Stop Pretending. Everyone Knew About Russia. The GOP Didn’t Care

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Giant Center, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016, in Hershey, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Giant Center, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016, in Hershey, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A few thoughts on the Russian hacking issue. Did Obama do enough?

There are two distinct questions. First, did President Obama do enough to punish Russia for its actions and, second, did President Obama do enough to alert the US public about what was happening? The two questions are related but distinct. I don’t have a fully formulated opinion on the first question. But the second question bears some comparison to ‘fake news’, in this sense. The administration did a huge amount over the course of the fall to alert the public, alert the world was happening. They finally went so far as to issue a public consensus judgment of the entire US intelligence community about Russian tampering in the election.

This was loud. Everybody heard about it. It was widely reported. It certainly didn’t get the same volume or intensity of attention as Hillary Clinton’s emails. But the President can’t control press coverage. The key issue was that political partisanship by and large kept Republicans from caring. The dynamics of the presidential contest were more important than foreign meddling or sabotage.

This may sound like a harsh judgment but it is demonstrably true. Not only did President-Elect Trump know about the charges. (Indeed, it is very likely his intelligence briefings included more detailed information than we in the public have even today.) He frequently discussed them and encouraged the tampering.

Yesterday, Monica Crowley, another typically Trumpian Fox News extremist, got an appointment to the Trump National Security Council. Soon enough someone found a Tweet in which she either joked about or encouraged (depends on your interpretation) Putin getting more documents to unearth about the Clinton campaign.

One of the weirdest things about the entire cycle was that Wikileaks went from being the scourge of GOP national security hawks and the national security establishment to being the toast of American conservatives.

Perhaps you have doubts about whether Russia was really behind the hacks. But the US government made abundantly clear who it believed was behind them. The notifications went far beyond leaks or interviews. They did a public and formal pronouncement! That almost never happens. The simple matter is this: Everybody knew this. But there was no making Trump, his supporters or most critically establishment Republicans or elected officials care.

In this sense, it is comparable to the now infinitely cliched ‘fake news’. You can do a million things. But “fake news” is fundamentally about demand. People want fake news that confirms their desires. There is pretty solid social science data – not to mention testimonials from Macedonian teens – that this is especially the case with conservatives and especially Trump supporters.

Trump supporters, GOP elites, a substantial portion of the US electorate simply didn’t care about what Russia was doing because they believed it hurt Hillary Clinton.

Having said all this, it is important to repeat what I think was also clear at the time. The vast majority, I would say basically all of what the Russians found, was pedestrian and inconsequential. I would say that it had a small to marginal effect on the outcome. But it was an extremely close election that can be enough to make the difference. Can you imagine the emails within the RNC as Trump went from being the scourge and mortal enemy to man of destiny? But having close to all of one side’s private communication dribbled out into the public realm and fluffed up by a credulous press was obviously damaging.

Let’s not make fools of ourselves again. For most of the Fall the US government was on the record about who was behind the disruption campaign. It was discussed widely in the press. The vast majority of Republicans simply didn’t care.

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