For those who work in the field of political commentary, angry responses from disagreeable readers are a standard part of the job. Some published pieces, however, generate stronger reactions than others.
I made the case yesterday that the House Republicans’ decision to censure Rep. Adam Schiff was indefensible: For all intents and purposes, the far-right GOP majority was formally punishing the California Democrat for having the audacity to tell Republicans inconvenient truths about the Trump/Russia scandal that the party didn’t want to hear.
To understate matters, I heard from a great many conservatives who disagreed. Indeed, I lost count of how many hysterical reactions I received from those who insisted, with varying degrees of vitriol, that the entire controversy was an elaborate “hoax.” For Schiff to have said otherwise, these readers asserted, made him a villain for the ages.
It was against this backdrop that I was reminded of a terrific analysis The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote this week:
There are few areas of the political conversation where the partisan divide is wider than on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Many Democrats think that Donald Trump actively worked with Russian interests to aid his victory that year. Republicans often accept Trump’s own framing: The whole thing was a hoax, top to bottom. The reality is unquestionably closer to the former.
While there’s overwhelming — and to date, uncontested — evidence documenting the connections between Team Trump and its Russian benefactors, much of the right is absolutely convinced that the scandal has been thoroughly discredited. It has not.
They don’t care.
As Bump’s analysis added, for many conservatives, “the very idea that Russia sought to aid Trump’s election is ridiculous — however well-documented and however obviously aligned with the country’s interest in dividing the United States. The idea that it was ever worth investigating whether Trump assisted that effort therefore attains a new level of ludicrousness.”
At this point, I’m going to skip the usual part of this debate. I’m not going to dwell on the fact that the core elements of the Trump/Russia scandal have not been discredited. I’m not going to remind readers about the overwhelming evidence. I’m not going to reiterate the fact that a Senate Intelligence Committee’s report — written in part by the panel’s then-Republican majority — at one point literally described a “direct tie between senior Trump Campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services.”
I am, however, going to raise a different kind of question: Just how much of the controversy do Republicans no longer believe?
The question is newly relevant because Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee released a video showing a variety of prominent Democrats talking about Russia trying to help elect Trump in 2016. For the panel’s GOP members, each of the featured Democratic claims should now be seen as a “lie.”
But as is always the case, the details matter. Each of the featured quotes were actually true, including the most basic claims: Viewers saw Hillary Clinton explain in August 2020, for example, that there’s “no question any longer the Russians actively interfered in our election to help Donald Trump. There is no hoax.”
Clinton was right, but congressional Republicans apparently now consider this a “lie.”
Taking a step back, let’s break down the broader controversy into a handful of component parts.
- Russia attacked our elections in order to help elect Trump.
- Team Trump consorted and conspired with Russia as part of the scheme.
- Team Trump lied about this and took steps to cover it up by obstructing investigations.
The evidence to support all three of these points is sound, as the Mueller report and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report help prove. But in general, Republicans have nevertheless spent recent years rejecting #2 and #3.
This week, they’ve apparently rejected #1, too, which reflects a bizarre regression. It suggests much of the GOP isn’t just contesting the idea of “collusion,” Republicans are also comfortable denouncing the basics of the underlying attack itself.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies treated the Russian attack on our elections as the most serious domestic security breach since 9/11. And yet, seven years later, at least some GOP officials are choosing not to believe this basic detail.
As Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale, summarized yesterday, “Moscow worked hard to get Trump elected in 2016. Choosing not to know that is choosing not to care about political reality and national security.”
In 2016, then-CIA Director John Brennan warned Alexander Bortnikov, the director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, that Moscow had made an important mistake when it targeted U.S. elections.
“I said that all Americans, regardless of political affiliation or whom they might support in the election, cherish their ability to elect their own leaders without outside interference or disruption,” Brennan explained. “I said American voters would be outraged by any Russian attempt to interfere in election.”
I wish that were true. Too many Republicans suggested this week that it was not.