The first excuse for Donald Trump’s amazing press conference on Wednesday, in which he called on the Russians to hack and publish the 30,000 emails wiped from Hillary Clinton’s home server, was: He was only joking.
That excuse almost immediately dissolved. When Trump was asked by CNN’s Jim Acosta whether he would call on Vladimir Putin to stay out of U.S. elections, the presidential nominee answered that he would not tell Putin what to do. After the conference ended, Trump tweeted out a slightly tidied up request to the Russians to find Clinton’s emails—but to hand them over to the FBI rather than publish them.
The second excuse, produced on Twitter minutes later by Newt Gingrich, is that Trump’s remark, while possibly unfortunate, mattered less than Clinton’s careless handling of classified material on her server. That defense seems likely to have more staying power than the first—about which, more in a minute.
But it’s important to understand that there is more here than one unfortunate remark. Over the course of his candidacy, Donald Trump has revealed a remarkably consistent attitude toward Russia—a subject he seems to have thought about almost more than any other in this campaign.
He has repeatedly and emphatically rejected criticism of Vladimir Putin’s methods of rule, including his murders of journalists.
He has called NATO obsolete because it is too focused on the threat from Russia. At his own convention, he told The New York Times he would not defend small NATO countries like Estonia against a Russian attack.
Trump’s convention team, largely indifferent to the work of the party-platform committee, acted decisively to strike pro-Ukraine language. Trump himself has urged decreased U.S. support for Ukraine as it resists Russian invasion.
And at this most recent press conference, he indicated openness to recognizing Russia’s conquest and annexation of Crimea—and expressed opposition to maintaining sanctions against Russia. That statement would have topped the news on any day except one in which a candidate for United States president openly invited foreign espionage against his political opponent.
Let’s revert to that second excuse I mentioned at top. You’ll hear a version of it repeated and amplified by conservative voices on Fox News and talk radio: “Hillary’s carelessness is the real issue, not Trump’s naked hope that his Russian friends will use that carelessness to his benefit.”
Hillary Clinton was very careless, yes. She was careless—choosing to shield her email from scrutiny by hosting it on a personal server, perhaps over-learning the lessons of decades of subpoenas and congressional hearings. She obfuscated and dissembled about what she had done, and why. Along the way, she may have exposed classified information to foreign-intelligence agencies. She may also have exposed herself to blackmail, if those agencies hacked more personal confidences.
Those are things one may suspect. They are not things that are known. Conservatives who invoke fears about what Clinton may have done as a defense against what Trump repeatedly has done are inverting all reasonable concerns. Trump actually is acting to advance Russian interests. He actually has subordinated U.S. national security to his own political ambitions. He already has compromised the security of U.S. alliances and the integrity of the U.S. military guarantee.
No candidate for president since Henry Wallace ran as a “Progressive” in 1948 has run a campaign so openly in service to an adverse foreign power as Trump’s. His complaints about the insufficient number of American flags on the Democratic convention stage are clumsy parodies of patriotism, and the flag pins on the lapels of the TV talking heads who will condone his latest pro-Putin remarks are no better.
At the Cleveland convention, speaker after speaker reverted to the familiar Republican language of patriotism, support for allies, and standing up to enemies. The discrepancy between the language of politics and its realities has seldom gaped wider. A great political party is baffled and paralyzed by what to do next.
But Russia’s antagonists seem to know what to do. On the eve of the Democratic convention, Wikileaks dumped material—overwhelmingly likely hacked by Russia—artfully selected to create maximum ill feeling between supporters of Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Julian Assange, the man nominally still in charge of Wikileaks, has stated on the record that he timed the release to harm Clinton and help Trump.
Everything the Republican Party has claimed to stand for has been turned on its head. Old principles have been jettisoned, ancient loyalties trashed. Everything familiar has been penetrated and perverted. Who will express confidence that we have even yet seen the worst?