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 regime. 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 9/11.”

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.

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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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