Putin is smiling.
Trump speculated that the electoral process could be rigged. Until he saw how it played out, the Republican nominee said, he could not concede that the result would be on the up-and-up.
Trump offered a three-part “rigging” claim. There was the allegation for which he’d already been roundly derided: A foreign element could swing the election — specifically, “millions” of ineligible voters, a reference to illegal immigrants, the bane of his campaign. Further, there was the gross one-sidedness of the media’s campaign coverage — scathing when it came to him; between inattentive and fawning when it came to his opponent, whose considerable sins were airbrushed away. Finally, there was deep corruption: Clinton, he maintained, should not have been permitted to run given the significant evidence of felony misconduct in her mishandling of classified information. Meanwhile, law-enforcement agencies of the Democratic administration bent over backwards to give her a pass, and congressional Democrats closed ranks around her — conducting themselves in committee hearings more like her defense lawyers than investigators searching for the truth.
A flabbergasted Clinton responded that she was shocked — horrified! — to hear Trump “talking down our democracy.” This was a top theme in her campaign’s closing days: The election was absolutely legitimate; Trump was traitorously condemnable for refusing to say so.
Of course, Clinton and the Democrats who parroted her would prefer that you forget that now. And given her strained relationship with the truth, they’re right to calculate that you’d never retain anything she said for very long. Nobody does. Corporate big wheels who paid to hear her vaporous speechifying couldn’t tell you a memorable thing she’d said after paying $250,000 for her “insights.”
The media-Democrat indictment of Trump’s election-rigging spiel was not rooted in patriotic commitment to the American democratic tradition of accepting election outcomes. They said what they said because they fully expected to win — all the polls said so! Hillary and her chums, Barack Obama included, would not abide a taint of illegitimacy affixing itself to her inevitable presidency.
Except she wasn’t so inevitable.
So now, there is just one very inconvenient problem for the “Russia hacked the election” narrative, the tireless media-Democrat harangue since November 8: Everything of substance that is known to the U.S. government about Russian meddling was already known in those pre-election weeks when Clinton and the Democrats were hailing the legitimacy of the process.
They’ve changed their tune not because the facts changed, but because they lost.
And what’s their story now? It’s pretty much the same one they scalded Trump for telling. They peddle a three-part rigged election claim: (1) foreign interference, not by illegal aliens who may have voted but by Russians who did not affect the voting process; (2) one-sided press coverage — they mean the Russian propaganda press and the WikiLeaks release of DNC and John Podesta e-mails, which they’d now have you believe had more influence on Americans than did the Democrat-media complex and the grudging State Department release of Hillary Clinton’s own e-mails; and (3) the corruption that lifted a low-character candidate who should not have been allowed to run but who received extraordinary government assistance — not from the Obama Justice Department but from the Putin regime.
The story is never going to fly.
By late October, the Russian “cyber espionage” effort to meddle in the election was well known. In the same debate in which Clinton rebuked Trump for refusing to concede the election’s legitimacy, she attacked her rival as “Putin’s puppet” and cited the finding of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia sought to interfere in the election. Clinton was not at all concerned that Putin’s shenanigans would have any actual impact on the election. She invoked them because she thought it was helpful to her campaign — an opportunity to portray Trump as ripe for rolling by the Russian regime.
And how could she have taken any other position? None less than President Obama himself said that there was nothing unusual about Russian scheming to influence American elections, which he said “dates back to the Soviet Union.” Obama deftly avoided mentioning that past scheming had never gotten much media traction because it had been undertaken on behalf of Democrats. While he blamed the Putin regime for hacking e-mails during the 2016 campaign, Obama described the perfidy as “fairly routine.” He acknowledged, moreover, that it was publicly notorious well in advance of the election — which, of course, is why Clinton had been able to exploit it in a nationally televised debate three weeks prior to the election.
What happened here is very simple: Russia was unimportant to Democrats, was avoided by Democrats, until they needed to rationalize a stunning defeat.
Prior to November 8, Democrats had little interest in mentioning “Russia” or “Putin.” Oh, they sputtered out the words when they had no choice — not wanting to address the substance of some embarrassing e-mails, they had to shift attention to the nefarious theft of the e-mails.
