Am I a Kremlin Tool?

Feature: ‘Leaked’ emails and foreign interference in Philadelphia

2016 Democratic National Convention
2016 Democratic National Convention / AP
July 26, 2016

PHILADELPHIA—Am I a Kremlin tool? This unsettling question occurred to me at an inauspicious hour of the morning at the Penrose Diner here in South Philly, host to the Democratic National Convention and still recognizably the working-class Italian neighborhood where Rocky was filmed. Fox News was broadcasting from the diner, and I was on site to labor on the pre-dawn shift, commenting for a couple of segments that focused on the Democratic Party’s stolen emails. It was just about primetime in East Asia, where Fox is probably available through some sort of digital feed, so it can’t be as bad as it looks.

There is a powerful likelihood that the release of the emails by Wikileaks is the fruit of a Russian intelligence operation, which took much of the pleasure out of beating up on Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her cynical colleagues, whose correspondence revealed them to be doing exactly what we all knew all along: conspiring to prevent a Sanders nomination. If anything, I felt more than a little sympathy for this woman, who on Sunday lost her job and on Monday was stripped of the privilege of gaveling in the convention, the results of which she had worked so doggedly to rig.

For example, when we read that Schultz wrote in confidence to a colleague that something Sanders had said was "Spoken like someone who has never been a member of the Democratic Party and has no understanding of what we do," the only response that seems reasonable is: well, yes. The Democratic Party of Wasserman Schultz, in alliance with the Clinton machine, is a morally (and, in some cases, literally) corrupt exercise that masks its cozy relationship with "the corporations" with negotiable gestures in the direction of the left. But forced to choose, what kind of conservative could prefer the revolutionary moral purity of Sanders and his supporters?

Not only did the Moscow angle take some of the pleasure out of this: it also raised an ethical concern. To state the obvious, the body blow dealt to the Democratic establishment by the release of these emails adds to the net chaos of American politics in 2016, harms the candidate most supportive of the NATO alliance, and benefits Trump, a candidate who has surrounded himself with pro-Kremlin advisers, weakened the Republican party platform on Ukraine, and all but threatened to render NATO defunct. To chatter on about the emails is, in some sense, however distant, to render oneself an agent of this cause.

Of course I did it anyway, and of course this issue is silly in many ways, the most important of which is that these emails are—the ridiculous early protests of Democratic surrogates aside—authentic. Once in the public domain, the emails are "news" one way or the other. Still, the concern remains, and no one in the media really knows what to do about it. As it became clear over the weekend that the Russian connection was probably authentic, hosts, pundits, and surrogates continued to handle the matter according to well-worn partisan grooves. Those friendly to the Clintons suggested this was all a Kremlin plot; the Trump campaign and its surrogates responded that there was no collusion between Russia and Trump—which is, of course, a non sequitur. Just because Paul Manafort isn’t servicing FSB dead drops in the alley behind Trump Tower doesn’t mean this isn’t the work of the Russians.

Meanwhile, the networks on Monday tended to leave the matter in the hands of national security correspondents, who in grave, non-partisan tones reported that the FBI is on the case—along with, we expect, other agencies. Fine, but to what end? The Russians have used cyber attacks to their benefit on numerous occasions in the past. The present gambit has already had significant effects. Protestors here in the streets have been given a boost of motivation, and last night on the floor left wing delegates relentlessly booed any mention of Hillary, raising the remarkable possibility that she could be booed during her acceptance speech on Thursday.

This "leak"—not the right term, by the way, as it implies an inside job—is affecting the American democratic process. There may be more such document dumps. The typical approach of the Obama administration to cyber warfare, which is to delay and prevaricate and eventually, maybe, after months or years, ineffectually indict low-level agents of our adversaries, is not enough, and invites further interference.

Where is Obama in all of this? It’s a delicate matter for the president, which the Russians, I assume, know. If Obama has information that Moscow is behind this, and publicly addresses the issue, the Trump campaign will accuse him of bringing the national security apparatus to bear against his political opponents. (Incidentally, the Trump campaign’s comfort with the possibility of Moscow’s role tells you all you need to know about it.) If Obama leaves it to a national security appointee like James Comey—already unpopular on the right because of that other email scandal—or someone with a similar role, the appointee’s actions will be instantly dissected by partisans, and their credibility challenged.

But the likely interference of a foreign adversary in the American political process ought to transcend partisanship. This is not normal. This is not okay. Trump’s closest allies won’t support any kind of tough response, inasmuch as they are gleefully aiding his transformation of the GOP into a workers’ party that is hostile to NATO and openly aligned with Putin. But conservatives who are tacitly or leerily supporting Trump because of some sort of path dependency requiring them to support a Republican nominee, no matter how evidently dangerous he is, have no excuse.

Trump’s supporters have for months harassed anti-Trump conservatives (in a sane world, the modifier would be unnecessary) with the argument that not voting for either candidate is not a respectable option. Here in Philadelphia, even with all the pathologies of the Democratic Party on gruesome display, I’m ever more inclined to think they are right.