The most appalling aspect of the recent George Stephanopoulos episode was not the interview itself, but Republicans’ reactions to it.
Mitch McConnell of course was a standout here. It practically goes without saying that the man who threatened to politicize the unanimous verdict of U.S. intelligence agencies about Russia trying to help Donald Trump in 2016 found nothing at all wrong with Trump saying he’d accept foreign help in next year’s presidential campaign.
“He gets picked at every day over every aspect of it. But the fundamental point is they’re trying to keep the 2016 election alive and the investigation alive, when the American people have heard enough,” he told Pravda TV (Fox).
But even worse—and “worse than McConnell” takes some doing—were those who went with the talking point that the real collusion villain is you-know-who.
John Cornyn: “I think we need to be extra careful because obviously there are foreign countries that are interested in influencing our elections. We saw that in the Clinton example, and I think it could happen again with who knows what consequences.”
Lindsey Graham: “I hope my Democrat colleagues will be equally offended by the fact that this actually did happen in 2016 where a foreign agent was paid for by a political party to gather opposition research. All those things are wrong.”
If you don’t follow all this obsessively, you might pause for a moment when you hear comments like those. After all, Hillary Clinton did hire a foreign national, Christopher Steele, and he relied on Russian sources for his dossier. Do Cornyn and Graham have a point?
No. They are liars. Complete and total liars. And it is impossible that they don’t know the truth and the law. They’re United States senators.
And it’s a particularly despicable lie. Not because it’s about Hillary Clinton, and not even because it’s advanced on behalf of Donald Trump. Rather, it’s despicable because it’s a direct attack on democracy in the way it seeks to obfuscate and excuse interference in a presidential election—the most visible and enduring symbol of American democracy—by a foreign adversary.
Here are the facts. First of all, the Clinton campaign did not hire Steele. He was hired originally by the Washington Free Beacon, a right-wing website that was anti-Trump at the time, which paid him through Fusion GPS. Later, during the general election, the Beacon was no longer interested in dirt on Trump, and Fusion GPS went to the Clinton campaign and the DNC and asked them to pay for Steele’s work. It is true that he was paid ultimately by the Clinton campaign, through the law firm Perkins Coie. Those payments were reported as required by law.
Two important points here. First of all, if the work was paid for, it is obviously not an in-kind contribution, which would indeed be illegal. But second—and know this, because it’s crucial—what the Clinton campaign and Steele did was entirely legal.
Campaigns can contract with foreign individuals and firms to do work. The allegation that this is wrong is completely baseless. And what makes this allegation surreal is: Guess who hired a foreign firm to do important data analysis in 2016? Donald Trump! Cambridge Analytica was British. If Clinton using Steele was a scandal, then so was Trump using Cambridge. The fact that Steele was doing oppo research, which admittedly can be made to sound seamy on propaganda television, is neither here nor there legally. Work for a campaign is work for a campaign.
And again, that work was legal. You know who said so? House Republicans! Yes—the House intel committee issued a report in March 2018, when the House was under GOP control, that included these words: “Under current federal election law, foreigners are prohibited from making contributions or donations in connection with any campaign in the United States. However, it is not illegal to contract with a foreign person or foreign entity for services, including conducting opposition research on a U.S. campaign, so long as the service was paid for at the market rate.” It is impossible that Cornyn, Graham, and everyone else who tries to make the Steele connection sound shady don’t know this.
You’ll also sometimes hear them say ominously that Steele relied on “Russian sources.” Oh my. Yes, he did. But ask yourself why. It was because Russia happened to be the country where Trump has suspicious-seeming links. If Trump had been trying to build a tower in Montreal and finance it through Scotiabank, Steele would have relied on “Canadian sources.” And in any event, Steele was not advancing the Kremlin’s interests in his investigations. If anything, he was doing the opposite. After all, he was trying to aid the candidate whom the Kremlin despised.
I could go on. Another useful point to remember is that Steele had once worked for the British government, our closest ally. Trump aides met with a self-declared representative of a hostile foreign government for the express purpose of getting dirt on Clinton. That they didn’t get it just shows that they got played, not that they were in any way honest. This point may not be of any legal consequence, but morally, it’s the heart of the matter: You can’t compare working with a former British intelligence officer (who had worked with our CIA often over the years, by the way) to working with an agent of the Kremlin.
So the Republican Party is peddling a monstrous lie, a lie that is repeated with the direct intent of weakening our democracy by blurring facts in a way that invites the Russians to do the same thing again next time. And now, the party is actively working to kill legislation designed to fix our laws by making it more explicit that campaigns that receive offers of foreign assistance must disclose them to the FBI. Freshman Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn made her first real mark upon the upper house by leading this effort. I hope she’s proud. Marsha Marsha Marsha.
The truth is simple. They have no problem with Russia helping Trump again, if that’s what it will take for him to win. There’s a word for this. I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but I am an American who cherishes our best traditions and institutions, and I know treason when I smell it.