The indictments last week of Paul Manafort, the one time chair of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, as well as other Manafort’s colleague Rick Gates and Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos bring us much closer to knowing the nature of the relationship between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign in 2016. but there remains a lot of legal and political issues to be sorted out. There is no telling who else will be indicted, who will make a deal with the investigators in exchange for immunity, what top people in the administration might be brought down by this, how much longer Robert Mueller III will remain in his position and if any of this will persuade reluctant Republicans to put the country above, not even their party, but of their party’s erratic, demagogic, unhinged and authoritarian President.
Despite these unanswered questions, it is now reasonably apparent that the cooperation between the Kremlin and the campaign started relatively early in 2016 and that it involved people at relatively high levels of the Republican nominee’s campaign. However, the question of why all this occurred remains much less clear. In some respects this is not relevant. It is not Mueller’s job to probe people’s motivations, but from a political perspective it is important. A big part of this scandal is that experienced Republican political operatives, activists and elected officials were involved in these activities and did not seem to think there was anything wrong going on.
The motivations of members of the Trump-Kushner clan are easier to figure out, but not as central. It is clear that Donald Trump was motivated by some combination of complex and shady ties with Moscow and the Kremlin’s possession of compromising material. The other members of the family simply went along with the patriarch because of a combination of loyalty, shared interest financial interest, ignorance and concern. Similarly, Paul Manfort had a long record of working with politicians who were sympathetic to Moscow, most notably former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. It is easy to see how his moral compass might not have been the clearest.
There were, however, an awful lot of other people who were either involved in this untoward relationship between a presidential campaign and a less than friendly foreign power or who, at the very least, were aware of it and chose to say, and do, nothing. This probably includes people who were deeply involved with the campaign like Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions who now hold positions at the highest level of government, as well as many others who are less well known. In addition, people were around the campaign and had access to this knowledge in summer of 2016, like most of the congressional leadership, numerous Republican campaign and policy people and many others. Not all of these people were silent about their knowledge of these activities, but the overwhelming majority were. Many Democrats sought to draw attention to it, but in the heat of the campaign, or its immediate aftermath, only Republicans could have raised a sufficient hue and cry about it. Almost to a person they chose not to. That is a damning indictment of a political party.
What then was driving these people? Why did so many seemingly decent and patriotic Americans, the kind of people with whom I have long disagreed on policy, but with whom I thought I shared some values about American democracy and indeed sovereignty, believe this was okay as long as their side won? We may never know the answers to these questions, but it is worth thinking about some possibilities.
Some, even some Republicans, may have thought that Trump would lose and that following the election this would be investigated and addressed. This was essentially the same tragically flawed approach taken by the Obama administration. However, while President Obama made a mistake, those who were closer to it and looked the other way committed much graver wrongs. To attribute Republican silence on this issue entirely to the belief that Trump would lose is too generous. Some of these people were motivated by the desire to win. For them, and not just for inexperienced and bumbling neophyte’s like Donald Trump Jr. the need to beat Hillary Clinton, a center-left politician in the mainstream of American politics and on the conservative side of most foreign policy debates, was so great that they were willing to be involved with, or look away from, what at least on the surface seems pretty clearly like treason.
This is the reality of what occurred last year in the US and is a reflection of both the problems of our political system but of the moral depravity of the Republican Party. Indictments and investigations are good and necessary, but at some point we need to address these equally difficult and disturbing political questions.