That the national security threat we are talking about today is Donald Trump rather than Hillary Clinton illustrates the wayward state of our politics.
Mrs. Clinton operated unlawful, amateurishly non-secure email servers and mishandled classified information – including the nation’s most closely guarded defense secrets, involving deep-cover informants and highly sensitive intelligence-gathering methods. She did these things in such a criminally reckless manner that it is virtually certain the ruthlessly adept Russian intelligence services (to say nothing of the Chinese, the Iranians, other sinister regimes, and cyber savvy jihadist organizations) have easily penetrated her communications and obtained our intelligence. In addition, though her emails were government records, she destroyed thousands of them.
Clinton has thus committed serious felony violations of federal law. These violations are flagrant betrayals of her public trust, the essence of high crimes and misdemeanors, the constitutional standard for impeachment.
Nevertheless, tonight, one of our country’s two major political parties will nominate her to be the next president of the United States. That is atrocious … yet the story dominating today’s news is not Mrs. Clinton’s criminal and impeachable offenses; it is whether Donald Trump is guilty of treason.
Yes, treason – it’s apparently okay to use the word now. It is a word Republicans and their fellow ruling class Democrats would heretofore condemn any national security-minded American for using to describe the aid and comfort President Obama has given to our Iranian enemy. It is a word we still dare not utter in connection with the Obama/Clinton embrace of anti-American Islamists. But Trump’s own lack of restraint has evidently licensed Trump critique as a restraint-free activity.
And what on this occasion makes Trump guilty of treason rather than all-too-familiar Trumpian bombast? It is claimed that he has encouraged a hostile nation, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to conduct espionage against Mrs. Clinton for the purpose of influencing an American election.
This claim, it should be noted, comes from Democrats and Republicans who – it seems like only yesterday – have told us that Russia, far from being hostile, was our strategic partner. It comes from a Democratic nominee who, as secretary of state, enabled Russia to take control of one-fifth of the uranium production capacity of the United States while millions in relevant donations and speaking fees flowed to the Clinton Foundation and her husband. And as for the scourge of foreign influence on American elections, the money that came the Clintons’ way thanks to the Russian uranium deal is but a small fraction of the foreign “donations” that have poured into their “charitable” foundation – influence purchases from what donors hope will be the next Clinton administration.
The world is upside down.
Here is what Trump said:
Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press… By the way they hacked, they probably have her 33,000 e-mails. I hope they do. They probably have her 33,000 e-mails that she lost and deleted because you’d see some beauties there. So let’s see.
On their face – silly as I feel for taking the time to analyze something this stupid – Trump’s remarks did not, even in a jocular way, do what his hair-trigger critics accuse him of. Now, this is Trump we’re talking about so it’s not exactly linear and coherent, but he basically said he hopes the Russians are able to find the 30,000-plus Clinton emails that he goes on to say they “probably have.” He did not suggest that the Russians conduct an espionage operation; Trump assumes, as many sensible people do (and as the FBI director strongly suggested), that a famously competent and aggressive intelligence service has already conducted what would have been an easy espionage operation against Clinton’s servers (which, by the way are now defunct and in the possession of the FBI, not of Clinton.)
At most, Trump said he hoped that the Russians exploit the hacking they’ve already done by leaking Clinton’s “missing” emails, in order to cause a media frenzy (as the Wikileaks disclosure of DNC emails has done) that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton. He made this statement under circumstances in which the Russians have already leaked the Democrats’ opposition research on Trump, which was embarrassing to him notwithstanding the relatively small amount of coverage the story got.
Now consider the context in which these words were uttered: the midst of a speech in which the GOP nominee scalded Mrs. Clinton for recklessly mishandling classified information and decried the Obama administration’s decision to provide her nevertheless with classified briefings in the lead up to the election – something Washington Republicans have been up in arms about ever since FBI Director Comey’s presentation a few weeks back.
Some more context: The more than 30,000 “missing” emails that Trump referred to are not the ones we knew about (i.e., the ones Clinton deigned to turn over to the State Department two years after she left; the ones already shown to contain highly classified information). The missing emails are the ones Clinton refused to surrender to the government and attempted to destroy – the ones she told the country had nothing to do with official government business and that related only to such perfectly harmless matters as yoga routines and Chelsea’s wedding dress. That is, they were emails that Clinton herself insisted had utterly nothing to do with national security. (Are Clinton supporters now conceding that she attempted to delete and destroy classified government records?)
Obviously, Trump was trying to use humor to make serious and legitimate points about Clinton’s dishonesty and unfitness to be trusted with the nation’s secrets (a core responsibility of the office for which Trump and Clinton are competing). Was the sarcasm funny? No. Was it a stupid thing to say? Duh. Should he have said he “hoped” the Russians leak the emails? No … but in the array of Trump statements demonstrating poor judgment, this one doesn’t make the cut.
Let’s get a grip:
(a) We all know, and even Trump probably knows, that Vladimir Putin does not do or refrain from doing anything based on encouragement or discouragement by Americans. He operates strictly based on his own calculation of his interests; even if Trump’s entreaty had been serious, it would have no effect.
(b) Many if not most of us take the following two positions (1) Russia already has Mrs. Clinton’s emails, and (2) we would like the FBI to release the formerly “missing” emails its investigators were able to recover and reconstruct. We are not happy that, while Russia probably has our former secretary of state’s emails, our own government won’t show them to us – even though, for over a year, she kept assuring us that she wanted us to see her government-related emails. We would like to see for ourselves what we already know based on Comey’s presentation: Clinton repeatedly lied to the public whose votes she now courts about the content of emails she refused to surrender (many of which involved government business, and at least three of which included classified information).
Now, does that mean we would like Putin to be the one to show us the “missing” emails? Of course not. Trump, however, obviously said what he said in jest. It was an over-the-top attempt at humor – and one that highlights Trump’s poor judgment since it inevitably draws attention to concerns about intersections between the Trump circle and the Putin circle. But I find it impossible to get stirred up about an unserious suggestion that Russia release Clinton’s emails when I know I’d like to see our government release them, and when I’m confident that their contents (and Clinton’s lies about them) are of far greater consequence than how they may come to be disclosed.
In any event, I am not a Trump supporter. I’ve been as clear as I can that the party he has taken over is not my party; that he is not a conservative; that I believe (to the limited extent he has thought-through political leanings) he is a standard-issue New York City “progressive”; that he is not trustworthy; and that, of more concern to me, he appears unstable and pathologically vindictive. I could never vote for Hillary Clinton; but while I have tried to be open to the notion of voting for Trump as the lesser of two evils, I don’t see that happening. (I won’t overdramatize my quandary since it is not much of one: My vote – or, more likely, lack thereof – will make no difference here in New Jersey, a blue state that is guaranteed to land in the Clinton column.) My point is that I do not write this as a Trump apologist.
I used to be a trial lawyer for a living. The way you persuade people is to hit them between the eyes, repeatedly, with your strongest stuff. The way you lose people is to treat molehills as if they were mountains – if people become convinced that you can’t tell the difference between what is serious and what is nonsense, they begin to doubt your proof on the serious matters.
The very strong case against Donald Trump is diluted by absurd accusations of espionage and treason based on an ill-advised, sarcastic tangent in the course of a legitimate rebuke of his opponent. And in light of the egregious misconduct for which Hillary Clinton has gotten a pass, to give her additional cover by converting a story about her recklessness into one about Trump’s rhetorical excess is to lose perspective.