The spokesman for Vladimir Putin gave a funny answer on Monday when asked about Donald Trump’s claims that Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump’s phones during the 2016 presidential campaign. The Russian government “should not be in any way linked to U.S. domestic issues” and “doesn’t have the slightest inclination or intention to be associated with these affairs,” he said.
The answer was funny because the backstory to Trump’s comments is the Russian government’s brazen interference in America’s domestic affairs—specifically the recent U.S. election—and efforts by American officials to investigate the precise nature of that interference. (The Kremlin denies involvement in the hacks and leaks of Democratic Party emails.)
But the answer was also serious, because the story of Trump’s allegations against his predecessor is, in many ways, a domestic one: of spiraling political polarization, plummeting trust in institutions, and the unraveling of the federal government into fiefdoms and feuding tribes. Consider the opening paragraph of a New York Times report on Monday’s news: “President Trump does not accept the contention of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, that Mr. Trump falsely claimed that President Barack Obama had him wiretapped.” You don’t need to know much about Russia to grasp from that line that something is wrong with American politics.