SOMERSET, KY. — During the first week of March 2016, nine months after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, the Russian Federation’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU), opened their online assault on American democracy. The Russian military intelligence unit began to hack, according to Robert Mueller’s special counsel report, “the computers and email accounts of organizations, employees, and volunteers supporting the Clinton campaign, including the email account of campaign chairman John Podesta.”
By April 25, according to the Mueller report, Russians had stolen 70 gigabytes of data. On July 22, WikiLeaks released a horde of stolen insider details about Hillary Clinton’s campaign to the media just three days before the start of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
During the same period, another Russian intelligence unit was busy establishing social media groups and seeding American social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Instagram, with messages that lied about Clinton but were favorable to Trump. According to the Mueller report, the Russian accounts made over 80,000 posts and “these posts reached at least 29 million U.S persons and may have reached an estimated 126 million people.”
The consequences of what turned out to be the most damaging attack ever by Russia on the United States is not in dispute. Clinton’s run for the presidency was damaged by massive amounts of misinformation. Donald Trump’s campaign received an unlawful mega-boost from a foreign power.
The Mueller report says neither Trump nor his aides participated in the online document thefts. But they actively encouraged their disclosure and dissemination, even after The New York Times, on July 26, 2016, disclosed that Russian intelligence was the source of the stolen campaign documents.
Just a day later, on July 27, candidate Trump urged more such disclosures during a news conference in Florida. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. And five hours after that call to arms, said the Mueller report, Russian intelligence aimed their hacking expertise at Clinton’s email accounts.
Now America faces a cultural and political reckoning, one of the singularly momentous choices of this century. Trump vowed at his inauguration to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The question the country must answer is this: Does President Trump’s encouragement of the Russian election interference, and his unsuccessful campaign to impede the public assessment of what occurred, represent a violation of his oath of office?
I spent several days last week driving in Alabama and listening to local talk radio hosts express their clear conviction that Trump is innocent of any managerial mishaps. Conservative supporters of Trump are satisfied to let him skate. I also heard a select number of progressive voices tell me that actively pursuing more Congressional investigation was politically impulsive, even dangerous to Democratic candidates in the 2020 election cycle. A good number of Democrats also are prepared to let the president slide.
But what occurred in 2016 with Russia’s election interference, and in 2017 with the president’s effort to impede an investigation, is an egregious violation of the public trust and national security. A sacred rite of Democracy, free elections, was violated by a foreign antagonist. The Russians did not aim a missile or fire a shot. But their expertise in asymmetrical warfare, in data gathering and online messaging, succeeded in causing ongoing social division and poisonous political turbulence in the United States, and to some extent around the world. Rather than marching to the front lines of defense, the American president retreated to the dark hollows of lies, deceit, and cowardice.
His supporters are satisfied with the president’s behavior. But every other American must hold the president and his supporters in Congress accountable. That includes the Democratic leadership. How can they allow their 2016 presidential candidate be savaged by a foreign power without a powerful response? The credibility of their party and US democracy is at stake. The House must hold hearings on impeachment. The country must replace Donald Trump as president.