Now that Donald Trump Jr.’s emails have produced the kind of solid evidence the Russia connection story had been lacking, what had been mostly speculative reporting has instead become the first draft of history.
Expect that history to be much debated. All accounts of political skulduggery with foreign actors tend to be “tangled and murky,” as one foreign policy historian has written.
But one simple truth is that governments of all kinds have tried to influence political events in other countries if they can — and much of that work has been done in the shadows.
Surely the U.S. government has sought by various overt and covert means to shape events — to shore up friendly regimes and undermine hostile ones — in dozens of countries all over the world.
But that does not make Americans any happier with the idea of the Russians infiltrating our electoral process, or those of Europe or of democracies elsewhere. Such interference has proliferated and gained greater effectiveness in the Internet age, as the Russians have pursued and perfected the use of cybernetic means to distort politics on several levels.
Nor do Americans accept the behavior of Russia’s enablers in the U.S. or other targeted countries. And that would appear to include elements of the Donald Trump presidential campaign in 2016. That was the unavoidable takeaway from the email news this week.
Obviously, it matters that the offending alien influence in this case was not just any foreign power but Russia — a longtime and salient adversary, led by an autocratic and militant Vladimir Putin, a veteran of the old Soviet spy apparatus known as the KGB.
Although “vehemently denied” by Putin and dismissed as “a witch hunt” by President Trump, the Russia connection has been reported as real by 17 U.S. intelligence agencies — four of which have also concluded that the intent was to harm Democrat Hillary Clinton and help Trump. (The others either expressed no opinion regarding the Russians’ intent or were not asked to do so.)
So most Americans are justifiably concerned about the whole business. But for context, we should remember that Russia’s latest effort is not the first instance of foreign meddling in a U.S. election nor is Trump’s the first presidential campaign to be accused of collusion with a foreign power.
As far back as the 1790s, European powers were intent on involving Americans in their wars. First, it was the French employing various stratagems to get our backing in their battles with Great Britain. Later, the British worked hard to draw us into World War I against the Germans and to overcome the isolationism that initially kept us out of World War II. Those ultimately successful campaigns were conducted both in public and behind the scenes.
During the Cold War, the Russians of the Soviet era worked at exploiting racial tensions in the postwar U.S., even as the U.S. was working hard to isolate and defeat leftist parties of various kinds in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America.
Political scientist Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon University has compiled a Cold War database, citing 36 cases of Russian intervention in another country’s elections between 1946 and 2000 — and another 81 instances of similar intervention by the U.S. over the same period of time. These struggles around the globe often featured agents of the CIA battling their counterparts from the KGB, the Soviet-era agency that produced Putin, his worldview and his tactics.
Over the years, there have also been stories of American presidential campaigns turning to foreign governments to advance their own interests in the heat of a campaign.
Nixon, Vietnam, Anna Chennault and… treason?
Perhaps the most compelling example is the contact between Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign and the government of South Vietnam at a critical point in negotiations to end the war in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson became convinced that Nixon, through the Chinese-born Anna Chennault, was urging the South Vietnamese to leave the talks.
The election was just days off, and Nixon’s lead in the polls was waning. Nixon reportedly feared there would be a breakthrough shortly before election eve.
Declassified tapes in 2013 included audio of Chennault telling South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to “just hang in there through the election.” Nixon biographer John A. Farrell reports that Johnson sent a message to Nixon through an intermediary (Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen) warning that Nixon was committing treason by interfering to prolong the war.
Johnson considered going public with what he knew of Nixon’s efforts in 1968. But he knew that doing so would mean revealing the extent of his surveillance of various parties involved. And, with Nixon’s lead in the polls fading in late October, Johnson may have concluded it was neither prudent nor necessary to make such a move.
It was a decision not unlike the one President Barack Obama would make in 2016 when faced with evidence of Russian interference. Obama warned Putin but did not go public with what he knew, apparently believing Clinton was winning anyway and any intervention from the White House might backfire.
Reagan and the Iranian hostages
Questions have also been raised about secret contacts between Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign and Iranian officials at a time when 52 American hostages were being held in Tehran. The Reagan camp reportedly feared an “October surprise” in which the incumbent President Jimmy Carter would secure his own re-election by winning the release of the hostages.
That did not happen, and the release took place on Jan. 20, 1981, the day Reagan was inaugurated. Reagan’s team have always denied striking a bargain with the Iranians, but a PBS Frontline documentary in 1991 pointed to a July 1980 meeting in Madrid between William E. Casey (later to become CIA director) and a representative of the Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. No record of that meeting exists.
The PBS documentary relied on a book written by Middle East specialist Gary Sick, who had worked in the Carter administration. Sick said that “some kind of discussions took place” between the Reagan men and Iran but added “the story is tangled and murky, and it may never be fully unraveled.”
The Ukrainian connection
Did the posture of the Reagan campaign have anything to do with when the hostages in Tehran were released? For that matter, did Nixon actually torpedo the Vietnam talks and allow that war to last well into the next decade?
Similar questions may linger over the Russia-Trump connection. It is always difficult to establish, either in real time or after the fact, just what factors determined the outcome of an election. And there can always be counterarguments and countervailing interpretations.
Some Republicans have noted, for example, that anti-Russian and anti-Trump Ukrainians may have been involved in the 2016 campaign on behalf of Clinton. In January, Politico reported that a Ukrainian-American with ties to the Democratic National Committee met with officials at the Ukrainian Embassy staff in an effort to “expose ties between Trump, top campaign aide Paul Manafort and Russia.”
We may never know the exact extent or effectiveness of these efforts or of the Russian interference on behalf of Trump — any more than we know for certain the full impact of what Nixon and Reagan’s campaigns did.
But the stories about these events persist, if only because they feed such powerful thoughts of “what might have been.”
The same may well prove true of the allegations against the Trump campaign, whatever Congress and the special prosecutor decide.