Russia is “doing it as we sit here.”
This stray line, buried in seven hours of testimony on Capitol Hill, wasn’t just Robert Mueller’s way of rebutting the charge that his investigation into the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential election amounted to a two-year, $32 million witch hunt.
It was also a blunt message to the lawmakers arrayed before him, the journalists hunting for a bombshell, and the millions of Americans monitoring the proceedings: We’re all here fighting the last war, when we really should be bracing ourselves for the coming one.
The Russians “expect to do it during the next campaign,” the special counsel continued, and “many more countries are developing capability to replicate” Moscow’s model.
This time, a Donald Trump presidency isn’t some pipe dream or fuzzy nightmare, as it was for many foreign governments during the 2016 race. It is instead an all-consuming reality that is disrupting America’s alliances, role in the world, and relationships with great powers like China and Russia. The 2020 election will determine whether that reality is an aberration or a new normal.
The incentives for other countries to meddle “are so much greater in this election than in the past one, and maybe greater than any election that we’ve had to this point,” Ben Freeman, the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, told me. “The opportunities to interfere in the election are just so rampant,” he added, reflecting on the dirt-cheap social-media manipulations that Russia made famous a few years ago, and “the barriers to entry for foreign governments have been blown apart.”