This isn’t news in the abstract, as Trump’s never hidden his skepticism about Russia’s role two years ago, to the point where he sometimes seems more willing to believe Putin than Mike Pompeo or Chris Wray. The most he’ll allow in public is that Russia might have been involved but so might other countries.
What makes this news is that Pompeo, Wray, Dan Coats, and Mike Rogers were all on the Hill together today to testify before Congress about intelligence matters various and sundry. Did Russia meddle in the 2016 campaign, they were asked? Ayup, they all answered. More importantly, is it likely that Russia will try to meddle again in this year’s midterms?
Ayup, they all answered. No matter.
Even as his intelligence chiefs unanimously told a Senate panel Tuesday that Russia meddled in 2016 and is planning to do so again in 2018, three sources familiar with the President’s thinking say he remains unconvinced that Russia interfered in the presidential election.
While this issue is separate from the question of whether Trump campaign officials colluded with Russian officials, to Trump the issues are interwoven, the sources say. He views the notion that Russia meddled in the election as an argument that he had help to win, and that he didn’t win the election on his own.
A thought experiment for you. Imagine Russia was able to hack into the voting system of a key battleground state this fall where the race looks to be close — say, Arizona or Nevada. They breach the system but there’s no hard evidence that they do anything while they’re in there, like fiddling with the vote totals. In the end, the Republican narrowly wins. Question: How many Democrats would believe that Russia didn’t rig the vote to enable a Republican victory? How many independents would? Mike Pompeo told the BBC two weeks ago that he fully expects Russia to try something to influence this year’s elections. Rex Tillerson said cryptically a week ago that Russian efforts to interfere in the campaign have already begun. BuzzFeed reported in December that Russia approached the United States last year and offered a “noninterference agreement” to the United States in which each country would pledge not to meddle in the other’s electoral affairs. The Trump administration turned them down. The hawkish view of that is that the U.S. had no reason to trust that Russia would actually honor its end of that bargain. The Trump-skeptic view of it, which you’d hear a lot in the aftermath of my thought-experiment scenario, is that the Trump White House *wanted* to keep Russian meddling on the table in case any Republican candidates need bailing out by Moscow this fall.
A little light interference in the right state, with the GOP squeaking through to a win, is all Putin would need to churn what’s already a boiling political pot.
Point being, it’s in Trump’s own interest at this point to take a hard line on Russian meddling. Suspicions have already been raised by reports of Russia screwing around with voter registration systems. Bogus Democratic complaints that POTUS is an illegitimate president because of Russia’s shenanigans in 2016 will intensify if they try something this fall and Trump appears to give them cover again by doubting their culpability. Trump won’t even be able to hide behind his own intel chiefs if it happens, as they’re likely to point the finger at Moscow. He could start to finesse his message right now: Although he remains not fully convinced about their role in 2016, he’s “deeply troubled” by the evidence his intel aides have shown him of Russia gearing up to interfere this fall. He gains nothing by continuing to doubt what happened two years ago but he’ll damage himself badly if there’s another round of obvious interference this year and he’s skeptical of that too.