Russia, Russia, Russia …
The Democrats’ campaign for Trump’s impeachment is a symptom of a sea change, writes Daniel Lazare.
Impeachment is supposedly about high crimes and misdemeanours. But the spectacle currently underway in Washington is really about a modern version of the Crusades - one in which good Americans sally forth to do battle with Vladimir Putin, the personification of evil in the eyes of US Democrats.
If you do not believe it, ask house speaker Nancy Pelosi. Trump’s crime, she declared in mid-November, was not so much advancing his own political interests by pressuring Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden. Rather, it was advancing the interests of Russia: “Putin benefited from our … holding up of that foreign - that military assistance,” she said with regard to the $391 million in Ukrainian aid that Trump temporarily withheld:
Putin benefited by the action taken by the president vis-à-vis Syria and Turkey, because they [ie, Russia] wanted a stronghold in the Middle East, and the president gave them that. Putin benefited from the president’s comments about uncertainty about our support for Nato, and the list goes on … With you, Mr President, all roads lead to Putin.1
Jamie Raskin, a liberal Democratic congressman from the Washington DC suburbs, followed suit during the impeachment hearings a few weeks later. Safeguarding American elections, he said, is especially important “in an international context in which Vladimir Putin and other tyrants and despots are interfering to destabilise elections around the world.” Pamela Karlan, a Stanford law professor enlisted by the Democrats in support of impeachment, agreed: “America is not just the last best hope,” she testified, “… but it’s also the shining city on a hill. And we can’t be the shining city on a hill and promote democracy around the world if we’re not promoting it here at home.”
US democracy will not be safe, in short, until Americans wage jihad against its enemies abroad. This is the party line that impeachment is propelling to the forefront and one that shows how thoroughly Democrats have reinvented themselves as the party of war, as the battle to retake the White House nears its climax. It marks a dramatic sea change from a half-dozen years ago, when Democrats were known as the slightly less belligerent half of America’s Tweedledum-Tweedledee political system and it was the Republicans who plumbed the depths of rightwing extremism.
To be sure, the Democratic ‘big tent’ has long included a bellicose neocon wing led by Hillary Clinton. But most Democrats worshipped at the shrine of Barack Obama, who opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, negotiated a sweeping nuclear accord with Iran in 2015, and angered Benjamin Netanyahu by refusing to block a UN security council resolution opposing Israeli settlements a year later.
One could argue that the distinction was largely rhetorical, since US support for Israel never wavered in the slightest, while Obama caved into the Clintonites by backing Nato intervention in Libya and Saudi-sponsored jihad in Syria. Indeed, one could argue that the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action actually made matters worse, because Obama felt it left him with no choice but to smooth Saudi feathers by green-lighting the kingdom’s air assault on Yemen and turning a blind eye to its massive delivery of US-made TOW missiles into the hands of al Qa’eda-led rebels in Syria’s northern Idlib province in April 2015.
Still, rhetoric counts for something, which is why some on the left can perhaps be excused for viewing the Democrats as a slightly saner alternative to a loony-right ‘Grand Old Party’.
But no longer. By outflanking Trump on the right on Russia, Democrats are now the ones splashing about in the fever swamps. The strange new about-face is evident in everything from party members’ boundless paranoia towards Moscow to their new-found passion for the intelligence agencies. Hard as it is to believe, Democrats once made a big show of criticising the FBI, CIA and NSA. But those days are long gone, now that outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post devote themselves to defending the FBI and CIA against charges of overstepping their bounds in the Russia investigation.
A few examples: in late 2017, a Times columnist quipped that Republican suggestions that ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele’s famous ‘golden showers’ dossier has been discredited is itself “discreditable to the point of being dishonest”.2 (Department of justice inspector-general Michael Horowitz recently determined that Steele’s findings were “uncorroborated”, “inconsistent” or simply “not true”.3) In early 2018, a Times editorial denounced the “wild-eyed conspiracy theory” that the FBI used misleading or faulty information to obtain a secret search warrant against a Russiagate suspect named Carter Page.4 (In fact, Horowitz would find 17 “significant errors” in the FBI application, including one instance of outright falsification.5) When the house intelligence committee, led by a hyperactive Los Angeles Democrat named Adam Schiff, subpoenaed the phone records of a reporter named John Solomon, one might have expected the media to rise as one. After all, that is what major news outlets did in the past when journalists came under threat. But, because Solomon is a Russiagate-sceptic, they all stayed silent except for the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal.
