A collage of a photos of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, with the White House, the Kremlin and the Russian flag behind them.

ID1974, COMEO / Shutterstock.com

Donald Trump

ID1974, COMEO / Shutterstock.com

Why RussiaGate Matters to Our Democracy

We are not witnessing a hysterical political game but an international corruption ring with a clear ally in the Oval Office.

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In a normal election year, one political catchphrase is often used to sum up the key issue of the electorate: It’s the economy, stupid. This is not a normal election year. Since the scandal-ridden campaign of Donald Trump, who increasingly looks like an illegitimate president, one with well-documented authoritarian instincts, we’re fighting to preserve basic norms. RussiaGate, the stunning scope of which was partially defined in surprise FBI indictments on Friday of 13 Russians who helped orchestrate the far-reaching, well-funded infiltration of our democracy, reminds us what’s at stake this November: It’s the corruption, stupid.

Some critics like to dismiss RussiaGate as the hysterical political games of a desperate opposition, or an excuse for the Democratic Party not to own its many mistakes. There’s a determined, deep-pocketed, and pernicious enemy at the heart of the scandal—an international corruption ring that has an obvious ally holding the most powerful office in the world. America is far from perfect when it comes to fighting its own corruption. The heartbreaking Flint Water crisis is only one of many examples, as is the government indifference and corporate fascism that attacked Standing Rock. One of the most urgent crises we face as a nation is the grotesque impunity of the gun lobby, the NRA, which prioritizes profits over human life when an average of two dozen children are shot every day in America. The examples are many. That’s why the last thing our fragile democracy needs is a president in the Oval Office allied with one of the most corrupt regimes in the world.

By their own admission, the Trump family relies on Russian money. It helps keep their businesses afloat and is reportedly laundered through Trump properties. (Russian dark money is also making its way through the GOP.) For the countless times the question has been raised—why won’t Trump ever say anything critical of Russian president Vladimir Putin, an architect of a mafia state, a champion of mass-murderer Joseph Stalin, and a war criminal—the answer is simple: He can’t. Trump has reportedly enriched himself with Russian money looking to hide abroad, keeping it safe from the uncertainty of doing business inside Russia, where fortunes can be seized to benefit Putin. Trump’s presidency has also turned out to be a financial boon for Putin’s oligarchs. Trump and Russia’s ruling elite seem to have a mutually beneficial relationship.

Why should any of this matter to a candidate, organizer, and voter in 2018 America, in one of the most important election years in the history of our country? Ava Lee, an anti-corruption crusader for Global Witness, explains in this video the destruction behind the glamour of the oligarch jetset: “Every corrupt politician, shady oil boss, and dodgy business is backed up and protected by a willing team of unscrupulous lawyers, bankers, and accountants. These people don’t just enable corruption. They profit from it, and they have blood on their hands. These people and the companies they work for must be held to account if we want to fight the corruption that keeps poor countries poor, destabilizes democracies, and enables human rights abuses.”

A Ukrainian investigative journalist who regularly covers corruption in Ukraine and Russia told me recently that she wonders hopelessly if Americans fully grasp what they’re up against. When there’s a reality-TV producer in the Oval Office, adept at inventing distractions and wielding his Twitter account like a cat laser pointer, it’s easy to get worn down and forget the insidious dangers behind RussiaGate.

Let’s look, for example, at the larger stories eclipsed by the recent Nunes memo. On January 29th, there was an assault of news stories: Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, led by Rep. Devin Nunes, defied the FBI and DOJ and voted to release a classified memo they alleged undermined the Russia investigations, known as the Nunes memo; the Trump administration declined to impose new Russian sanctions to hold the Kremlin accountable for hacking the 2016 election; Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI, was forced out early after being attacked by Trump for months; and we were reminded that the Department of Justice and FBI are being investigated by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. Before the dust could settle, the next day we learned from Russian state media that the CIA director met in the U.S. with the sanctioned head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, which orchestrated the attack on our election.

Of all these bombshells, the Nunes memo attracted the most attention. A brazen political ploy, it loomed over us like the point of no return: Trump will set up firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigations at the DOJ, and the person he will replace Rosenstein with will be tasked with firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is conducting the investigations. This was the purge accelerated. The memo turned out to be a dud, and launched a thousand Twitter jokes through the hashtag #yomemojokes.

The Nunes memo did underline how much Trump and his loyal cabal of Republicans want to end the Russia investigations. With the indictments of 13 Russians and four Americans who served on the Trump campaign, including infamous “torturers’ lobbyist” Paul Manafort, Mueller is picking off the low-hanging fruit. There’s no telling how wide and high up this will go. And that clearly makes Republicans nervous. We also know that the Russians hacked the RNC and Republican leaders, but have yet to weaponize the stolen goods. What, if anything, have GOP leaders done to ensure that their emails and documents are not released?

