Donald Trump likely ending the Iran nuclear deal. Torture proponent Gina Haspel’s worsening prospects for being confirmed as the head of the CIA. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigning over his reported physical and emotional abuse of multiple women.
What do all of these things have in common? If you’re a certain kind of American political thinker who would hook up an IV and pump a liquified version of all seven seasons of The West Wing directly into your bloodstream, they all either benefit or are being orchestrated by one man: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
Since the 2016 election, speculation about Putin and Russia’s influence in every nook and cranny of American politics has run rampant, but what’s somewhat surprising is that it only seems to get worse as time has gone on. Here’s former British MP and one-time New York Times contributor Louise Mensch, for example, on the Schneiderman story:
Mensch, who once said that Russia “funded riots in Ferguson” after Michael Brown’s death, also made a pretty sweeping allegation about the #MeToo movement:
No one tell her that the next attorney general of New York is probably going to sue Trump just as much as Schneiderman did.
While Mensch has largely been dismissed as a crank at this point, the narrative is only slightly less dumb when applied to other issues. Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said in an interview with Quartz published on Monday that Trump walking away from the Iran deal would actually be good for Russia, an ally of Iran:
“Russia will be fine with that because they will be on the side of the rest of the international community. We—the Trump administration and the United States—will look like the outliers; we will look like the non-cooperative ones and Russia will look they’re like part of international law and cooperation,” he said.
“[It’s] not unlike what we did with the Paris climate change accord; that we then become the outsiders of an international system that we helped to create. I don’t think that serves America’s national interests,” he said.
And at the Washington Post, in a column that cited CIA nominee Gina Haspel for a “calm, no-drama approach to managing complex spy operations,” David Ignatius suggested that Russia is the most compelling reason to consider voting for Haspel, even if she was a big fan of torture and covering up torture:
There’s one counterargument that resonates, and it’s worth pondering as Haspel prepares for her confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. At a time when the United States is transfixed by the investigation into Russia’s covert influence operations in the 2016 presidential campaign, Haspel is probably the senior intelligence officer who best understands the Russia threat.
Haspel also learned the special tradecraft that’s required to keep agents alive in hostile “denied areas” such as Russia. These are the CIA’s most precious secrets, and Haspel is one of the few initiates. “She has a Ph.D. in the FSB, SVR and GRU,” jokes Dan Hoffman, a former Moscow station chief who worked closely with Haspel, referring to the initials of the three main Russian intelligence agencies. “That gives her a gravitas within the building and with our foreign liaison partners.”
A test of Haspel’s ability to manage sensitive Russia operations with the Trump White House came in March, after the poisoning of Russian intelligence defector Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. As CIA deputy director, Haspel worked closely with MI6 to coordinate the response, and she personally briefed Trump about the case — and recommended the expulsion of 60 Russian spies as punishment. Trump went along, in the toughest action against Russia of his presidency.
Is it really that hard to find a CIA director who both knows a lot about Russia and also hasn’t proven to be an advocate of torture? (On second thought, don’t answer that.)
The framing of all of these stories, focusing singularly on how they impact Russia or the Russia investigation, is bewildering, especially considering that the view this segment of the political commentariat has of Russia’s leadership—that Putin is a mastermind and Russia is the most pressing issue facing American foreign policy right now, when we’re at war in seven different countries—is much, much different from the view that many journalists in Russia and even Putin’s political opponents have of him.
“This image is very bad for us,” Leonid Volkov, a politician from the opposition Progress Party, told the New York Times last year. “Putin is not a master geopolitical genius.”
Any role that Russia played in the election should be thoroughly investigated, but America has been reactionary for a very long time. At a certain point, no matter what Putin’s role was in 2016, we have to hold ourselves accountable for our habit of electing scumbags to office and not holding government officials responsible for doing monstrous things.
Making sure every political story revolves around how it might hurt or help Russia or Vladimir Putin is no longer just dumb as hell; at this point, it’s actively destructive for the necessary goal of forcing this section of the opposition to Trump to confront the ugliest and most essential truths about America, which ultimately had much more to do with his election than Putin ever did.