Late last week, The Washington Post broke a bombshell story: The CIA has concluded that the Russian government was actively working to elect Donald Trump president of the United States.
To be sure, this is only news if you were in hibernation during the 2016 campaign. Of course Russia wanted Trump to win and of course they tried to help him. But how deep those connections went is something we may never know — and not knowing will place a permanent black cloud over Trump’s presidency and the nation’s confidence in American democracy.
Indeed, the Post report confirmed what’s long been obvious: The Russian government hacked the DNC and Clinton campaign officials and gave the material from those hacks to WikiLeaks, who leaked them in order to hurt Clinton. Back on Oct. 7, the intelligence community publicly stated that the Russian government was involved in the hack, and surely it’s not a coincidence that none of the WikiLeaks revelations did any harm to Trump — and seemed specially timed to do maximum damage to Clinton and the Democratic Party.
Of course, the unmistakable goal of the leaks did not stop dozens of news outlets from breathlessly reporting on them. And it certainly didn’t stop Trump from trying to benefit from them. Trump used the information culled from WikiLeaks to attack Clinton, but he also, amazingly, urged the Russians on.
So even if Trump was not directly involved in Russia’s effort to sway a presidential election, his efforts to benefit from it, and even encourage it, make him complicit.
But how do we know Trump wasn’t involved? Throughout the 2016 campaign, one of the few consistent positions that Trump took was support for Vladimir Putin. Trump signaled an unwillingness to challenge Russian adventurism against NATO countries and even called the organization, the bedrock of European security for 70 years, “obsolete.”
During the Republican platform debate, his operatives tried to remove language that endorsed arming Ukraine in its fight with Russian-backed rebels.
Briefly, his campaign manager was Paul Manafort, who has long-standing connections to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. Trump’s top Russia advisor was Carter Page, who also has direct financial connections to Russia and in particular the nation’s oil sector.
Trump frequently dismissed Moscow’s abundant human rights abuses, and to this day still denies the Russians were involved in the DNC and Clinton hacks — a position at odds with the entire US intelligence community. On Tuesday, he announced as his Secretary of State pick, Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon/Mobil and a close friend and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This follows on the heels of his pick for National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, a regular guest on Russia Today, an English-language propaganda arm of the Russian government, who even sat next to Putin at a state dinner in Moscow celebrating the news outlet’s 10th anniversary.
All of this could be merely coincidental or just a case of Putin throwing his support behind a candidate likely to take a softer line on Russia. These would be logical conclusions, but how would we know? How would we know if Trump or members of his staff were in cahoots with the Russians? Since Trump has yet to release his taxes, we still don’t know the extent of business connections between him and the Russian government or whether he’s received loans from Russian banks — though we do know that Trump has ties with Russian financiers and investors. Trump’s son is even on record saying that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section” of Trump’s business assets. So there’s no way to know if Trump’s financial ties to Russia are driving his pro-Putin proclamations.
Of course, if the same Republican Congress that spent $7 million on the 17-month Benghazi Select Committee investigation were to look into Russia’s meddling in the election — and Trump’s connection to it — we might get some answers. But it seems clear that Republican leaders have no interest in doing that and instead want to shuffle off any inquiry to the Intelligence Committee, which is a recipe for partisan inaction.
That Republicans are so disinterested in foreign involvement in the nation’s democratic process or the potential conflicts of interest of the next president are both astounding and — considering the source — not surprising at all. With the notable exception of John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and others, the same party that refused to stand up to Trump during the campaign is making clear that it increasingly will do the same with him in the Oval Office.
The result is that we may never know the full extent of Russia’s efforts to elect Trump or the political and financial connections between the next president and one of the country’s most belligerent international rivals. It’s a disaster for the country and, ironically, a disaster for Trump. The legitimacy of his presidency will be permanently open to question, and the undisclosed conflicts hiding in his financial portfolio could represent a ticking time bomb for his presidency.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71