How Hillary and the Democrats Played the Russia Card

How Hillary and the Democrats Played the Russia Card
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In 1939, Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” which is proving an apt description of the scandal playing out nearly eight decades later about Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

As it turns out, our very own Democratic Party was doing some meddling of its own—using some of the Russians’ own tactics—while using Russians as a foil. That’s the latest twist in a plot line that makes a John le Carré novel look like a kids’ coloring book.

The story started, as you recall, in late July of 2016, during the Republican nominating convention in Cleveland, when the international whistleblowing outfit WikiLeaks published thousands of purloined emails from the Democratic National Committee. Their content was somewhat embarrassing to the Democratic establishment, inasmuch as it bolstered the suspicions of the Bernie Sanders faithful, who believed that under party Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz the DNC had engaged in various subterfuges to help Hillary Clinton quell the Sanders insurrection.

These efforts included dispatching moles to his campaign events and paying Hillary supporters to troll Bernie on social media. Although Wasserman Schultz was forced out, the DNC hierarchy and the Clinton campaign needed to respond. They could have simply told the truth and apologized, the truth being that of course party regulars favored Clinton over Sanders: Bernie hadn’t even called himself a Democrat until he began running for the party’s nomination while Hillary Clinton was Mrs. Democrat. That admission could have been accompanied by expression of regret for their excesses.

But repentance is not in the Clintons’ playbook. In this case, neither was candor. Instead, the campaign’s top officials formulated their lines of attack. First, they cast aspersions on the veracity of the WikiLeaks emails. Second, they insisted this was all a Russian plot to help Donald Trump. It was a calculated one-two punch. By calling into question the authenticity of the emails, Clinton didn’t have to respond to their contents – the sabotaging of Sanders’ campaign. In boxing vernacular, that was the left jab setting up the right cross, which was the Russia angle. The jab was a lie: They knew the emails were accurate. Playing the Russia card was, at best, disingenuous. Thanks to the Washington Post, we now know that the Clinton organization had been plotting a preemptive strike against Trump for months when it hired an anti-Republican opposition research outfit called Fusion GPS to go to Russia and dig up dirt on him.

What emerged from those efforts was the salacious anti-Trump “dossier” produced by ex-British spy Christopher Steele and shopped around to liberal media outlets until BuzzFeed, an online site so hostile to Donald Trump that it refused to accept Republican ads in 2016, took the bait. Virtually everything Clinton and her surrogates have said about Russia and Trump from that day to this has been either a direct falsehood, or a lie of omission. Following up on a tip that Clinton and the DNC were paying Fusion GPS, New York Times reporters were told “vigorously” by Marc Elias, counsel to both the DNC and the Clinton campaign, that there was nothing to it. Yet, according to the Post expose, there was a lot to it—Elias was the one who hired Fusion GPS.

Elias, now representing former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, also reportedly sat mute beside his client while Podesta told a Senate committee that he didn’t know who financed Steele’s efforts. Then there’s Clinton herself. She’s played up the Steele dossier while on book tour for “What Happened,” her post-election finger-pointing. In the book itself, she wrote:

“In the summer of 2016, according to The Washington Post, the FBI…began investigating a dossier prepared by a well-respected former British spy that contained explosive and salacious allegations about compromising information the Russians had on Trump. The intelligence community took the dossier seriously enough that it briefed both President Obama and President-elect Trump on its contents before the inauguration.”

Here's what’s missing from that account: Clinton’s campaign paid this “well-respected former British spy,” setting in the motion the entire affair. Let’s stop and consider what that means for a moment. Nobody has revealed how much money was involved—but Elias’ law firm was paid $12.4 million by the DNC and the campaign during the election. How much of that went to Steele? How much did Steele pay his former Russian contacts to spin their spicy tale of Trump cavorting with Russian prostitutes, masking real estate deals as bribes, and generally setting himself up to be blackmailed?

I don’t want to cast aspersions on Christopher Steele, whom many besides Hillary describe as “respected,” but there’s something about spreading so much cash around as part of an investigation that makes the information suspect. It’s why “checkbook journalism” is rarely considered investigative reporting at all: The money creates an incentive to make things up. Viewed through this prism, it all looks less like a genuine investigation and  more like a sting operation orchestrated by the Democrats to win an election.

To this day, the only regret expressed by Clinton or her supporters is that they couldn’t place the Steele dossier in the media before the election, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Even without it, nearly every prominent Democrat, including Clinton and President Obama, warned of Russian meddling during the last two weeks of the campaign. In the end, it wasn’t enough, so after the election, Team Clinton decided to keep using the Russian angle, both to excuse their failure and undermine the candidate who actually won.

Less than 24 hours after Hillary’s concession speech, Podesta and Campaign Manager Robby Mook convened a staff meeting at Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters to formalize this attack. The effort was described by authors Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes in a book that explains “what happened” more insightfully than Mrs. Clinton’s memoir.

“For a couple of hours, with Shake Shack containers littering the room, they went over the script they would pitch to the press and the public,” they wrote. “Already, Russian hacking was the centerpiece of the argument.”

Here’s the hell of it. The Russian government was interfering in the U.S. election. Among other scams, Russian Internet trolls spread anti-Hillary rumors and fake news. Yes, the DNC trolled Bernie Sanders, but this was a vastly more sophisticated effort. And while Russians are no more monolithic than Americans, if any part of the Steele dossier is accurate, Russia was playing both sides of the fence. But why?

It was while trying to discern Russia’s motives—and future course of action—that Winston Churchill invoked his “riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma” line. That’s the famous part of the quote. There was more, however. “But perhaps there is a key,” Churchill added. “That key is Russian national interest.”

In the end we may learn that Vladimir Putin’s goal is simply setting Americans at one another’s throats. If so, he seems to have succeeded. Yet, one wonders: to what aim? Is Russia such a basket case that Putin and his minions can only feel superior by watching us hammer away at each other? If so, perhaps Republicans and Democrats can be induced not to cooperate.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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