One of the most bizarre aspects of the Trump presidency has been the rise of Russian influence within the GOP establishment. The party whose leadership drove the Cold War, and whose military posturing with Russia walked us along the brink of destruction multiple times, have now embraced the very epitome of the Soviet hard-liner; a man who has been repeatedly implicated in the deaths of his critics, and whose military actions have threatened to spark global warfare. In the face of ever-mounting signs of Russian interference with our democracy, the Republicans have responded with a resounding “meh”.
President Trump and his administration have repeatedly either downplayed Russian influence or denied it outright, leading many of his supporters believing that this is more “fake news” from a media biased against Trump. The administration’s hand waving away of issues it finds problematic is unlikely to work in this situation, however. The evidence is extensive and growing:
Despite denial after denial, President Trump and his administration have a well-established relationship with Vladimir Putin.
All throughout his campaign, Trump repeatedly claimed he had no relationship with Putin, despite having previously claimed in an MSNBC interview that he did. Russia has stated that they’ve been in contact with Trump throughout the campaign. Trump’s National Security Advisor Mike Flynn is under investigation for illegally discussing lifting sanctions with Russia. Trump’s Secretary of State pick has an extensive and well-documented business relationship with Russia. Even those closest to Trump’s administration admit that these three working together are a Dream Team for Russian relations.
It is inarguable that Russian hackers interfered with this election cycle to benefit Trump.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released incontrovertible evidence linking the election cycle hackings to Russian state actors (pdf). The evidence was specific enough to name four Russian intelligence officials and three private Russian firms supporting the hacks and to punish them with aggressive sanctions (the same sanctions Flynn is under fire for discussing lifting). There is significant evidence that Putin was personally involved with the operation.
Trump has responded to the majority of these concerns by praising Putin and saying America is no better.
In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, when asked to address Putin being a killer, Trump asserts the US is no better, something he has done before. He’s praised Putin as “very smart“, and as a “better leader than Obama“. In fact, since 2007, Trump has gone on the record at least a dozen times complimenting Putin as a great leader and friend and defended Putin’s killing of journalists critical of the Kremlin.
Both Trump and Tillerson may have a significant financial incentive to ease sanctions and open relations with Russia.
Secretary of State Tillerson was the Director of a Bahamas-based tax haven for US-Russian Oil businesses. He is retiring from Exxon, where he owns 280 Million dollars worth of stock, and who stand to reap billions if sanctions are lifted. Recent intelligence briefings suggest a former Trump advisor was offered a stake in a multi-billion dollar oil deal in exchange for the lifting of sanctions against Russia. The dossier stated, “In return, Page had expressed interest and confirmed that were Trump elected US president, then sanctions on Russia would be lifted.” That deal has since gone through, with the identity of the buyers obscured by shell corporations, and public reporting bypassed directly from the Kremlin. Because Trump will not release tax returns and refuses to divest from his businesses, there appears to be a clear picture emerging of Trump using the Presidency for the personal enrichment of himself and those close to him.
Russia may have extensive information about Trump which could be used to influence his decisions.
A former member of MI6 has released a report indicating that a Russian dossier exists containing both personally and financially compromising information on Trump. While the more lurid assertions in the report drew the most attention, some of the more policy specific assertions have already come to pass, including Trump sidelining the Ukraine issue and questioning our NATO obligations. The report itself is unverified, given that it contains a summary of claims from myriad sources, but some details within have been confirmed by the U.S. Intelligence community. A former KGB chief associated with the material compiled in the dossier is now dead under mysterious circumstances, leading the author of the report to go into hiding.
Despite clear evidence that Tillerson had deep ties to Russian business interests, he gained every single Republican vote in his confirmation hearing. While eight senators have at least paid lip service to a more firm policy with Russia, their votes haven’t aligned with that desire. While Democratic Senators are calling for Flynn’s job for his alleged violation of the Logan Act, Republicans are generally silent, while the White House pleads ignorance. Trump continues to downplay Russian state influence in the hacking, while Republicans refuse to allow a bipartisan investigation, keeping it within committees they control. House GOP members killed a transparency rule which required publicly traded oil, gas, and mining companies to disclose any payments that they made to foreign governments, including taxes and royalties. Trump has promised to crack the whip on any of the GOP who step out of line, and even previously critical Senators such as McCain and Rubio have now fallen in line, removing any congressional obstacles to Russian business dealings with the White House.
Rather than immediately and strongly dispelling any notion of Russian influence in American politics, the White House, with the tacit support of a Republican-controlled congress, has continued to make the sorts of moves in line with advancing Russian interests. Many of these moves seem intended to enrich Trump, his family, and his closest supporters. This sudden reversal of position on one of the most powerful (and potentially dangerous) countries in the world is unprecedented. Politics makes strange bedfellows, but the GOP and an old school Soviet administration make for the oddest couple of all.