Republicans and Democrats are already fighting over whether Thursday’s historic hearing with ousted FBI Director James Comey was a bad day for President Donald Trump (because Comey directly accused him of lying) or a good one (because Comey repeatedly conceded that Trump wasn’t personally under investigation).
But there was one undisputed winner from the hearing, even if his name was never explicitly mentioned: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Comey, echoing other top US intelligence and law enforcement officials, repeatedly stressed that Moscow had systematically interfered in the 2016 elections with an eye toward shaking Americans’ confidence in the integrity of their own democratic system and weakening Washington’s standing on the world stage.
The fact that Thursday’s hearing was even held — with the surreal spectacle of Comey openly attacking the integrity and honesty of a sitting US president — shows that Putin succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
It’s worth stepping back from the hearing itself and the narrow, though hugely important, question of whether Trump obstructed justice when he told Comey to end the FBI’s probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The question of whether Trump broke the law, or committed impeachable offenses, will be endlessly debated in the days, weeks, and months to come.
But it’s important not to lose sight of how much Russia has already achieved, with the scandal over its possible dealings with the Trump campaign paralyzing the White House, throwing the entire US political system into chaos, and preventing Washington from being able to focus on pressing international issues like the crisis in North Korea and the brutal civil war in Syria, let alone domestic issues like health care and tax reform.
To get a taste of just how much Russia’s success worries Comey, watch the exchange the ousted FBI chief had with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia that began with a question about whether Trump had ever asked Comey about Russia’s broader meddling in the election:
Here are the relevant parts of the former FBI director’s answer:
We're talking about a foreign government that, using technical intrusion, lots of other methods, tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognize it.
It's not about Republicans or Democrats. They're coming after America, which I hope we all love equally. They want to undermine our credibility in the face the world. They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them. And so they're going to try to run it down and dirty it up as much as possible.
That's what this is about, and they will be back. Because we remain — as difficult as we can be with each other — we remain that shining city on the hill. And they don't like it.
Comey, like other top US officials, has said that it’s impossible to definitively say whether the Russian interference is the reason why Trump won the White House — a point Trump’s personal defense lawyer stressed shortly after the hearing ended.
But there are two indisputable facts about Russia’s involvement in the 2016 campaign: The Kremlin’s preferred candidate won, and numerous members of the administration had conversations with Russia that they either hid or lied about.
And then there’s this, which is perhaps the most alarming fact of all: Trump, in ways big and small, has taken positions that are directly in line with Putin’s — and directly contrary to those of most of Washington’s most important allies.
Trump had the chance to tell allies he’d stand up to Putin. He chose not to.
On May 25th, Trump took to a podium at NATO’s gleaming headquarters in Brussels, looked out at the assembled leaders of the alliance’s 27 other member nations, and then gave a speech that stunned his own aides and sparked new doubts about his willingness to stand up to Russia.
As first reported by Politico’s Susan Glasser, the prepared text of Trump’s speech contained language explicitly reaffirming his commitment to Article 5 of the NATO charter, which says that an attack on any NATO member is considered to be an attack on all of them.
Trump, according to Politico, was supposed to say: “We face many threats, but I stand here before you with a clear message: the U.S. commitment to the NATO alliance and to Article 5 is unwavering.”
The language had been cleared by the Pentagon and State Department, and an official from his administration told the New York Times that the provision would be in the remarks.
The problem is that it wasn’t — Trump, surprising all of his senior national security officials, cut it without explanation or advance notice. That left Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Vice President Mike Pence to argue, unconvincingly, that Trump’s simple presence at the NATO summit was proof positive that he was committed to the mutual defense provision.
Trump’s decision not to use the sentence on Article 5 sent a shudder through European leaders already alarmed by the president’s campaign talk about only defending Baltic members of NATO against a Russian invasion if they spent more money on their own militaries.
But it’s also difficult to overstate how happy Putin and his allies in the Kremlin would have been as they watched the speech and saw what Trump said — and, even more importantly, chose not to say.
Putin has long hated NATO, which he sees as a US-dominated military alliance that is deliberately moving ever deeper into Russia’s sphere of influence. In Trump, he has finally found an American president who seems to dislike NATO as much as he does.
Putin has managed to create chaos in the American political system
During the campaign, Trump talked about how the US, under his leadership, would win so often that Americans would grow tired of winning. If anyone is feeling that sort of strain these days, it’s much likelier to be Putin than anyone here at home.
As Phillip Carter noted in Vox after Trump fired Comey:
In just a few months, Putin’s intrigues have probably influenced the outcome of an American presidential election and produced a basket of spoils for Mother Russia, including bitter feuds between the White House and the CIA, rifts between the US and its allies, damage to the American press’s legitimacy and public standing, a standoff between the White House and the federal courts over immigration orders, and the slow sabotage of American government through neglect and mismanagement.
Amazingly, Putin has notched even more wins since then. Trump was photographed laughing in the Oval Office with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after a meeting in which the president boasted about firing Comey, whom he derided as “crazy, a real nut job.”
“I faced great pressure because of Russia,” Trump continued, according to the New York Times. “That’s taken off.”
During the same meeting, Trump revealed highly classified information to Lavrov that may have endangered a critical source of intelligence about ISIS. The information had initially come from Israel, where senior officials were reportedly livid about the disclosures and openly discussing whether to share such information with Trump in the future.
It’s possible that the disclosure was, as Trump’s defenders insist, an innocent if regrettable mistake by a novice president who didn’t know where the information came from or the possible risks of discussing it. It’s also possible that it was an intentional gift from Trump to Moscow. But the fact that we’re asking the question is another reminder of how successfully Putin has upended America’s political system.