Read the Russian indictments. It is a civic duty. Likewise, Donald Trump’s tweets on the matter.
They are all over the internet and accessible in seconds — collections of the president’s tweets on the Russian investigation going way back and Robert Mueller’s crisp 37-page summary of the acts that persuaded a grand jury to indict 13 Russians and a quasi-government organization with a workforce of some 300 Russians for trying to undermine the United States by sowing discord and trying to keep Hillary Clinton from becoming president.
While finally acknowledging that the Russians meddled, Trump says the whole Russian inquiry by the independent counsel and Trump’s own intelligence agencies is still a giant hoax by Democrats. He refuses to take steps to punish Russia, as a law passed by a bipartisan Congress that he grudgingly signed requires him to do. He refuses to veer even slightly from years of warm praise of Vladimir Putin, the autocrat whom Trump’s own men acknowledge directed the subversion.
That is where we are. The most engrossing riddle of our times is: Why is he doing this? We must assume that he never colluded with the Russians himself or told his friends, family or staff to do it, because there is no convincing evidence, yet, that he did. So why does he invite so much suspicion by his rages and by transmitting threats to shut down the investigation, which is run by Republicans? Let’s come back to that.
The indictments — their specificity, their range and the internal evidence supporting them — ended all doubt that the Russians meddled. Not even Trump will deny it again.
It is clear that the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency and others were tapping into the Russian espionage long ago, as we have assumed they were doing, for defensive and offensive purposes. The Russians are not alone in meddling in foreign governments, including elections. We have been doing it in a big way since the CIA’s creation in 1946. We have overthrown democratically elected governments. The difference is that we claim to be doing it for a noble reason, to give people in those countries — Iran, Chile, Nicaragua, wherever — better governance. Putin can argue that Hillary Clinton had meddled over there by accusing the Kremlin of manipulating Russian elections and by encouraging his enemies, like the Russian women’s punk group Pussy Riot.
The indictments detail many contacts of Russian operatives with American political activists, whom it describes as largely unwitting, to arrange rallies for Trump and against Clinton and to promote discord and clashes between white nationalists and Muslim groups. They made facile use of social media to reach millions of Americans with their message, including fabricating Clinton messages cheering Muslims and Sharia law. They paid millions of dollars to people to arrange events and even actresses to play Clinton behind bars. The Russians documented their successes, counting the hundreds of thousands who passed on their messages.
According to Trump and his aides, the critical point was that it didn’t throw the election to Trump. He lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million but won the Electoral College by less than 80,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. It is true that the indictments do not conclude that meddling decided the election, nor does it say they didn’t. Without getting into the minds of voters, it is impossible to say what wins any election.
Educated conjecture is another matter. Facebook alone counted 126 million people who got messages through secret agents. The indictments pinpoint the Russian strategy, guided by unwitting Trump supporters, of concentrating on tossup states like Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Russians posing as Americans used social media to push the idea in those states that blacks, immigrants and Bernie Sanders supporters should vote for Jill Stein, the liberal Green Party candidate, or the Libertarian Gary Johnson instead of Clinton. Add the numbers. Stein’s votes alone cost Clinton Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and the presidency. It is not proof of the Russians’ success, but troublesome.
So why does the heathen president rage, but not about Putin? Does Putin have something on Trump — perhaps the video of the hotel-room romp during the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow? Such sexual traps were Putin’s stock in trade with the KGB, which caused the grateful Boris Yeltsin to bring him into the Kremlin. But let’s don’t go there.
Money is the more likely explanation. Trump says he never had financial dealings in Russia, although his son Donald Jr. said in 2010 that Russian profits accounted for much of the Trump organization’s bottom line. The president made it clear last year that the one thing that he would not tolerate is Mueller’s getting into his finances, like tax returns. He had promised during his campaign to release a tax return or two but has since said he would never do so. If Mueller subpoenas tax returns from the IRS, that will be the day he’s fired and anyone above him who interferes.
That is the day of reckoning we must all dread.