Protesters outside the White House demand a probe into Donald Trump's ties with Russia. Vladimir Putin is an opportunist who wishes to tarnish the west, but America was already doing that by itself © AFP
Putin gets a boost from US paranoia that its Cold War enemy fixed the election
Deutsche sends Trump financial details to Mueller probe
Ronald Reagan once joked that he had signed a bill to outlaw Russia. "The bombing begins in five minutes,” he said. Because the Soviet Union posed a mortal threat, his joke was in poor taste. Today’s Russia is a minnow by comparison. It offers no ideological challenge to democracy — and its economy is smaller than Italy’s. Yet liberal America has worked itself up into a moral panic. If it were not for Vladimir Putin, we are asked to believe, western democracy would be in reasonable shape. Without Russia, there would be no Donald Trump.
At best, such claims are an exaggeration. At worst, they are a red herring. The latest to join the fray is Joe Biden, the former vice-president. As a potential White House candidate, Mr Biden is a good barometer of Democratic thinking. In a co-authored article for Foreign Affairs, Mr Biden calls for the creation of a 9/11-style commission "to examine Russia’s assault on American democracy”. The body would identify tools to fight the Russian menace. "Americans need a thorough, detailed inquest into how Russia’s strike on their democratic institutions was carried out and how another one might be prevented,” he writes.
In sum, Mr Biden is calling for a new Cold War. But his reasons had little to do with foreign policy. The aim is to explain how Hillary Clinton could have lost to Mr Trump. Since the US electorate could not possibly have wanted him, it follows that the election was hijacked. The same kinds of argument are being made in the UK. Our minds were manipulated. Brexit was tipped by Russia, argue some Remainers. "Today, the Russian government is brazenly assaulting the foundations of western democracy around the world,” Mr Biden concludes.
There are three problems with this line. The first is that it absolves Democrats of their own mistakes. Mr Putin did indeed throw all the bots and trolls he could muster against Mrs Clinton’s campaign. Moscow also helped hack and leak the email accounts of key figures in Mrs Clinton’s orbit. But to conclude that Russia threw the election is a stretch.
There are any number of reasons Mr Trump scraped the 77,000 margin in the three key Midwestern states that clinched him the electoral college. Jill Stein, the Green party candidate, was one of them. She received more votes in Wisconsin and Michigan than Mr Trump’s winning tally. Mrs Clinton’s refusal to campaign in Wisconsin was another. The former FBI director James Comey’s last-minute bombshell about reopening the investigation into Mrs Clinton’s emails was a third. And so on. None of these explain why Mr Trump’s support came within distance of victory in the first place.
Mr Putin is an opportunist who wishes to tarnish the west. But America was already doing that by itself. He was only throwing paraffin on to the fire. The market for fake news predated Mr Putin. As the UK’s Sun newspaper would say: it was the west wot lost it.
The second problem is that it looks nakedly partisan. Last year, Democrats accused the FBI of being a damaged outfit. Today they hold the agency up as the epitome of public virtue. In 2012, Democrats attacked Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, for saying Russia was America’s "number one geopolitical foe”. Today that is the Democratic position. Mr Trump is clearly a fan of Russia. His behaviour also fits with the theory that Mr Putin has kompromat on him. In due course, we are likely to find out which parts of the Russian dossier on Mr Trump are true.
Which leads on to the third problem. Democrats want to see Mr Trump impeached. Anyone who cares about the west’s future should want to see the back of Mr Trump. But it is unwise for Democrats to will that outcome by judicial means. Mr Trump was elected at the ballot box. He must also be ejected there. Anything else risks being seen as an elite coup — like Britain’s parliament overturning Brexit without another referendum. Most Americans are clearly bored with the details of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Perhaps they will take notice if Robert Mueller unearths something dramatic. Until then, the Democratic obsession with Russia looks rash.
It is also a boost to Mr Putin’s ego. The idea that a struggling petro-state thousands of miles away could manipulate the world’s greatest democracy is beyond flattering. It is empowering. As The New York Times reported, blaming Mr Trump’s victory on Moscow has tightened Mr Putin’s domestic grip. There is no need for staged pictures of a bare-chested Mr Putin on horseback. Just sit back and listen to the Democratic party.