Friday, April 20 , 2018, 7:31 pm | Fair 59º

 
 
 
 

Joe Conason: Investigate the Hackers — And Ignore Trump’s Chaff

In the loud debate over the alleged Russian intelligence attack on our democratic system, Americans have heard all kinds of specious assertions from Donald Trump, his minions and others who, for their own reasons, reject the findings of the U.S. intelligence agencies.

Trump clearly fears that a full investigation of those allegations will permanently discredit his narrow electoral victory, already tainted by Hillary Clinton's popular-vote majority. It is telling that he described the hacking probes as a partisan "political witch hunt" before the nation's spy chiefs even presented him with their evidence.

Telling, but not surprising: As usual, Trump is sending up chaff designed to distract from his own dubious conduct and connections.

Who interfered illegally with the 2016 presidential election and why should be a matter of fundamental importance to all Americans, regardless of political affiliation.

It doesn't matter whether the hacking of email accounts associated with the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign was "decisive" to the election's result, a claim that can never be proved or disproved. (Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 1 percent of the vote, which could be attributed to almost anything, including voter error.)

It doesn't matter whether Clinton ran a "good" or a "bad" campaign, it doesn't matter whether she deserved to win or lose, and it doesn't matter whether the information released was scandalous or boring, which are all simply opinions that have no weight in this investigation.

And it also doesn't matter whether previous U.S. administrations historically interfered with elections in other countries, as they assuredly did, since that cannot justify attempts to rob ordinary American citizens of their democratic rights.

The only relevant question — as more than a few patriotic Republicans have emphasized — is whether foreign or domestic elements, perhaps affiliated with the Kremlin and perhaps not, intervened illegally in an American election.

Politicians, business leaders, labor officials and all kinds of citizens attempt to influence election outcomes everywhere, as Barack Obama unsuccessfully did when the United Kingdom voted on Brexit. There was nothing illegal or underhanded about his remarks on that referendum.

So let's dispense with all the argumentative chaff, from whatever direction.

Regardless of which side won last November and who or what might be responsible for that outcome, this administration, the next administration and Congress would bear no less responsibility for investigating any unlawful activity — foreign, domestic or any combination of both — designed to skew the 2016 outcome.

There can be no doubt that the series of electronic thefts of information from Democrats, released with the obvious purpose of damaging Clinton, represented major crimes. The serious nature of those offenses is aggravated by their purpose, striking at the heart of the republic.

That is why Trump's furious tweets on this topic, along with acrid comments by his top aides, are so disturbing. By publicly disparaging the intelligence community's findings before he has examined the evidence, he appeared to obstruct this essential investigation.

And as he considers making changes in the nation's intelligence agencies and structures, he also seemed to threaten officials and employees who pursue facts that he prefers to leave hidden. That behavior was hardly mitigated by his anodyne comments after a "constructive" meeting with the intelligence chiefs at Trump Tower on Friday.

Both circumstantial evidence and Trump's own behavior have aroused deep suspicions about his relationship with the Russian regime. He has refused to fully disclose his finances. His foreign policy pronouncements distress American allies and delight the Kremlin.

And every time he harms U.S. relationships with friendly nations, with the United Nations, with NATO — even with China — Putin must be gleeful. As Trump isolates the United States, demoralizing our diplomatic and intelligence corps, Russia is emboldened and empowered.

Whatever his motives, it is hard to imagine a worse impediment to the nation's security than a commander in chief who ignores and politicizes intelligence.

The last time a president ignored CIA briefings, we suffered the 9/11 attacks. The last time a president (and his associates) politicized data collection, we invaded Iraq, with disastrous consequences that continue to this day.

What this controversy has exposed about Trump is further proof, were any needed, that he lacks presidential temperament. But we already pay far too much attention to his ranting. Every senator must disregard these tantrums and resolve to uphold the oath that Donald Trump can be expected to violate.

The only way to defend the Constitution now is to complete a full, fair, competent and unsparing investigation of the criminal conspiracy against the 2016 election, wherever that may lead.

Joe Conason is editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JoeConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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