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How we would cover Russia's pro-Trump hack if it happened in another country

Putin and Trump (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images and Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

How would American media cover Russia’s hack of the US election if it happened in another country? How would the world respond differently? Here, to borrow a great idea from Slate's Joshua Keating, is a satirical take on the story you might be reading if the reports about Russian meddling were coming from, say, Estonia or Venezuela. All facts are real; all quotes are not.

WASHINGTON — In November, flamboyant oligarch Donald Trump was elected to be the next president of the United States. But now, many in the fiercely independent nation are experiencing buyer’s remorse because of Mr. Trump’s shadowy, extensive, and seemingly growing ties to the widely-despised Russian government.

The latest controversy centers on an assessment from the Central Intelligence Agency, one of the most powerful wings of America’s expansive state security services, that the Kremlin interfered in the American election to help Mr. Trump.

Russian hackers, the assessment says, stole private emails from his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who has close ties to many of the country’s political and business elite and comes from a prominent clan. The emails were then leaked to embarrass Mrs. Clinton, wife of popular ex-president Bill Clinton, and bolster Mr. Trump, widely seen as an aspiring strongman with whom Putin can do business.

The allegations have inflamed the American public, and even some US lawmakers, because of fears that Mr. Trump, like other strongmen with ties to Moscow, might allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to wield undue influence over his country. But Mr. Trump seems not to care — early in the week, he appointed Rex Tillerson, an oil magnate with extensive business interests in Russia, to serve as the nation’s chief diplomat.

It seems, to some observers, that America is going the way of countries like Ukraine and Hungary — allowing democratic procedures to elevate a Moscow-friendly authoritarian to the country’s highest office.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my time,” Theda Ornstein, an America watcher at the UK’s Oxbridge University, says. “Welcome to Trump’s America.”

A questionable election

Mr. Trump’s victory was fraught with controversy from the get-go.

The president-elect, who had no formal experience in politics, demonstrated little substantive command of policy during his campaign. Instead, his appeal focused on large rallies which pitted the country’s ethnic majority — an amorphous group called “white people” — against its many minority groups. He also floated proposals to punish dissenting journalists and exile millions of mostly nonwhite residents.

At times, taking a page from aspiring strongmen like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Trump even encouraged his supporters to physically assault their rivals and said, of a protester, that he’d personally “like to punch him in the face.”

Mr. Trump actually lost the national vote to Mrs. Clinton by nearly three million votes. He won the presidency due to an archaic constitutional provision, called the “Electoral College,” that redistributes political power away from America’s cosmopolitan cities and towards its more insular, homogenous, and heavily-armed rural communities. Those areas are also home to numerous militias that have, at times, used those arms to challenge the federal government’s authority.

The legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s election, then, was already in doubt when the allegations of Russian backing surfaced.

In some ways, the accusations were not a surprise. Evidence that Russia had hacked Mrs. Clinton had emerged in the summer. Mr. Trump, who had once asked if Mr. Putin could be “my new best friend,” had backed Russia-friendly policies throughout campaign. Even his personal style — Mr. Trump’s penthouse apartment is plated in gold — is reminiscent of pro-Kremlin autocrats like Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov. Mr. Trump’s wife, meanwhile, is a former model from the Eastern European country of Slovenia.

But there was no direct evidence that Russia was working to elect Mr. Trump as directly as it backed the rise of former Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych or French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. None, that is, until the CIA assessment.

Like many oligarchs, Mr. Trump shows little interest in separating his personal business from affairs of state. He has turned management of his business over to his children -- while conspicuously failing to sell it or even formally give them ownership — and allowing foreign diplomats to throw lavish parties at his hotel in Washington, America’s prosperous capitol city. One of Mr. Trump’s sons, Donald Trump Jr., was even involved in choosing who would run the agency responsible for awarding lucrative energy contracts.

ExxonMobil, the oil company led by Mr. Tillerson, stands to make billions of dollars if America relaxes its laws restricting business with the Russian state.

“This is outrageous,” said Rachel Hayes, a news broadcaster at the opposition-aligned MSNBC cable channel. “While we don’t know that Russia wanted Trump to win, for sure, the fact that it’s even plausible shows just how far down the rabbit hole America has gone.”

Ms. Hayes’s anger was shared even among some members of Mr. Trump’s center-right Republican Party. The Republicans have long been hostile to Russia, part of the dogma laid down by actor and venerated former party leader Ronald Reagan. Mr. Trump has challenged Reaganite doctrine in many areas, but none quite so brazenly.

“We will investigate this — you can be sure,” Lindsay McCain, a fiery Republican member of the upper house of America’s legislature, told reporters outside the opulent capitol building.

Questionable intelligence

Mr. McCain’s investigation may inflame tensions inside America’s “deep state,” a term political observers use to refer to the security institutions that underpin the regime. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the deep state branch focused on domestic affairs, has challenged the CIA findings.

But the FBI has interfered in domestic politics virtually as long as it has existed — and is hardly seen as a neutral actor today. Its director, formerly respected bureaucrat James Comey, is blamed by Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic Party for swinging in Mr. Trump’s favor by releasing a letter, in October, suggesting he was opening an investigation into her handling of classified information on a private email server.

America watchers are now worried that the fight over Russian interference is turning into a fight amidst the deep state itself, drawing security institutions into politics in a way that threatens the healthy functioning of the country’s democracy.

“I can’t think of another country at America’s income level where security agencies are this involved in politically sensitive controversies,” Henry Sides, a political scientist at DC’s George Washington University, says.

The intra-intelligence fight may also shape the way that President-elect Trump, famously dismissive of information he doesn’t like, rules the country. If he comes to believe that CIA and other deep state agencies are aligned against him, he may choose to sideline them, creating a conflict

It’s a tumultuous time, even in a country famed for ethnic turmoil and its many homegrown extremist movements. But for many ordinary Americans, the capital city drama seems a world away.

At a bar in Baltimore, a working-class city adjacent to Washington known best for a local delicacy called “crab cakes” and exceptionally high crime rates, voters expressed ambivalence about the Russia revelations.

“I don’t like Trump, and I don’t like that Russian fella,” said Joe McColorquote, a retired dockworker who now spends his days providing quotes to national reporters looking to prove that they’re in touch with “real” America.

“But at least they’re honest about what they’re doing. Not like Clinton and her damn emails.”

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