Trump Transforms GOP Into the Softer-On-Russia Party

Democrats may hit pay-dirt with anti-Putin tactics in special elections

President-elect Donald Trump takes a few questions from the press at the Capitol on Nov. 10. His morning tweets appear designed to set the media’s agenda most days. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
President-elect Donald Trump takes a few questions from the press at the Capitol on Nov. 10. His morning tweets appear designed to set the media’s agenda most days. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 9, 2017 at 12:15pm

If the rise of Donald Trump has taught us anything (a debatable assumption), it is that the news media has the attention span of an old-time Hollywood agent making deals on four phones simultaneously.

No matter how big the headlines or breathless the tweets, it’s on to the next frenzied furor within hours. That’s the 21st-century way. And it is probably going to doom any sustained outrage — no matter how justified — over Russian intervention during the 2016 campaign.

A prime example was Friday afternoon’s release of the declassified intelligence report stating that Vladimir Putin orchestrated an elaborate anti-Hillary Clinton campaign and “demonstrated a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” That was stunningly blunt language — and it stayed in the news for all of 48 hours until Meryl Streep began speaking at the Golden Globes.

This week, any revival of interest in Putin’s political action committee will be jostling for attention with Barack Obama’s farewell address, Trump’s first press conference since the Punic Wars, and the inaugural hoopla. With six Senate confirmation hearings slated for Wednesday, any scrutiny of would-be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ties to Putin are likely to get lost in the media maw.

The odds on a Senate select committee on Putin’s machinations drop with each passing day, despite GOP support from the intrepid John McCain and Lindsey Graham. If the Russian hacking is consigned to the congressional intelligence committees, the issue is likely to fade from view amid Republican obstruction, demands for most testimony to be delivered in secret, and Capitol Hill inertia.

The justification for the continuing re-examination of the 2016 campaign is not to set up an alternate universe where Clinton reigns as the 45th president. Nor is it designed to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s victory in the Electoral College, which was based on a host of reasons beyond Putin’s pilfering of the contents of Democratic computers.

In short, Russia’s actions matter for reasons that have nothing to do with Clinton and everything to do with the foreign-policy orientation of the president-elect. Whatever the motivation behind Trump’s tilt toward Moscow (speculation ranges from hidden, albeit unproven, business dealings to admiration for Putin’s authoritarian style), it represents a jaw-dropping repudiation of American policy dating back 70 years.

Forget the Cold War and just focus on the last year or two. Putin’s Russia has annexed Crimea, destabilized the rest of Ukraine, sent soldiers to fight for Bashar Assad, contributed to the humanitarian horrors in Aleppo, threatened the Baltic states and other NATO members, and aided far-right anti-immigrant political parties in Europe.

How far a President Trump will take his fan-boy fixation with Putin remains unknown. But Trump’s stubborn refusal to accept the intelligence fingering the Russian hacking is deeply troubling. So is the nomination of Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil with close ties to Putin, as the senior member of the Trump Cabinet.

Already, Trump has transformed the GOP into the softer-on-Russia party. A mid-December Economist/YouGov Poll found that 37 percent of Republicans have a favorable impression of Putin compared to 20 percent of independents and just 12 percent of Democrats. And that was before Trump apologists like Fox News’ Sean Hannity went into overdrive defending Russia by invoking Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, as a character witness.

Democrats in the weeks ahead may also downplay the Russia issue in the quest for more tempting political targets. Already, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has signaled that his top priority is blocking Georgia Rep. Tom Price — who favors turning Medicare into a voucher program — for secretary of health and human services. Using a yawn-inducing Democratic playbook that dates back to Ronald Reagan, Schumer greeted the Price pick by warning, “Washington Republicans are plotting a war on seniors next year.”

An easy way for the Democrats to keep the Russian connection in the news is to make the issue the centerpiece of the quixotic campaigns to win the special elections to replace the four House Republicans who will be joining the Trump administration.

It is near impossible that the Democrats could win the mid-2017 races to replace Trump’s picks for OMB director (South Carolina’s Mick Mulvaney), CIA director (Mike Pompeo of Kansas) and interior secretary (Ryan Zinke, who holds the at-large Montana seat). And even though Clinton almost snagged Price’s suburban Atlanta district, it would be a daunting challenge to pick up the Georgia seat in a special election when Democratic turnout normally plunges.

That’s why these four House races would provide an ideal testing ground to challenge Trump and the Republicans on Russia. If they are going to lose anyway, the Democrats might as well say something more newsworthy than “The GOP is going to take away your Social Security.”

The DCCC (which routinely sends out emails with the subject line, “WE’RE DOOMED”) and the DNC might find that the anti-Russian gambit would inspire an outpouring of small-donor contributions to these symbolic races. It would certainly prove a better investment for liberal donors than the money that went to Jill Stein for her futile recounts.

There is always the chance that the Democrats could hit pay dirt with anti-Putin politics. A surprisingly close race for, say, the Montana at-large seat would have reverberations in Washington. And, at minimum, these special elections would give the Democrats a chance to remind the voters of Trump’s worrisome embrace of an autocrat with nuclear weapons.