Why everyone, even Trump, might benefit from Russia probe


I guess it’s no surprise in this time of passionate partisan politics that so many people are jumping to conclusions about the purpose and likely outcome of any investigation of Russian interference in American politics. But both sides may be missing the point.

President Trump thinks Democrats are out to get him. Democrats think the president’s attempts to stop the investigation prove he has something to hide. I don’t know whether the chicken or the egg came first. Everyone seems confident it was the other guy.

I don’t buy the argument that Trump’s desire to quash the investigation necessarily means guilt. One thing any reasonable observer knows about Trump is, he takes things personally. He sees the probe as being all about him, and does not show any sign of seeing that there may be something amiss that he isn’t involved in, except by hanging out with the wrong sort.

Ambassadors meet with people all the time, hoping to lobby for their own nation’s interests. I will concede that the ubiquity of such behavior makes any ambassador a good potential spy, since he has a ready excuse for meeting with people. But it doesn’t automatically make the Russian ambassador a jowly James Bond.

As for former national security advisor Mike Flynn, the one guy whose behavior is really suspicious (he took money to lobby for both Russia and Turkey without registering as a foreign agent, and he deceived the vice president about his Russia ties) my own working theory is that President Trump liked Flynn mainly because Barack Obama didn’t. Hiring someone Obama fired clearly appealed to Trump. Not smart. But not a crime.

That doesn’t mean Trump must be innocent. It does means he might be. And if an independent investigation can’t prove guilt, that will be that. (The reason people who remember Watergate are making comparisons is that Nixon got “got” for obstruction of justice, more than the original break-in at Democratic headquarters.)

Trump and his critics are both getting hung up on Trump’s role, or lack thereof. So they’re both missing a larger point.

Any Russian interference in American affairs is worth investigating, even if Trump had nothing to do with it, and even if he in no way benefitted.

It’s an open secret in geopolitical circles that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is so sexist that this very week he said he does not have bad days “because I am not a woman,” greatly dislikes Hillary Clinton, and was probably delighted to see her lose until he got a better idea with whom he’d be dealing instead.

But it’s also widely known he thinks Syrian President Assad is a jerk, yet keeps him as an ally for the very practical reason that Assad lets him keep in Syria the only Russian naval base beyond the nations of the former Soviet Union.

Putin has two broad goals all the time: to placate the Russian people so he can stay in power, and to keep Russia afloat. To advance the first goal he illegally took Crimea back from Ukraine, then pressured Ukraine from the east in hopes the world would eventually let him keep Crimea (once part of Russia) in return for leaving the rest of Ukraine alone. From where we are it seemed stupid, making an enemy of a republic with the strongest possible cultural and economic ties to Russia. But it played well in Russian politics and secured Putin’s position. What also plays well in Russia is finding ways to occasionally put his thumb in the Western eye.

Which is why a Russian military officer earlier this year boasted, to an open session of the Russian parliament, that his state hackers were destabilizing democracies by using social media and other means to reduce citizens’ confidence in their leaders and their systems of government. Russia also spends good money supporting RT.com, a news service that hews fairly close to mainsteam media except for highlighting stories that reduce citizens’ confidence in their leaders and systems of government, and for giving full play to the official Russian side of stories.

This is the organization that paid Mike Flynn to attend a big party it threw in Moscow.

Putin reportedly outsources some of his intelligence gathering to private sector hackers who take time out of their crooked schedules to gather information for the state. This allows him to say – as he did say a couple days ago in that interview with an American news anchor – that state hackers didn’t act. That may technically have been the truth.

Whether it was done by Russian state hackers or private sector Russian hacker crooks on behalf of the Russian state – or, as Putin sometimes claims, some hypothetical other guy – someone hacked campaign emails in the American election campaign and fed them through a cutout to Wikileaks. Russians also hacked French campaign emails. Even more annoyingly, the Illinois Board of Elections is the latest of several state election boards to confirm the hacking of their voting systems, accessing personal data on thousands of voters.

If you wondering why some people seem so sure Russian hackers are behind it, it’s because computer security experts can recognize the software signature of hackers and they think they know specifically who did it. It’s not a general suspicion or wild speculation like we get these days from certain denizens of Twitter.

It’s serious stuff and needs to be investigated whether the administration was involved or not. It’s not all about the president, and why he keeps making it about him is beyond me. But I’m not in Washington any more and I think the atmosphere there is very different now.

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