Beyond that, attention to the Kremlin was bad news for Clinton. It invited scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation’s corrupt foreign dealings; the sulfurous interplay of Putin cronies, Bill Clinton’s lucrative speech racket, and Hillary’s biddable State Department that resulted in Russia’s acquisition of major U.S. uranium supplies; the embarrassing “Russian reset” whereby, during Clinton’s State Department stewardship, the supine Obama administration watched Putin capture territory in Eastern Europe and muscle into the Middle East, while arming and aligning with Iran; and the intriguing relationship between Podesta (the Clinton-campaign chairman and former Obama White House official) and Putin’s circle — specifically, a $35 million investment by a Putin-created venture capital firm, Rusano, into a small Massachusetts energy company, Joule Energy, just two months after Podesta joined Joule’s board.
So, while Donald Trump’s Russia rhetoric ranged from the unseemly (blowing kisses at an anti-American thug) to the delusional (the notion that Russia, Iran’s new friend, could be a reliable ally against jihadism) to the reprehensible (moral equivalence between the murderous Putin regime and American national-defense operations), Clinton’s own Russia baggage rendered her unable to exploit them.
It was only afterward, after she lost a contest she thought she had in the bag, that the election turned illegitimate.
It was only after the campaign — after Hillary’s baggage no longer mattered, after the Democrats decided that “Russia hacked the election” was a better storyline than “we ran a lousy candidate and have lost touch with Middle America” — that Obama made a show of vigorous action against the same “cyber espionage” he’d pooh-poohed as par for the course seemingly five minutes before. Suddenly, on his way out the door, the president who’d sat on his hands while Putin sacked Crimea, grabbed slices of Eastern Ukraine, and abetted Syrian war crimes was moved to eject Russian diplomats, shutter Russian installations, and impose sanctions for what his administration labeled “Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities.”
“Russia hacked the election” is politicized theater of the most irresponsible kind — the worst since Democrats last sought to delegitimize a Republican administration by agitating against a war they had voted to support, even as American men and women were laying their lives on the line. And in this theatrical exercise, just as in the last one, the Left is undermining national security for political advantage.
Regardless of how one came out on the question whether Saddam Hussein should be ousted, the Bush administration’s post-Saddam strategy was a debacle premised on the notions of democratizing an anti-Western sharia society and courting Iranian cooperation (on the theory that the mullahs had a profound interest in regional stability!). The half-baked premises, and the fact that we had troops in harm’s way, demanded a sober, adult evaluation of what we could reasonably accomplish and to what degree we could responsibly extricate ourselves.
Instead, Democrats scorched the earth with despicable claims Bush had lied the nation into an illegitimate war. Republicans were thus driven to defend the war and the administration, regardless of misgivings about how it was being prosecuted. Having turned “Iraq” into a dirty word and ridden the “Bush lied, people died” smear to electoral victory, Democrats ensured that Obama would withdraw without regard to the conditions on the ground and the American sacrifices of blood and treasure. The chaos and the far more dangerous world we confront today is the consequence of a bipartisan political class that has forgotten when politics must yield to the demands of statesmanship.
Well, here we go again.
Russia is a hostile regime whose intelligence operations — from cyber to propaganda to political assassination to promotion of rogue regimes and factions — are formidable. Many of us were warning against Putin while George Bush was gazing into his eyes for a “sense of his soul,” the Bush administration was imagining Russia as a “strategic partner,” Hillary Clinton was resetting our path to cozy relations, Barack Obama was appeasing Putin in desperation to keep the perilous Iran nuclear deal on track, and Donald Trump was “bromancing” the dictator. So if Democrats have suddenly decided the Kremlin is a malign force, we should welcome them and fight the urge to ask, “What took you so long?”
Russia did not “hack our election.” But Russia is our “number-one geopolitical foe” — to quote Mitt Romney’s bull’s-eye assessment, the object of such media-Democrat scorn. Putin’s anti-American operations in the run-up to the election — which were directed, according to our intelligence agencies, against both political parties — should be a matter of serious concern to all Americans, as should Russian machinations in the Obama years, the Bush years, in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere.
Yet, rather than encourage a responsible evaluation of what we’re up against, Democrats and their media allies are promoting a fraud: If you take the Russian threat seriously, it means Russia stole the election and, ergo, that Donald Trump is an illegitimate president. Since that is not what happened, Republicans — who should be pushing Trump toward a harder line against Moscow — will be constrained to refute the Democrats’ allegations. The Democrats will demonize Trump, while Trump sympathizers sound like Putin’s defense lawyers.
In the Kremlin, they’ll be smiling.
This column was originally published in National Review.