Nothing matters—until something matters. Helsinki is that something, and it will not stop mattering soon.
In the aftermath, Republican leaders in Congress have felt obliged to state unequivocally that Russia did interfere with the election. But as they speak, they face an uncomfortable problem. Here’s Paul Ryan’s version of that problem. “They did interfere in our elections—it’s really clear. There should be no doubt about that.” Then he immediately added that it was also “clear” that the interference had “no material effect” on the outcome of the election.
But of course it is not at all clear that the Russian interference had no material effect, just as it’s unclear whether there was active coordination between Russia and the Donald Trump campaign. The latest indictment from Robert Mueller’s probe alleges that the Russians stole Democratic Party voter analytics. Were those analytics shared with the Trump campaign? That remains unclear. Did the Russians and the Trump campaign in any way coordinate the targeting of Facebook and other social-media advertising? That remains unclear. How much Russian money flowed into advertising by third-party groups such as the National Rifle Association? Unclear once more.
Trey Gowdy, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, issued a statement post-Helsinki: “It is possible to conclude Russia interfered in our election in 2016 without delegitimizing his [President Trump’s] electoral success.” It is possible to do that, but you have to be strongly motivated. The more plausible and more probable conclusion, even before Helsinki, was that the Russian interference shadowed Trump’s legitimacy. Post-Helsinki, the doubts rankle even more sharply.
Plainly, there is something wrong in the Trump–Russia relationship. Plainly, it governs Trump’s behavior. Plainly, Trump refuses to do the things—release his tax returns, for example—that might clarify his financial obligations to Russian sources.
Republicans want to argue that Russia did something wrong to influence the election’s outcome, while rebuffing questions about whether the outcome of the election was wrongly influenced. This is not a sustainable position, something Trump has recognized more clearly than most of his followers.
So here we are: More and more people—including the highest-ranking former intelligence officers—surmise that Russia has an improper hold upon the American president. That president refuses to comply with long-established norms of financial disclosure. The Russians interfered in the election intentionally to help the current president, as Vladimir Putin explicitly acknowledged in Helsinki. They broke American law, victimized individual Americans, and stole valuable proprietary information from an American political party. Did they share that information with the winner of the election? His party keeps attempting to obstruct the investigation of the information theft and to besmirch and discredit those doing the investigating.
Donald Trump is a natural-born citizen over the age of 35. Under the rules in place at the time, he received sufficient electoral votes to secure the presidency. American law does not provide for presidential election do-overs no matter what wrongs a candidate is revealed to have committed after the fact. Trump is the lawful president, but legitimacy is not decided by technicalities.
There’s a reason we have two different words for legality and legitimacy. Each new wave of information about Russia’s targeted assistance to Trump—and the Trump campaign’s acceptance of that assistance—subtracts from this presidency’s quantum of that second, higher quality. His supporters may not care. But legitimacy is important precisely because it shapes the behavior and beliefs of non-supporters. And in Trump’s case, those non-supporters are the large majority of the American population.