The disclosure of Democratic National Committee emails showing the party’s favoritism toward Hillary Clinton and against Bernie Sanders plunged the party into turmoil as its convention opened. But the email dump, in which many security experts see a Russian hand, also raises another troubling question: Is the Kremlin meddling in the election to boost Donald Trump?
The affinity between Trump and Vladimir Putin, who have praised each other, is hardly news. But in recent days, talk of the Trump-Putin bromance has escalated into ominous suggestions that Trump is, as a July 21 Slate headline bluntly put it, “Putin’s Puppet.” Two days later, the liberal website Talking Points Memo ran a piece by Josh Marshall laying out evidence of the Trump-Putin connection — such as the fact that the man running the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort, was for years a top adviser to Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin former prime minister and president.
The DNC scandal adds more fuel to the speculation that the Putin regime is aiding Trump. As former National Security Agency analyst John Schindler details in the New York Observer, there is virtually no doubt the materials published by WikiLeaks, the group that specializes in the disclosure of secret documents, were obtained by Russian hackers with Kremlin ties. Schindler also makes a strong case that WikiLeaks has been a de facto tool of Russian intelligence and propaganda.
Others have scoffed at the talk of a Putin-Trump connection as paranoid conspiracy-theory hysteria intended to divert attention from the corruption exposed by the DNC emails. In a blog on the Medium platform, cybersecurity expert Jeffrey Carr has tried to debunk Marshall’s evidence for the Trump campaign’s Russian connection. Carr points out that Marshall overstates Trump’s business ties to Russia while downplaying his dependence on Chinese investment.
But some of the debunking is unconvincing. Carr points out that Trump’s Russia adviser Carter Page, whom Marshall portrays as having “deep and continuing” ties to the state-controlled Russian energy giant Gazprom, actually left his post as a Gazprom adviser in 2007. Yet Page still remains a shareholder in the company, as well as an outspoken critic of Western sanctions against Russia in response to Putin’s war on Ukraine. Carr also tries to rebut Marshall’s claim that the Kremlin media machine has backed Trump, countering that only Russia Today, a state-funded TV network, has done so. But it’s the only Kremlin outlet that matters in this case, since it’s the only one with a mass audience in the West.
No one, as far as I know, is arguing that Trump is an actual Russian agent. But the argument that a Trump presidency would be in the Kremlin’s interest is compelling. Trump’s anti-globalist, “America First” vision is an explicit rejection of the view of the United States as part of the world community of liberal democracies. It also has a spiritual kinship with Putin’s ideology of “sovereign democracy,” which treats international criticism of governments’ human rights violations as foreign meddling. Trump’s recent suggestion that the United States might scale down its NATO commitments or even end its NATO membership is a further worrying signal.
The DNC emails expose shady and unsavory practices. But Schindler, who is no Clinton fan, is right when he says that we should be “more troubled by the naked interference of the Kremlin and its spy agencies in American democracy.”
Who thought we’d see the day when the liberal media would accuse the Republican candidate in a presidential race of being too pro-Russian? It’s a bizarre sign of our topsy-turvy times. And it would be laughable if the stakes were not so high.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.