The bipartisan, nearly full-political-spectrum tsunami of factually unverified allegations that President Trump has been sedi tiously “compromised” by the Kremlin, with scarcely any nonpartisan pushback from influential political or media sources, is deeply alarming. Begun by the Clinton campaign in mid-2016, and exemplified now by New York Times columnists (who write of a “Trump-Putin regime” in Washington), strident MSNBC hosts, and unbalanced CNN commentators, the practice is growing into a latter-day McCarthyite hysteria. Such politically malignant practices should be deplored wherever they appear, whether on the part of conservatives, liberals, or progressives.
The allegations are driven by political forces with various agendas: the Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, which wants to maintain its grip on the party by insisting that she didn’t lose the election but that it was stolen by Russian President Vladimir Putin for Trump; by enemies of Trump’s proposed détente with Russia, who want to discredit both him and Putin; and by Republicans and Democrats stunned that Trump essentially ran and won without either party, thereby threatening the established two-party system. Whatever the motivation, the ensuing slurs against Trump, which are already producing calls for his impeachment, pose grave threats to US and international security and to American democracy itself.
So far, no facts have been presented to back up the allegations. (Without facts, all of us are doomed to malpractice or worse.) An impartial investigation might search for such facts, if any exist, which should then be evaluated objectively—but neither may be possible in the current political atmosphere, only a witch hunt.
For now, six allegations pass as evidence that Trump has been compromised, or worse, by the Kremlin:
1. The president has “lavished praise” on Putin. All Trump has said in this regard is that Putin is “a strong leader” and “very smart” and that it would be good “to cooperate with Russia.” These are empirically true statements. They pale in comparison with the warm words of previous US presidents for Russia’s leaders, including those of Franklin Roosevelt about Joseph Stalin, those of Richard Nixon about Leonid Brezhnev, and particularly those of Bill Clinton about Boris Yeltsin, whom Clinton compared favorably to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. Only against the backdrop of the unrelenting US political-media establishment’s demonization of Putin could Trump’s “praise” be considered lavish. Instead, unlike virtually every other mainstream American political figure and media outlet, Trump simply refuses to vilify Putin—declining to characterize him as a “killer” of personal enemies, for which there is also no evidence.
2. Trump and his associates have had, it is charged, business dealings in Russia and with Russian “oligarchs.” Perhaps, but so have many major American corporations, including Boeing, Pfizer, Ford, General Electric, Morgan Stanley, McDonald’s, and Starbucks. Their Russian partners are often “oligarchs.” Moreover, unlike many international hotel corporations, Trump tried but failed to build his signature enterprise in Russia. The “Russian assets” about which his son spoke seem to have been from selling condos and co-ops in the United States to cash-bearing Russians in search of a luxury brand—hardly delegitimizing. It is said that Trump’s tax returns, if revealed, would expose nefarious Russian influence. Perhaps, but considering the financial documents of ownership he has made public, that seems unlikely. Regardless, this remains an allegation, not a fact.
3. Trump’s “associate” and, briefly, campaign manager, Paul Manafort, is alleged to have been “pro-Russian” when he advised Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, later deposed unconstitutionally during the Maidan “revolution” in February 2014. This makes no sense. A professional political expert, Manafort was presumably well paid, like other American electoral experts hired abroad. But he seems to have urged Yanukovych to tilt toward the ill-fated European Union partnership agreement and away from Russia—as Yanukovych did—in order to win the votes of Ukrainians outside his constituency in southeastern regions. (Yanukovych, whom Putin loathed for this and other reasons, had fallen out of favor with the Kremlin until late 2013.)
4. A “dossier” purporting to show how the Kremlin could blackmail Trump was leaked to CNN and published by BuzzFeed. Compiled by a former British intelligence official in the opposition-research business, its 30-odd pages are a compilation of the innocent, the unverified, and the kind of trash for sale in Moscow and elsewhere. More recently, CNN exclaimed that its own intelligence leakers had “confirmed” some elements of the dossier, but thus far none that actually compromise Trump.
5. The crux of the allegations against Trump was, and remains, that Putin ordered the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the dissemination of stolen e-mails through WikiLeaks in order to undermine the Clinton campaign and put Trump in the White House. A summary of these “facts” was presented in a declassified report released by the “intelligence community” and widely discussed in January. Though it quickly became axiomatic proof for Trump’s political and media enemies, almost nothing in the report is persuasive. About half are “assessments” based on surmised motivations, not factual evidence of an actual Kremlin operation on Trump’s behalf. The other half is standard whining about the Kremlin-funded television network RT, which is at worst an above-average “propaganda” outlet. Moreover, a number of American cyber-experts insist that Russian state hackers would have left no fingerprints, as US intelligence officials claim they had. Indeed, the group Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity believes that the DNC documents were not hacked but rather leaked by an insider. If so, this had nothing to do with Russia. (The CIA and the FBI were “highly confident” about the report’s findings, but the National Security Agency, which alone has the capacity to fully monitor e-mails, was only “moderately confident.”) Still more, at his final presidential press conference, Barack Obama referred to the DNC scandal as a leak and said he didn’t know WikiLeaks’ exact role in the scandal—this despite the allegations by his own intelligence agencies. Nor is it clear that Putin so favored the erratic Trump that he would have taken such a risk. Judging from debates in Kremlin-connected Russian newspapers, there was serious doubt as to which US candidate might be best—or least bad—for Russia.
6. Finally, there is the firing of Gen. Michael Flynn as Trump’s national-security adviser for having communicated with the Russian ambassador about the sanctions imposed by Obama just before he left the White House and Trump was inaugurated. So far as is actually known, Flynn did nothing unprecedented or incriminating. Communications, including meetings, between representatives of US presidents-elect and foreign capitals, particularly Moscow, have been “common practice” over the years, according to Jack Matlock, ambassador to Russia for Presidents Reagan and Bush; Matlock had previously arranged meetings in Moscow for President-elect Carter’s transition team. Moreover, Obama’s own Russia adviser, Michael McFaul, told The Washington Post recently that he visited Moscow in 2008, even before that year’s election, for talks with Russian officials. The Post implied that this was “appropriate contact.” So, it seems, was Flynn’s, though perhaps inept. Indeed, if Flynn’s purpose was to persuade the Kremlin not to overreact to Obama’s last-minute sanctions, which were accompanied by a highly provocative threat to launch a cyber-attack on Moscow, his urging was wise and in America’s national interest. In fact, it is not Putin who is threatening American democracy, but rather these Kremlin-baiting allegations against President Trump. It is not Putin who is endangering US and international security, but rather the high-level political and intelligence enemies of détente. Similarly, it is not Putin who is degrading the US media with “fake news.” Nor is it Putin who is subverting the American political process, but rather the US intelligence leakers who are at war against their own president.
President Eisenhower eventually stopped Joseph McCarthy. Who will stop the new McCarthyism before it spreads further into the “soul of democracy,” so revered by liberals and progressives? Facts might do so. But in lieu of facts, there are only professional ethics, decency, and patriotism.