We are nearly two months into the Trump Administration, and allegations about Russia are still dominating the headlines. Unless you happen to be a fan of Trump’s agenda, this is a problem.
In fact, nearly everything about the Trump Administration warrants more concern and attention than the Russia scandal. There are a couple key reasons for this. Let’s go through them.
First off, it’s not actually proven that the Russian government was responsible for leaking the DNC or Podesta emails. The US government has asserted that Russia was behind these breaches, but the publicly released evidence has failed to substantiate this. This reality was even acknowledged, if quietly, by The New York Times in its own coverage of the recent 25-page assessment released in early January 2017, saying “the declassified report contained no information about how the agencies had collected their data or had come to their conclusions.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Russia wasn’t involved. It simply means it hasn’t been proven, and there is still plenty of room for reasonable doubt.
The same thing can be said for the claims about the Trump Administration’s ties to Russia. There have been many assertions, but little in the way of substantive evidence.
For the present discussion, it doesn’t matter whether one believes these various allegations are true or not. But, politically, it matters immensely that they have not been proven.
This is because the main political end to be achieved by promoting the Russia allegations is the eventual impeachment of President Trump.
It should be easy to see why Trump’s opponents would desire this outcome. But it should be equally clear that the Russia story cannot possibly provide the ammunition needed as long as the underlying accusations remain unproven. Republicans hold a substantial majority in the House. They are going to need something concrete to cross a president who remains popular with many of their voters.
Unless and until that proof is offered, each new Russia headline accomplishes very little for Trump’s opponents.
Motive Matters Less Than You Think
The allegation that Russia hacked the Democrats is obviously a major issue on its own terms. If true, it would mark a further deterioration in the US-Russia relationship and the US response would likely bring the two nations to the brink of war, or worse.
But recently, most of the Russian stories have shifted focus from hacking to the alleged ties between Trump Administration officials and Russia. The purpose of these stories is to suggest that the Trump Administration has been secretly in league with the Russians all along, and show that Trump really is “Putin’s puppet,” just like Secretary Clinton said.
In other words, these stories are ultimately about motive. They are implying that Trump will put Russia’s interest ahead of America’s.
For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that President Trump really is trying to implement policies to fulfill Russia’s interests. Even if we assume this to be true, we still have to judge the policies on their own merits.
Imagine that Trump’s Russia affinity will lead him to negotiate further reductions of the US and Russian nuclear weapons arsenals. This is in Russia’s interest because they lack the ability and desire to engage in an arms race with a much wealthier adversary in the US. However, it also happens to be in America’s (and humanity’s) interest. Even if Trump embarked on such a policy solely to please Vladimir Putin, it would still be worth supporting.
Conversely, suppose that Trump wants to outright ally with Russia to conduct a joint invasion and occupation of Iraq and Syria and crush the remaining insurgencies. Russia might consider this to be in their interest since they have already been heavily involved fighting the radical-dominated insurgency in Syria. However, it would clearly not be in the US’s interest. Occupation has been part of our strategy for much of the 15-year-long War on Terror. It ends a lot of lives, but it doesn’t end terrorism. Such a policy should be opposed. And importantly, it should be opposed regardless of the motive behind it–whether it’s serving Putin or fighting evil or raising domestic approval ratings by escalating a war.
In both of the above cases, the motive is irrelevant. You might have a different opinion on each of the policies described. You might also want to hear more pros and cons about why each is a good or bad idea. But you don’t need to know the underlying motive in order to take a position.
It’s actually a relief that motive does not matter. Because in the real world, it’s very difficult to know what a politician’s motivation actually is. You’ll know what their stated motivation is, but of course, politicians are not well-known for honesty. Moreover, sometimes politicians might have genuinely good intentions and support harmful legislation out of ignorance. All these reasons make motive useless for judging individual policies.
Motive is only helpful for predicting a politician’s future decisions. In the present, it tells us virtually nothing at all about the policies being proposed and implemented.
In this light, Trump’s alleged loyalty to Russia is irrelevant. When Trump does propose policies relevant to Russia, they will have to be judged on their own merits. The motivation behind them will not matter. Similarly, if Trump has his attention focused on other issues besides Russia, his alleged loyalties still do not matter.
All of which brings us to the real problem. There is a finite amount of attention and outrage that Americans have to spend on political controversies. Time and concern allocated to Russia is time not allocated to the other troubling things on Trump’s agenda.
The result is that the Russia stories, in many respects, actually serve as a useful distraction for the Trump Administration.
Take the recent controversy over Attorney General Jeff Sessions as an example. The main allegation against Sessions is that he met with a Russian Ambassador (in his capacity as a Senator) but failed to inform the Senate about it during his confirmation hearings. The controversy largely comes down to a matter of semantics–Sessions was asked a narrow question and gave a narrow response. It could be argued that he should have volunteered more information, but it is definitely not a slam dunk case.
So that’s the Russia angle on Sessions. But meanwhile, Sessions also has many more unsavory features, such as his hard-line position against marijuana. Recently, the White House announced that it may start enforcing marijuana prohibition even in states that have legalized it. This would be a very harmful policy–and one that is ripe for opposition from many different groups.
But instead of focusing on this real and terrible policy suggestion of the Trump Administration, the focus goes to Russia. As journalist Michael Tracey correctly observes, the result is that a “Trump official’s least egregious quality ends up being portrayed as his most egregious quality.” (Emphasis in original.)
So far, this pattern has played out for Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions. In a broader sense, it’s also mostly true about the Trump Administration. Many legitimately worrying policy ideas from escalating drone strikes to sending more troops to Syria, all get downplayed because Russia takes priority.
This works out reasonably well for Trump. He can easily anticipate most of the criticism he’ll receive, and he has a mostly free hand to do what he wants so long as it doesn’t relate to Russia.
But for the rest of us, who would prefer to see much of Trump’s agenda stopped dead in its tracks, this is a bad outcome.
There are many compelling reasons to be concerned about President Trump. We need to prioritize.
Currently, Russia allegations are still dominating the news. But focusing on unproven accusations of Russian involvement serves no useful purpose. It’s not going to convince a Republican Congress to impeach their own president. And it’s not even relevant to assessing the policies Trump proposes.
It just serves as a distraction.
Instead of concentrating on what harm Trump might cause in the future as “Putin’s puppet,” let’s focus on the harm he’s already causing as America’s president.