It is liberals who are increasingly cosy with government prosecutors and intelligence agencies while conservatives are now the ones who go on and on about violations of civil liberties and the rise of dangerous cold-war rhetoric. Obviously, the change did not take place overnight. But it was Trump who put it over the top by tackling Clinton’s record as secretary of state during the 2016 campaign. Trump’s foreign-policy stances were an idiosyncratic mess, but what he had to say on Russia, Syria and the Ukraine could not help but cause those on the left to sit up and take notice: “You know, Russia wants to get Isis, right?” he said in September 2015. “We want to get Isis. Russia is in Syria. Maybe we should let them do it.” In July 2016, he expressed sympathy with Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea: “But, you know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that also.”6
It was not all that different from what the left had been saying since 2014: ie, that it was the US-backed, fascist-led coup in Kiev that had caused the Ukraine to splinter and that US intervention in Syria was helping Isis and al Qa’eda rather than hindering them. The overlap was enough for the two parties to essentially switch sides.
This became clear in the final presidential debate, when Clinton assailed Trump as Putin’s “puppet”. In reply, Trump sputtered: “No puppet, no puppet - you’re the puppet.” Undaunted, Clinton zeroed in for the attack:
It’s pretty clear you won’t admit that the Russians have engaged in cyber attacks against the United States of America, that you encouraged espionage against our people, that you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up Nato, do whatever he wants to do, and that you continue to get help from him, because he has a very clear favourite in this race. So I think that this is such an unprecedented situation. We’ve never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our election. We have 17 - 17 - intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyber attacks, come from the highest level of the Kremlin, and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.7
With remarkable fidelity, Democrats have followed this up since. Because Trump sympathised with some of Russia’s positions, because he was sceptical that espionage had taken place, because he had once joked, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Clinton] emails that are missing”8 - it was proof positive that he and Putin were secretly in league. The fact that the ‘intelligence community’ concurred meant that it was doubly true and that Democrats had a valuable new ally in the anti-Trump struggle. From that moment on, the two camps closed ranks against the outside threat.
Nowhere else has a comparable realignment occurred: not in Britain, where Boris Johnson has successfully squelched a report that Russia interfered in the 2016 Brexit referendum; not in France, where attempts to stir up fears of a secret Russian hand in the yellow-vest protests have fallen flat; and so on.
But America is different. Given that the left is nowhere to be found, political battles on Capitol Hill are exclusively between the near right and the far right. By allowing Trump to gain the presidency despite losing the popular vote, America’s decrepit 232-year-old constitution has saddled the US with a first-class crisis of legitimacy, from which there is no conceivable escape.
But America is caught up in an imperial crisis as well. Grossly over-extended, it has watched helplessly, as a regional power like Russia has run rings around it in important battle zones such as the Black Sea and the Middle East. Given that even a strategic retreat is out of the question for a crusader state like the US, it is reduced to blaming its failure on various occult forces abroad and at home. Thus, the myth of an all-encompassing Kremlin conspiracy bears a curious resemblance to that of an all-powerful Jewish conspiracy of a few generations ago, while Putin has emerged as the new Svengali - “an Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew”, according to George du Maurier’s 1895 novel, Trilby - who has Trump thoroughly in his grip.
Facts do not matter when it comes to demonology. The upshot is a parade of hawkish impeachment witnesses berating Trump for cooperating with Putin rather than meeting the Russian threat head on. Deputy assistant secretary of state George Kent compared the neo-Nazis of the Ukraine’s Azov Battalion to the Minutemen of the American Revolution (“Ukrainian civil society answered the challenge. They formed volunteer battalions of citizens … they crowd-sourced funding for their own weapons …”); while former national security council advisor Fiona Hill testified that anyone who questions whether Russian interference in 2016 was as serious as the intelligence agencies say it was is “clearly advance[ing] Russian interests”.9
Then there was the redoubtable Pamela Karlan, who assured the house judiciary committee that US national interests lie “in making sure that the Ukraine remains strong and on the front lines, so they fight the Russians there and we don’t have to fight them here”.
Fight them here? Do Democrats really expect a Russian infantry landing in Washington DC any time soon? Trump is a bully, a bigot and an incipient fascist. But it is the Democrats who are the party pushing for war.
B Stephens, ‘The sleazy case against Mueller’s probe’ New York Times November 3 2017.↩︎
‘Review of four FISA applications’, 196.↩︎
‘The Republican plot against the FBI’ New York Times February 1 2018.↩︎
Office of the Inspector General, US department of justice, ‘Review of four FISA applications and other aspects of the FBI’s Crossfire hurricane investigation’, December 2019, ppvi-xiv.↩︎
J Johnson, ‘Donald Trump: let Russia fight the Islamic State in Syria’ Washington Post September 25 2015; A Mallin, ‘Trump: Crimea’s people prefer Russia, but if he’s elected Putin is “not going into Ukraine”’ ABC News July 31 2016.↩︎
For the full exchange, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qIN1-z_JqQ.↩︎
Kent’s November 13 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee is available at www.rev.com/blog/impeachment-hearings-first-day-transcript-bill-taylor-george-kent-testimony-transcript. For Hill’s November 21 testimony, see www.rev.com/blog/impeachment-hearing-day-5-transcript-fiona-hill-and-david-holmes-testimony.↩︎