Republican leaders cannot credibly claim that they did not embrace Russia's efforts to support Donald Trump's candidacy.
President Donald Trump and his associates are no strangers to scandal. From racially-charged comments to taped confessions of sexual assault, the President has a remarkable tendency to get himself into trouble with his words and actions. In what has become a cyclical performance, Republican Party officials then decide whether to justify the President's latest impropriety, or to condemn it. When a tape revealed that Trump once boasted about molesting women, Republican officials almost universally took the latter course. However, the unfurling scandal surrounding the Russian government's efforts to elect Trump has not elicited a similarly strong reaction from Republican leaders. Their response has instead ranged from bizarre passivity to outright obstruction of efforts to determine the truth. There's a simple reason why this is the case: Unlike the President's other scandals, Republican leaders cannot credibly distance themselves from the Russian government's efforts on the President's behalf.
When Russian hackers broke into the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta, Republican leaders could have taken the stance that they would not comment on information obtained as a result of criminal activity. (In his defense, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) largely took this approach, although most of his colleagues did not follow suit.) Instead, Republican officials opportunistically embraced the disclosures, and dismissed concerns that a hostile foreign intelligence agency was responsible. Whether Republican leaders were deliberately ignoring evidence of Russian involvement, or knowingly casting doubt on that conclusion, is irrelevant. The fact stands that Republican leaders in Congress did not take the attack on American democracy seriously. They were at best ignorant, and, at worst, complicit.
Even self-styled Russia hawks like Congressman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) contorted their positions to parrot the Kremlin's narrative surrounding the DNC disclosures. Congressman Peter King (R-NY), who in 2010 accused Kremlin-backed Wikileaks of "treason," would go on to claim that there was no evidence of Russia's involvement in the criminal seizure of Podesta's emails published by Wikileaks, despite intelligence reports to the contrary. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), who is now leading the Senate's efforts to investigate Russia's efforts, publicly cast doubt on the intelligence community's assessment that the Kremlin hoped to elect President Trump. Perhaps most cynically, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who enjoys privileged access to highly-classified intelligence, blocked the Obama Administration's efforts to make some evidence of Russia's actions public prior to the election.
It is important to remember that Hillary Clinton was not the only target of subterfuge by Russian intelligence. Hackers connected to the Kremlin also targeted Democratic congressional candidates with private email disclosures. As in the presidential race, Republican leaders could have approached these disclosures for what they were: a criminal and malicious effort by a hostile foreign government to undermine American democracy. Instead, the Republican establishment - from Paul Ryan's Super PAC to the National Republican Congressional Committee - treated the Russian government's efforts as a gift and worked tirelessly to exploit them for electoral gain. So while Paul Ryan may have offered some choice words to the Russian government this week, he and his allies were more than happy to look past their efforts so long as they personally benefitted. This is the opposite of patriotism.
The Russian government's motivations for intervening at the congressional level are as yet unclear, but I would offer two theories. In one scenario, a stronger Republican majority in the House of Representatives would have caused trouble for a theoretical Clinton Administration. Given Vladimir Putin's well-documented antipathy toward Hillary Clinton, this seems like their most likely goal. After all, the Kremlin can also read statements from Republican officials promising to investigate Clinton in perpetuity. A strong majority in the House would have allowed Republicans to pursue such an agenda had the presidential election turned out differently. The second scenario is more simple: a strong Republican congressional majority helps President Trump deliver on policies that are favorable to Moscow. Already, there are indications that the Trump Administration's allies in the House are working to undermine efforts to sanction Russia for their interference in the election.
There's also the matter of the Trump campaign's data and digital operations to consider. President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner famously headed up a team of staffers that ran the campaign's efforts to persuade (and dissuade) voters to go to the polls on Election Day. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is now reportedly investigating Kushner and his team to determine whether they had any involvement in providing the Russian government with data that proved useful to their efforts to elect President Trump. This is curious to me, in part, because Kushner's partner in this effort was Cambridge Analytica (CA), a shady analytics firm that allegedly helped the Trump campaign's voter targeting efforts. The firm's primary investor is Robert Mercer, who is also one of the Republican Party's leading benefactors. Just this week, Paul Ryan's PAC reported receiving nearly a half million dollars from the Mercer family. By Kushner's own admission, his work with CA and the Trump campaign fed into the Republican National Committee's own efforts to elect Republicans at all levels of government. If Mueller's team does determine that the campaign's digital shop coordinated with hostile agents in Russia, congressional Republicans certainly would have benefitted as a result.
As things stand, Republican leaders have blocked efforts to create a 9/11-style independent commission that could provide a comprehensive written account for the American people. The investigations underway within Congress itself are scandal plagued, and lack even a single full-time staff member. Depending on who you ask, Republicans are either dragging their feet, or deliberately undermining efforts to determine the facts. Given what we know, it is not surprising that leaders in the Republican Party are reluctant to meet this unprecedented attack on our democracy with justice, accountability, and the rule of law. There is simply no way to have that conversation without indicting their own judgement.