Trump’s Russia connection and the threat to democracy
Americans face multiple threats to democracy brought on by President Donald Trump (right), his chief strategist Steve Bannon (left) and the GOP generally. Foreign intervention in U.S. elections would represent another breach of democratic norms. Montage by Mediamatters.org

“I don’t see the President-elect as a legitimate president,” declared Congressman and Civil Rights hero John Lewis, one of 70 Democratic elected officials to boycott the Trump inauguration. “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. They helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”

The charge that the Russian Federation interfered in the U.S. elections, while unproven, shouldn’t be dismissed. On the contrary, questions have only grown amid reports of additional explosive allegations contained in an unverified dossier gathered by British investigators.

The American people are now dealing with multiple threats to democratic rights, breaches of democratic norms, and violations of the Constitution brought on by the Trump administration and GOP Congress. Foreign intervention in U.S. elections, an unprecedented act, would represent another breach of democratic norms.

The allegations surrounding the “multi-faceted” Russian interference in the U.S. elections issued by the U.S. Intelligence Agencies – including hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) email server, the theft of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails and a disinformation campaign – go far beyond cyber warfare. They reflect the convergence of interests by individuals, governments, corporations, and movements that threaten democracy, peace, and efforts to reverse the climate crisis.

Admittedly, I am no expert on cyber warfare. The Intelligence Community’s (IC) declassified assessment of a classified report should be read with a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, U.S. intelligence agencies have a nefarious history; their work is notoriously politicized, and their officials lie routinely.

No one needs to be reminded how intelligence was manipulated by the Bush administration to justify the criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq.

To make matters worse, no hard data has been released with the unclassified report, much to the dismay of the public and cyber forensic community.

The only way to verify the allegations is through a public bi-partisan Congressional investigation. This demand has been raised by the Democratic Congressional leadership but dismissed by Republicans.

In addition, the unprecedented announcement by FBI Director James Comey ten days before the election to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails was seen as a gross interference that benefited Trump. Although nothing was found, the damage was done.

After a Congressional briefing where legislators were presented with classified information, angry Democratic elected officials denounced Comey. Rep. Maxine Waters declared he had “absolutely no credibility” when it came to questions of Russian interference.

Reports suggest former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani conspired with Trump and right-wing networks in the FBI and New York Police Department to force the reopening of the email investigation. The U.S. Justice Department Inspector General is reviewing these allegations of misconduct.

With the retention of Comey as FBI director and Jeff Sessions installed as the new Attorney General, the outcome of the investigation is in doubt.

Democracy and national sovereignty

The possible occurrence of foreign digital hacking should come as no surprise: espionage, interference, and disinformation are part of geopolitics, corporate conduct, and criminal enterprises.

The U.S. government and intelligence agencies, of course, have a sordid history of their own of interference in elections of other countries. A recent Carnegie Mellon University study cited 81 interventions between 1946 and 2000.

Just because the U.S. government has committed such atrocities elsewhere, however, is no reason to dismiss the significance of possible Russian election hacking or declare, “The chickens have finally come home to roost.” Interference of this type undermines democracy and national sovereignty no matter who is guilty of carrying it out.

Some dismiss these allegations because they undermine the narrative that Hillary Clinton’s defeat was of her own making. While the Clinton campaign made strategic and tactical mistakes, in my estimation the main causes of her defeat were the influences of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia that mobilized a section of white voters, voter suppression and the effects of election interference.

Clearly something disruptive happened in the 2016 elections. While its impact on the outcome is uncertain, its intent was to sabotage the Clinton campaign and elect Trump.

Election interference, whether by the FBI or a foreign power, is inseparable from the larger assault on democratic institutions, processes, and norms. It is occurring in the context of extreme wealth concentration, the domination of the super rich in the political process, and institutionalized white supremacy.

These assaults include voter suppression, GOP Congressional redistricting and gerrymandering, Citizens United and unlimited “dark money,” GOP legislative obstruction including consideration of a Supreme Court nominee, the GOP coup in North Carolina, passage of right-to-work laws, assault on the mass media, and the undemocratic Electoral College – a legacy of slavery.

Trump assumed the presidency in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which forbids public officeholders from enriching themselves off their position.

In total, this characterizes the utter corruption and authoritarianism of the Trump Administration and GOP Congress and their contempt for democracy.

Sabotaging the Clinton campaign

Tens of thousands of emails and documents gathered from the DNC and Podesta hacking found their way into the U.S. mass media mainly through DCLeaks and WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange.

During the campaign, The Intercept observed, “the WikiLeaks Twitter feed has started to look more like the stream of an opposition research firm working mainly to undermine Hillary Clinton than the updates of a non-partisan platform for whistleblowers.”

