It what Donald Trump is now describing as a sarcastic remark, the Republican presidential nominee prodded the Russian government to hack and release Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails from her private server at a press conference in Doral, Florida.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said in front of reporters.
The response from across the political spectrum was one of astonishment. How could a presidential candidate incite a foreign power to commit espionage against the United States government? Critics decried the remarks as ignorant at best, treason at worse.
Watching their moral backflips to defend his evident Putinism, or his astonishing ignorance, is simply appalling. 9/
— Jay Cost (@JayCostTWS) July 27, 2016
(Weekly Standard writer and conservative analyst Jay Cost contemplates Trump’s Russia remarks)
To contextualize the reality star’ comments, Wikileaks disclosed thousands of private emails from DNC officials last week that indicate a strong bias toward Hillary Clinton over rival Bernie Sanders in the nominating contest for the Democratic party. One email even appears to show insiders discussing how to use Sanders’ Jewish background against him in conservative regions.
The fallout from the disclosure led to the ouster of DNC chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz and a formal apology to Sanders supporters from the Democratic establishment. These emails were beyond inappropriate, and indicate a party structure in dire need of reform in order to more fairly represent its electorate
Interestingly, the emails were strategically disclosed in the run-up the DNC in Philadelphia. A cybersecurity firm hired by the Democratic party has traced the origin of the breach to two shadowy organizations named Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, hacking groups likely sponsored by the Russian state.
Putin’s government spends lavishly on its internet espionage operations, as detailed in a lengthy report by the New York Times that explores the labyrinthine underworld of state-employed trolls and hackers tasked with disseminating pro-Russian propaganda throughout the web.
Writing for Vice, King’s College Profressor Thomas Rid explains that the
forensic evidence linking the DNC breach to known Russian operations is very strong. The forensic evidence that links network breaches to known groups is solid: used and reused tools, methods, infrastructure, even unique encryption keys.
In other words, the Russian government appears to be actively meddling with the US presidential election. The revelations about the DNC’s anti-Sanders collusion is repugnant, but the manipulations of the United States’ democratic processes by a foreign power is unsettling to say the least.
And this is where we return to Trump. The candidate’s unprecedented campaign has strung together a number of unorthodox policies that are objectively pro-Russian. Even if Trump isn’t actively courting Russian assistance, and even if his remarks were truly a joke, the fact remains that Russia’s autocratic leadership would love to see a Trump presidency.
Take Trump’s stance on NATO. In recent weeks, Trump has suggested that the US refrain from assisting NATO allies should they come under attack. Like many of his other scattershot opinions, these comments drew considerable condemnation from members of his own party. The NATO alliance has long been considered a central component to the United States geo-political strategy, enjoying broad support on both sides of the aisle. The Republican presidential nominee, however, views the organization like he does all other institutions, asking: hey, what can I get out of this?
As Zack Beauchamp explains at Vox, a US pivot away from NATO would be a massive boon for Putin:
[Trump’s NATO remark is] music to Putin’s ears. He sees the NATO alliance (correctly!) as a major bulwark against Russian expansionism in eastern Europe, and would be thrilled if it fractured. That would make it far easier to install friendly dictators in small nearby countries, like Estonia, or even annex them entirely.
While open collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is unlikely, the fact remains that many in Trump’s coterie possess interests in Russia. Trump himself has been positively gushing in his support for Putin personally: “I will tell you that, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an ‘A,’” Trump explained of the Russian dictator, “and our president is not doing so well.”
That Trump would praise a murderous dictator and call on another nation to breach the cybersecurity of one of the United States’ major parties is beyond the pale. One is tempted yet again to see Trump’s antics as the result of the devil-may-care attitude of a performer who doesn’t really want to be president.
But then the reality that a Trump presidency is a distinct possibility sets in, and things get scary – fast.