Washington watchers breathlessly await the next shoe to drop in the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but the verdict is already clear: Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled off an extraordinary feat and notched a huge win regardless of the special counsel’s official conclusion. No influence campaign could have done more to advance Russian interests and damage that of the United States.
The fact of Russian collusion (which remains disputed) or actual meddling in the election (which is not) is irrelevant. Putin may not be able to shift U.S. policy in ways that directly benefit Russia, but he has accomplished equally valuable objectives: The “mere” allegations and the subsequent furor have done grave harm to the U.S., the legitimacy of the democratic process and U.S. decision-making, and Washington’s ability to craft policy on critical defense, security and foreign policy issues.
First, charges of Russian interference raise fundamental questions about the legitimacy and resilience of the electoral process and democracy itself. Revelations of troll farms, bots and tailored fake Facebook accounts have generated skepticism about elemental forms of interaction and the reliability of the basic information that Americans use for their decision-making in the voting booth. Voters, if not elections, appear susceptible to easy manipulation.
Second, the controversy surrounding Russia’s actions has deepened — if that was possible — political divisions in the U.S. Trump supporters and allies see the investigation as a partisan witch hunt, designed to undo the 2016 election. Some go so far as to label it a coup by the “deep state,” holdovers from previous administrations that are hostile to Trump’s attempts to shake up Washington and end “business as usual.” This has facilitated political polarization throughout the country, making it more difficult still for U.S. voters and their representatives to find common ground and shared purpose.
Third, the controversy is a sore spot for the president and has become a means to both distract and incite him. Trump dismisses any notion of either meddling or collusion, and views the charges as a means to diminish or undermine his victory. He reportedly goes “off the rails” when the subject is mentioned and subordinates know not to bring it up in meetings or risk losing focus in discussions. A distracted president — with a blind spot toward Russia — is a boon to Moscow.
This leads to the fourth problem: The president’s sensitivities have generated a divide between the White House and the national security apparatus. A January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that “Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 … to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency. … We also assess Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible. …” The president has tried to split the difference, saying in November that he believes Putin’s denials of any interference, while adding that he is “with our agencies … our intelligence agencies, as currently led by our fine people.”
This split has undermined policymaking and prevented the development of a strategy to deal with this problem. There has been no Cabinet-level meeting on the Russian intervention or of ways to counter it, an extraordinary omission. Attorney General Jeff Sessions conceded in congressional testimony in October that there is no review of cybersecurity vulnerabilities and how to deal with them, noting that “the matter is so complex that for most of us we’re not able to fully grasp the technical dangers that are out there.”
In a June appearance before Congress, Sessions admitted that he had never asked for an official briefing “on how hacking occurred or how information was alleged to have influenced the campaign.” That blindness is astounding and would not be tolerated in an administration that viewed such meddling as the threat that it is.
Finally, the prospect of Russian collusion has cast doubt over every U.S. foreign policy action and initiative that involves Russia. Was there a quid pro quo for Russian intervention? If there wasn’t, why would Moscow help the Trump campaign? What does Putin know about the president, or his administration, that might influence U.S. policy that impacts Russia? When Trump has shown no qualms about denigrating or picking a fight with anyone else, his refusal to say anything critical of Putin fuels suspicions that there is something here. Even if there is nothing to those suspicions, they complicate and confuse analysis, again advancing Russian interests.
Here, however, Putin must be frustrated. The suspicions that swirl around decisions involving Russia makes cooperation — even where desirable — difficult, if not impossible. In a sign of its concern, Congress has acted to reduce Trump’s flexibility when working with Moscow, passing legislation last summer — by veto-proof majorities of 98-2 in the Senate and 419-3 in the House of Representatives — that mandated sanctions against Russia for its election interference. Trump has complained that the bill impinges on presidential prerogatives (which it does — by design) and his administration has been accused of going slow on its implementation.
A national strategy is needed to protect U.S. politics and to counter Russian attempts to meddle in them and those of its friends, partners and other democracies. Handcuffing the president is not such a strategy. Sessions has acknowledged that “we do not have a sufficient strategy dealing with technological and IT penetrations of our system.” Given the sweep and scope of such a policy, the need to integrate a whole of government approach and the sensitivities surrounding efforts to deter interference, this strategy must come from and have the support of the highest levels of the U.S. government. That is impossible in the current environment. Putin must be delighted.
Brad Glosserman is a visiting professor at the Tama University Center for Rule Making Strategies in Tokyo and a senior adviser to Pacific Forum CSIS.