There is no shortage of bombshell angles to this Maria Butina matter, announced by the Justice Department on Monday just hours after Donald Trump helped make Russia great again in Helsinki.
There’s the allegation that she was trying to arrange a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin in 2016, which the Times chose to emphasize. There’s the bit about her relationship with the National Rifle Association, and how she allegedly sought to use or work with the NRA to expand her influence in American politics (The Daily Beast was the first to report on all this in detail, back in early 2017).
There’s more. But I’ll tell you what popped out at me as I read through the affidavit filed by the FBI agent in charge of investigating her. It was in paragraph 18, bottom of page 5, stating that Butina wrote an email to “U.S. Person 1” to suggest a plan by which she would work herself into the good graces of “POLITICAL PARTY 1.” What popped out at me was the date. She wrote this email on March 24, 2015.
Why is this significant? Because Butina, being Russian and all, is normally thought of as being associated with Trump. But on March 24, 2015, Donald Trump was a private citizen. Nobody thought he was running for president (he announced his candidacy in mid-June).
In other words: Butina, working for a prominent Russian official with whom the affidavit says she conspired on all these moves, laid out this plan to her American contact to infiltrate “POLITICAL PARTY 1”—obviously, the Republican Party—before Trump was even in the picture.
This is worth dwelling on. So it didn’t take Trump being a candidate for the Russians to decide to work to influence American electoral politics. They decided before Trump. The pre-Trump Republican Party, that is to say, was already plenty corrupt for them.
Here’s more from the affidavit, which can be hard to read because of Butina’s poor written English. In that March 24 email, she proposed to this American contact of hers something she called “Project Diplomacy.” The GOP, she wrote, is “traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy, particularly with regards to Russia. However, now with the right to negotiate seems best to build konstruktivnyh relations.” The email mentioned her ties to the NRA and the prominent role the NRA plays in Republican politics. It concludes by requesting $125,000 so she could attend “all upcoming major conferences” of the Republican Party.
Butina then went on to place an article in The National Interest, the longtime neoconservative quarterly, called “The Bear and the Elephant,” waxing on about how much the Republicans and the Russians have in common. The article is dated June 12, 2015. That’s just four days before Trump announced his candidacy, but I edit a quarterly journal, too, and I understand these timelines, and my educated guess would be that she started writing this little essay well before the June 12 pub date.
Let me say it again: The Russia infiltration plot was not dependent on Trump.
We have decided in our minds that it was tied to Trump, because Trump is uniquely corrupt and because of Trump’s past ties to Russia and dependence on Russian banks. But this affidavit means it predated Trump. And that means, in turn, that the Kremlin saw not just Trump but the whole Republican Party as corrupt and corruptible.
And they were right! Now sure, if Trump hadn’t run, someone else would have been the nominee, and that someone else, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or whomever, would have taken the more traditional Republican line on Russia.
But Trump did run, and he did win. The Republican Party, the party of three or four generations of hardliners from Allen Foster Dulles to Condoleezza Rice, became exactly the party Butina and her Kremlin handlers wanted it to become.
If this doesn’t inspire some soul-searching among Republicans, I don’t know what will. You can’t plead Trump on this one, Republicans. You can’t say the base drank the Trump Kool Aid, and you had no choice but to submit. Here we are staring at clear evidence that the Russians decided in or before March 2015, before Trump was remotely in the picture, that they were going to target your party, working through the NRA, and bank on your winning the 2016 election so that America would become more pro-Russian.
You need to ask yourselves why they might have thought this. Yes, yes; you opposed Putin on Crimea and Ukraine, and you attacked Barack Obama for not being tough enough with him. But even so, Republicans, the Kremlin felt it could play you. If I were you, I’d be asking myself: What was it they saw?
Maybe they saw what some of the rest of us here in America see. That you became, before the rise of Trump, a party devoid of any principle except the maintenance of power. Or that if they won over the NRA, they’d have you, because you’d never cross the NRA. Or maybe they saw that what really matters to you at the end of the day is that if Barack or Hillary was against it, you could be persuaded to be for it. And just maybe they peered a little deeper and saw the growth of the authoritarian turn of mind in your party’s base and liked what they saw.
That is what you became, even before Trump. And look what you’ve become now. Look what you’ve given us. Some of you howled in protest at what Trump did Monday in Helsinki (but it’s still worth noting that many did not). Well, it’s a little late now, isn’t it? You have placed an anti-patriot in the Oval Office. Exactly as the Russians bet you would. Never again browbeat us with your cheap shows of patriotism. You’re the un-Americans.