Mueller seems to be just getting started. He may still expose more networks of laundered money. In December, it was reported that he subpoenaed Deutsche Bank, a major lender to businesses associated with Trump, which has its own Russia scandal: the bank was fined by U.S. and UK regulators for a $10 billion Russian money laundering scheme. What is Trump desperate to hide that Nunes would go to great lengths, possibly obstructing justice, with his memo stunt?

A matter just as pressing is that Trump refuses to impose Russian sanctions, passed overwhelmingly by Congress. Even though he may be breaking the law by refusing to enforce sanctions, there’s not a lot Congress can do about it. The White House also missed an opportunity to deliver gasoline to the fire of the Russian resistance—releasing a substantial Kremlin report, one that reveals details about the corruption of officials and oligarchs who comprise Putin’s mafia state. Putin fears the Russian people, and countless numbers of them have risked their lives and freedom in anti-corruption marches across the country. One young Russian man said that he was prepared to be shot. This is what it has come to: Russians willing to die for a better future while the President of the United States protects the autocrat.

In January, when it seemed like a meaningful report was imminent, the Kremlin accused the U.S. of election meddling. It is impossible to meddle in an election that does not exist: “There are no presidential debates, no unsanctioned opinion polls. Rival candidates do exist, but they resemble sparring partners whose task is to legitimize the process while helping the champ show off his best punches,” writes Simon Tisdall in The Guardian. Putin will remain in power. Putting pressure on Putin through sanctions and exposing corruption holds the Kremlin accountable. To call exposing the deeply rooted, widespread corruption of a violent regime “election meddling” would mean investigative journalism is “election meddling.” Such transparency makes Putin’s oligarchs extremely nervous.

Instead of a consequential Kremlin report, a Forbes article of Russia’s richest was essentially copied and pasted. “The list was so broad as to be meaningless, rendered even more so by the fact that no one on it would be targeted for punishment: The State Department made clear [on January 29] that it was planning no new sanctions anyway,” Julia Ioffe writes in The Atlantic. “It was hard to imagine a more anticlimactic outcome. Or a more confusing and counterproductive one.”

The Trump White House betrayed the Russian resistance and the American people. This was the moment to act: March 18 is the presidential “election” in Russia. (The quote marks are necessary given that there will be no presidential election, which is why opposition leader Alexei Navalny, banned from participating, has called for a boycott.) Imposing the sanctions and releasing a corruption report naming and shaming would have been a massive blow, showing that Putin’s bare-chested power has its limits. The Russian oligarchs who like to hide their money abroad, getting fawned over by Western elite who do not blanch at blood money, would have been humiliated by more isolating sanctions and newspaper fodder. The Kremlin’s gamble of meddling in the 2016 election would have backfired. Instead, according to chief intelligence officials, Russia is already meddling in the 2018 election, and the Trump White House is doing nothing to stop them.

It’s surreal that an American president would back down from this crossroads in history, one that could have helped empower brave Russians on the brutal frontlines of steering their country in a different direction. Instead, we are reminded that Trump is beholden to the Kremlin for its support during the election, and to his web of Russian money. Our system of checks and balances is straining under the fallout. A rare outlier, like Trump agreeing to arm Ukraine, is baffling, and may be explained by his well-known respect for generals, like Secretary of Defense Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis who strongly supported this decision. Otherwise, with the constant humiliation of America on the global stage, the attacks on our allies, the shocking witch hunt of former British spy Christopher Steele which could prevent future sharing of intelligence deemed a political threat to the White House, further isolating the U.S., a weakened State Department that’s in chaos, Putin’s gamble won big. Kremlin state TV, infamous for churning out surreal lies, is factually correct when it boasts: “Trump is ours.”

The Trump White House seems to be on track to becoming the most corrupt in U.S. history, and the oligarchs—whether Russian or American—who support him are supporting that corruption. The virus of corruption, as we’ve seen most recently in Hungary and Poland, can be devastating. A United Nations official, while conducting an investigation on the matter, says that dire poverty in America will worsen under Trump, threatening democracy. America has never been in greater danger—corruption on the scale of Trump and Putin breeds authoritarianism, and protects the autocrat in part by keeping the elites happy (or keeping them in line), as long as they stand to enrich themselves. It recalls the ending of Animal Farm, when George Orwell writes, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Simply put, corruption kills. And exposing every dark, filthy corner of RussiaGate is an important front in the war on corruption, which is also the war against authoritarianism, which enables corruption to flourish.

Welcome to 2018—the most important year of our lives.

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