but that’s no rea­son for lib­er­als and left­ists to com­plete­ly dis­miss con­cerns that Putin’s Rus­sia — an impe­ri­al­ist pow­er in its own right — put its fin­ger on the scale for Trump.

Our dif­fer­ence, then, is one of empha­sis. In the days fol­low­ing Trump’s shock vic­to­ry, lib­er­als were final­ly ask­ing some tough ques­tions. Hillary Clin­ton faced a gaffe-prone can­di­date and had a huge finan­cial advan­tage, as well as the sup­port of vir­tu­al­ly every sec­tor of both the country’s busi­ness elite and orga­nized pop­u­lar forces. It was her elec­tion to lose — and she lost. 

She told us that Love Trumps Hate” and that Amer­i­ca was already great, but spent less time stat­ing what she could offer work­ing Amer­i­cans. If the last 30 years have seemed eco­nom­i­cal­ly bleak, I’ve been in pol­i­tics for 30 years” is not the best pitch.

Savvy com­men­ta­tors began to ques­tion the dom­i­nant Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty approach of offer­ing lit­tle more to vot­ers than a mar­riage between neolib­er­al eco­nom­ics and the rhetoric of social inclu­sion. Robert Reich, for exam­ple, made the case after the elec­tion that Democ­rats could not neglect white work­ers. But even among black and Lati­no vot­ers, turnout was low­er than in the Oba­ma years. Most Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers didn’t flock to Trump, but they weren’t moti­vat­ed to show up for Clinton.

We had seen a glimpse of a dif­fer­ent sort of pol­i­tics — the broad left pop­ulism of fig­ures like Bernie Sanders and Eliz­a­beth War­ren. That pol­i­tics seemed like the pos­si­ble new face of a stag­gered Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Pro­gres­sives appeared to be start­ing a twofront war against both a dis­cred­it­ed Clin­tonite cen­ter and the dan­ger­ous incom­ing Trump administration.

And then came Putin. A new nar­ra­tive emerged, with Don­ald Trump play­ing the role of a Russ­ian pre­tender king and the CIA — despite decades of blood on its hands — cast as demo­c­ra­t­ic heroes. News agen­cies like CNN and NBC referred to Russia’s elec­tion hack­ing,” lead­ing some to believe that actu­al vote counts had been manip­u­lat­ed. And the lessons of the failed Clin­ton cam­paign were cast by the wayside. 

I am wor­ried about the role Rus­sia could have played in the DNC hacks. But the influ­ence of that for­eign gov­ern­ment was like­ly far less than the role played by many U.S. actors. It should nev­er have been a close race to begin with. The longer we keep blam­ing the igno­rance of vot­ers or for­eign machi­na­tions — instead of thor­ough­ly reject­ing Clin­ton­ism — the bet­ter chance we have of it hap­pen­ing again in 2020.

David Ignatius is right. Some­thing is rot­ten with our democ­ra­cy. But what’s rot­ten is that vot­ers were giv­en a choice between two can­di­dates who didn’t rep­re­sent their inter­ests. Enough of them, ratio­nal­ly enough, decid­ed to stay at home or try their chances on a buf­foon­ish out­sider. Blam­ing Putin doesn’t help build an alternative.

CHRIS: Bhaskar makes an essen­tial point: We can­not allow seri­ous con­cerns over Russ­ian inter­ven­tion to be an excuse for over­look­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s fail­ure to offer a bona fide pro­gres­sive alter­na­tive to Trump’s pho­ny pop­ulism. As Bhaskar observes, the elec­tion should nev­er have been close enough for Russ­ian inter­fer­ence to make a dif­fer­ence. It’s also a mis­take to cre­ate the false impres­sion that Vladimir Putin has the uni­lat­er­al pow­er to dic­tate elec­toral outcomes.

But per­haps it is pos­si­ble to accom­plish both objec­tives — to hold an inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion while also reshap­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. In fact, I believe it’s nec­es­sary. If we don’t find out what hap­pened and take steps to pre­vent any repeat, why won’t Putin inter­fere again in this year’s Vir­ginia guber­na­to­r­i­al elec­tion, or in nation­al elec­tions in 2018 and 2020? He is already tar­get­ing French, Ger­man and Dutch elec­tions with mis­in­for­ma­tion, accord­ing to an EU task force. We also need to be sure U.S. jour­nal­ists don’t keep offer­ing Putin a mega­phone for his sab­o­tage, as in 2016.

It would indeed be a mis­take to con­clude that Putin won the elec­tion for Trump and that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty does not need to make dra­mat­ic changes. For 25 years, since Bill Clinton’s emer­gence as a New Demo­c­rat, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has made itself into a cen­ter-Right par­ty that is dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish from the Repub­li­cans on eco­nom­ic issues. As Bhaskar argues, it is past time to embrace a proud, unapolo­getic pop­ulism of the Left.

Democ­rats must become the par­ty of mid­dle- and work­ing-class Amer­i­cans of all col­ors and back­grounds, not the par­ty of Wall Street. If they don’t, they’ll make it easy for Trump to keep play­ing his pho­ny pop­ulism game for all it’s worth. But to give the Democ­rats the space and oppor­tu­ni­ty to cam­paign on sub­stan­tive pro­gres­sive issues, we first must be sure that future elec­tions can’t be hijacked.

BHASKAR: Pol­i­tics can be a zero­sum game. The Left has lim­it­ed resources and ener­gy, and join­ing John McCain’s cru­sade against Putin is not a good use of them.

Some of our dis­agree­ment here is the extent of the Russ­ian threat: I don’t believe that the specter of Putin is haunt­ing every demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­tion in this coun­try, at least in any seri­ous way that is like­ly to shape the out­come. I do believe that the specter of Trump­ism is. And join­ing the cru­sade against Rus­sia rein­forces the notion that this is pri­mar­i­ly a move­ment against an ille­git­i­mate pres­i­dent,” rather than for alter­na­tive poli­cies. Our ene­my is at home, and the polit­i­cal bat­tles we have to win are, too.

I would add that, espe­cial­ly in light of the attacks on the media com­ing from the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, claim­ing that Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists gave Putin a mega­phone is the wrong sort of rhetoric. The pub­lic deserves to know just how bank­rupt so many Amer­i­can insti­tu­tions are. Out­lets were right to report on the DNC leak and its impli­ca­tions, what­ev­er the source.

With Trump’s attacks esca­lat­ing by the day, we owe it to our­selves to stay laser-focused on pre­sent­ing our own alter­na­tive to his pres­i­den­cy — and that isn’t served by echo­ing the Rus­sia-did-it” rhetoric of our class enemies.

Chris Edel­son is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Gov­ern­ment at Amer­i­can University’s School of Pub­lic Affairs.Bhaskar Sunkara is the found­ing edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @sunraysunray.
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