Assange was in contact with Trump campaign advisor Roger Stone about an October surprise, was praised by Trump after the election, and spoke at the Green Party Convention. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein expressed no remorse that attacks on Clinton contributed to her defeat.

Right-wing media continues to give a platform to Assange, who was interviewed on Jan. 3 by Fox television and radio host Sean Hannity.

Assange made no bones of his hatred for Clinton. “(Her) election would have been a consolidation of power in the existing ruling class of the United States,” Assange told the Italian newspaper la Repubblica after the election.

When asked by Robert Peston of British ITV if his intention was to help get Trump elected, Assange replied, “You can’t predict what (Trump) would do in office. (He) is not a D.C. insider, nor part of the wealthy ruling elite of the United States, and he is gathering around him a spectrum of other rich people and several idiosyncratic personalities.”

“They do not by themselves form an existing structure, so it is a weak structure which is displacing and destabilizing the pre-existing central power network within D.C. It is a new patronage structure… its looseness means there are opportunities for change for the worse and change for the better,” he added.

The massive drop of emails by WikiLeaks three days before the Democratic National Convention was aimed at creating chaos, tarnishing Clinton’s image, and driving a wedge between Clinton and Sanders supporters. It accomplished all three objectives.

The repeated dumps of emails over the course of the campaign kept Clinton on the defensive with embarrassing disclosures, undermined her credibility, and helped shift public opinion against her.

“The more we find out about secret actions by the Clinton campaign and their allies, released only because hackers and WikiLeaks took some initiative, the more it seems like U.S. politics really is a dark conspiracy,” wrote Zack Beauchamp in Vox on Oct. 20.

Russian national interests and Trump

It is indisputable that Russian President Vladimir Putin favored Trump. But his motivations should not be understood through a traditional Cold War prism. With respect to Russian-U.S. relations, there are no good guys and bad guys, socialists versus capitalists, or imperialists versus anti-imperialists in this situation.

This framework puts working class, oppressed national minorities, left, progressive, peace and secular forces in a difficult tactical situation in countries and regions where the rivalry is playing out.

Nor should there be any illusions about the nature of Russian regime. It is a corrupt, authoritarian oligarchy. Its policies are imbued with anti-Semitism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny, and nationalism.

Russia and its ruling circles have their own national interests and aspirations. It shouldn’t be characterized as a progressive or anti-imperialist state because it opposes U.S. foreign policy.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to review the history of relations between the U.S. and Russia post-1991. However, it is not hard to see the expansion of NATO driven by U.S. policy and the European Union are reminiscent of the Cold War policy of encirclement.

This is also reflected in the anti-Russian bellicosity of Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) who speak for a section of the U.S. military leadership.

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, the fledgling Russian state was aligned closely with the U.S. foreign policy and imperialist interests. U.S. government and Wall Street advisors helped Russia carry out “shock therapy” to re-establish capitalism in the 1990s.

As a corrupt oligarchy emerged in Russia through the looting of vast public assets, so did their class and national interests, including visions of reestablishing the historic Russian sphere of influence dating back centuries.

NATO encroached on Russian borders, deployed anti-missile shields in Poland and Romania, and provided military assistance to Baltic countries. The U.S. helped foment an anti-Russian coup in the Ukraine. Not surprisingly, Russia reacted, including by annexing the Crimea, historically within its sphere of influence.

Russian foreign policy is geared toward breaking out of the NATO encirclement and regaining its traditional spheres of influence. One means to achieve this is by promoting political forces within the U.S. and European Union who support dismantling NATO and splintering the EU itself.

It’s no surprise then that Putin supported Trump, who in turn showered him with praise, questioned the need for NATO, and is now prepared to reset relations with Russia. During the Republican National Convention, Trump changed a plank in the GOP Platform to drop military assistance to the Ukraine, something sought by Russia.

There are reports of Russian attempts to influence the outcome of this year’s French, Dutch, and German elections through support of far-right and far-left parties. Russian financial sources have lent money to the French far-right National Front Party.

Emerging global right-wing alliance

A second converging interest is the emerging global rightwing alliance. This includes right-wing populist parties like the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), National Front in France, AfD or Alternative for Germany, Austria’s Freedom Party (whose leader recently met with Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn), Hungary’s ruling Fidesz, and Putin’s United Russia.

All the European parties are for breaking up the EU, severely restricting immigration, imposing bans on Muslims, and oppose the Paris Climate Agreement.

The so-called U.S. Alt-right, rebranded white supremacists and neo-Nazis, including Trump White House Chief Strategist and former CEO of Breitbart News Steven K. Bannon, is engaged in building a trans-Atlantic axis of white nationalism.

It has been reported the Russian government has assisted, including financially, many of these far-right parties.

Putin has emerged as hero to the Alt-right movement, which sees the world capitalist economy dominated by a cabal of global liberal elites alternatively known as the “international Jewish conspiracy.” Russia, to the Alt-right, is the main force countering this.

