The revelations about Russia’s role in our recent election confirm what many suspected during the campaign. The revelations answer some questions that have been raised in recent days. For example, it is now clear that Jill Stein, who is also cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, took such an active role in calling for recounts to take attention away from the real story. Similarly, we now know that people like Senator Bob Corker and Mitt Romney, whose views on Russia are firmly in the mainstream of Republican foreign policy opinion, were never really in the running for Secretary of State, but were fodder for media speculation before President-elect Trump decided upon Rex Tillerson, a man with a close relationship with Putin, for that key position.
Unfortunately, the story of Russia’s involvement in the recently completed campaign raises a lot more questions than it answers. These include how we allowed this to happen, what our diplomatic response should be, whether President Obama should have made this news public earlier and to what extent this taints Donald Trump’s victory.
The last question is the most important one. Donald Trump won this election by fewer than 100,000 votes in three key states, while losing the popular vote by 2.5 million. In other words, the was a very close race. While we cannot know for certain that enough voters would have changed their mind about Trump if they had known the extent to which he was getting help from the Kremlin, it is a very strong possibility that the vote would have been meaningfully different. The election, however, cannot be redone. Additionally, Donald Trump cannot be retroactively docked votes and thus have the outcome changed. Instead, Trump will assume the presidency under enormous suspicion, but that was going to happen anyway.
There are two avenues that can be pursued that might make a difference. The first is a congressional inquiry. Both houses of the next congress, as everybody knows, will be controlled by the Republicans, but that will make the inquiry even more important-if it happens. Already several Republican members of congress have expressed concern over the Trump-Russia connection. The next weeks and months will be the time for them to act on these concerns. If they do, it will likely be damaging to Trump personally, but a sign that there may just be some hope for American political institutions to act as a check on a new President with stated authoritarian goals.
The second approach is a more immediate, but more unlikely one. Any progressive who has spent time discussing, or arguing, politics with a conservative has experienced that moment when the conservative triumphantly announces “it is a republic, not a democracy.” Usually the conservative isn’t quite sure what that means, but uses that as a way to explain away some patently anti-democratic policy or institution. For some reason, Trump supporters have stopped saying that in recent days.
The reason for that, of course, is that the Electoral College, which is one of those aforementioned undemocratic institutions, meets on December 19th. Members of Electoral College, from some states, are not required by law to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their state. This has been the source of much of the discussion around faithless electors in recent weeks, and the possibility, or hope, that some members of the College of Electors from states that voted for Trump would cast their vote for somebody else because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, or simply because they don’t like Donald Trump. That possibility was extremely unlikely but the Russia hacking revelations change that. It is now perhaps only very unlikely, that the Electoral College will fail to certify Donald Trump as the next president, but if this story stays in the news and gets bigger over the next few days, that too could change.
It is now apparent that Russia’s role in this election is one of the major stories that deserves attention from the media and from American citizens. Responsible media outlets must focus on getting to the bottom of this rather than on obvious distractions such as Rex Tillerson’s management style, whether or not Kellyanne Conway will take a job in the White House or even Donald Trump’s latest Tweets.
The success of this Russian gambit reflects a collective failure on the part of the media, the Republican Party, the administration and the American people. It is now clear that everybody kind of knew about it and either didn’t care or assumed Clinton would win and the problem would go away. That strategy did not work and what seemed like the plot of a bad Cold War era thriller is about to become American political reality. The ability of our institutions, and we the people, to respond to this, will go a long way to determining the future of American democracy and sovereignty.