The latest intelligence revelations about Russia’s cyberpush for Donald Trump are so persuasive that even congressional Republican leaders have been compelled to take notice. There will indeed be investigations and hearings, in both chambers. It appears, for now anyway, that they actually view this unprecedented national security breach as nearly as important as Hillary’s private server.
Assuming that Republicans don’t try to spin the whole thing into oblivion, assuming that they really intend to demonstrate that they’re not being played for saps, and assuming that they do intend to fully probe the relationship between Trump and the ex-KGB thug, here are the big questions they might want to ask:
1. What did Trump know and when did he know it?
Prior to the election, intelligence briefers told Trump that Russia was interfering in our election, but he rejected the intel, claiming publicly that it might just be some 400-pound hacker somewhere. On what rational basis did he have reason to disbelieve the intelligence warnings? In other words, what did Trump know and why did he choose not to know it?
2. What are the full extent of Trump’s financial ties to Russia?
As his son Donald Jr. said in 2008, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” But we still don’t know the full extent ---- there have long been suspicions that he owes money to Russian oligarchs ---- because Trump never provided a full accounting of his business interests. Will the Republicans finally demand that he fork over all his tax returns?
3. Why was Russia so motivated, via its hail of propaganda, to help get Trump elected?
Did Trump start echoing Russia’s positions ---- soften our NATO commitments; soften or end our economic sanctions ---- because he sincerely believes those positions, or because he has been steered by the Russian apologists in his circle?
4. And what about those apologists?
-Michael Flynn, the incoming national security adviser, a regular contributor to Vladimir Putin’s RT propaganda network, and a paid speechmaking attendee at RT’s 10th anniversary dinner last December
-Carter Page, a backstage foreign policy adviser who has business dealings in Russia
-Paul Manafort, the campaign manager who was jettisoned after he was outed as a paid advisor to a pro-Putin leader in Ukraine
-Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state nominee, a foe of our anti-Putin sanctions, and winner of a Putin “friendship” award. What’s the current full extent of their financial ties to Russia? Will the Republicans subpoena their records?
5. Is there any evidence of pre-election collusion between Trump advisors and Kremlin officials?
If not, what’s the substance of their post-election communications? Are major shifts in American policy in the works - stuff that’s detrimental to American interests? Stuff we don’t know about?
The latter questions may be the most important of all. Even if Russian’s pro-Trump cyberpush wasn’t pivotal in getting Trump elected, Russia got the president it wanted. A president who (for all we know) may be financially or otherwise compromised to act in Russia’s interests at the expense of ours. As Eric Edelmen and David J. Kramer, two George W. Bush foreign policy officials, warn:
“Without U.S. leadership keeping the Europeans united against Putin, Western resolve in the face of Russian aggression will crumble. Before even moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and gaining the authority to lift U.S. sanctions on Russia, Trump could produce a radical change in policy toward Moscow. Such a change, however, would not make America, the West or the world great again. But it could trigger the unraveling of the alliances and institutional structures that made the U.S. and its European partners great in the past.”
All told, the pro-Republican columnist Jennifer Rubin said it best yesterday: “You would think it would be obvious that Russian efforts to select America’s president through cyber-weaponized revelations may be the most important election story ---- ever. This is warfare of an entirely different sort, one aimed at the heart of democracy.”
Which prompts my biggest question of all:
6. Do congressional Republicans have the fortitude and patriotism to take this probe wherever it leads?
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org