White supremacist Matthew Heimbach, leader of the Traditionalist Workers Party, a U.S. neo-Nazi outfit, and one who identifies with the Alt-right, has praised Russia as “the axis for nationalists.”

“I really believe that Russia is the leader of the free world right now,” Heimbach told Business Insider. “Putin is supporting nationalists around the world and building an anti-globalist alliance, while promoting traditional values and self-determination.”

Putin embraced the Russian Orthodox Church to help whip up Russian nationalism. The church is a reactionary force against multiculturalism, Islam, secularism, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights in Russia, other former Soviet Republics, and even in Western Europe. The so-called Alt-right sees Putin as a “lion of Christianity.”

These views coincide with those expressed by other Christian white nationalists in Europe, Bannon, and Flynn. Bannon and Flynn are hardcore Islamophobes and white supremacists. They and others in the Alt-right movement seek a restoration of Western Global Judeo-Christian values and white nationalist political domination.

Breitbart News, the Alt-right media platform is now a propaganda arm of the Trump White House. It is also creating new websites for German and French audiences to grow the so-called Alt-right and influence the outcome of federal elections in those countries.

Flynn was in the pay of the Russia Today (RT) television network, viewed as a propaganda arm of the Russian government. He is now under investigation by U.S. intelligence agencies for communications to Russia on the same day the Obama administration announced new sanctions against the country.

The Trump administration’s Russia ties

A third converging interest is the intertwining of the naked greed and business interests of the Trump Organization and the Russian oligarchy.

Trump, his former campaign CEO Paul Manafort, campaign foreign policy advisor Carter Page, and banker Richard Burt all have business ties with Russian banks and oligarchs.

Leading U.S. banks and financial institutions refused to lend to Trump after his multiple bankruptcies. Deep in debt, he sought capital from Russian financiers and oligarchs.

These include Bayrock Group, a business that built its assets through tax evasion and money laundering. Bayrock helped finance numerous Trump projects including in the U.S.

Other lenders included the Sapir Organization and Georgian and Kazakh financiers. Much of the money was transferred to Trump through an Icelandic firm preferred by oligarchs.

“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” Trump’s son, Donald Jr., said at a real estate conference in 2008, according to a trade publication, eTurboNews.

The extent of Trump’s debts and to whom he owes them are not known because he still refuses to release his tax returns.

Manafort received at least $12 million from Ukrainian oligarchs to help elect a Putin ally, former President Viktor Yanukovych who was overthrown by a rightwing coup. Manafort also advised Oleg Deripaska, an investor with ties to Russian organized crime.

Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, is an investment banker whose career has revolved around investments in Russia. Page has ties with Russia’s Gazprom, the partially state-owned energy company.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Exxon-Mobil have had extensive business dealings in Russia, including a partnership with Rosneft, the partially privatized state oil enterprise. Exxon invested billions only to see their return threatened with sanctions. Tillerson was awarded the Order of Friendship by the Russian government in 2013.

Buzzfeed and CNN reported the unverified Trump dossier compiled by former British intelligence official Christopher Steele on Jan. 10. It contains explosive new allegations that Russia may have compromising information on Trump including videos with prostitutes and information on debts to Russian oligarchs.

The FBI and Comey had all this information in August. Steele became convinced the FBI was blocking an investigation. Former Senator Harry Reid demanded the findings be released. Instead, the FBI went after Clinton in an unprecedented breach of interference in the elections.

If it is discovered that Trump and Russian officials conspired in any way, some argue that Trump could actually be charged with treason.

China as the real target?

A strategic aim of Trump’s approach may be creating a U.S.-Russian axis against China. China’s emergence as a global economic and military power is a challenge to U.S. imperialist superpower hegemony.

Such a strategic policy would raise the potential war danger. Already, Trump, to the objections of China, has insisted the “One China” policy that recognizes Taiwan as a province of China, is up for negotiation. Trump violated decades of diplomatic protocol by speaking with the Taiwanese president.

During his confirmation hearings to become Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson stated the U.S. would directly challenge China’s continued building of artificial islands in the South China Sea and block their access to them. This could risk a military confrontation between the two countries.

Together, the U.S. and Russia are sitting on 7,000 nuclear warheads and both countries are engaged in a modernization of their nuclear arsenals. Trump has suggested Japan and Korea develop their own nuclear weapons systems and called for a major rebuilding of the U.S. military.

It will take the combined majority of Americans and global mass action to defeat this new global right wing axis, block any emerging war danger by eliminating nuclear weapons and dismantling NATO, and defend democratic rights and global efforts to reverse the climate crisis.

 


CONTRIBUTOR

John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is national chair of the Communist Party USA. Previously he was Illinois organizer for the party, and is active in labor, peace and justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio and currently lives in Chicago.      

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