Five years ago if someone had described an ongoing effort to unseat a sitting president — complete with salacious allegations about collusion with hostile foreign nationals — would any of us have believed it?
Five years ago if someone had described a leading political candidate under active FBI investigation — with the director of the FBI issuing an unprecedented public comment in the lead-up to the election — would any of us have believed it?
Five years ago if someone had said that a grassroots campaign with a passionate following involving a long-term U.S. senator would be undermined by no less than the Democratic National Committee — would any of us have believed it?
Five years ago if someone had said that a foreign power would stage demonstrations on American streets for and against our presidential candidates — while unleashing bots, hackers and fake news on social media — would any of us have believed it?
With each scandal-of-the-day rocketing out of newsrooms at breakneck speed, it is difficult to step back and appreciate how downright bizarre the past four years in American political history have been. Taking the long view while in the midst of the fray isn’t easy — but it’s a necessary step if we want to learn anything constructive from one of the most contentious periods in modern American history.
The list of dubious “firsts” that marked the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath will no doubt be the subject of historical fascination for years to come. Among them:
1) In the lead up to the 2016 election a top candidate falls under active FBI investigation. The other candidate — unknown to voters — has also come under FBI scrutiny for alleged Russian ties. President Obama chooses not to inform the public that Russians have attempted to interfere. After taking heat for a public announcement about Clinton’s FBI investigation — an ill-timed statement that may have harmed her bid for office, Dir. Comey’s concern over the still-under-wraps Trump-Russia investigation leads him to leak a memo to a friend in the apparent hope the ensuing publicity will result in the appointment of a special counsel — yet he tells newly-elected President Trump on three different occasions that he is not under investigation. When all is said and done, the obvious questions remain unasked: What are the odds we would have two individuals rise to the respective heads of their ticket for whom cause existed for FBI investigation?
2) In an irony that is largely missed, both 2016 presidential candidates are unusually well matched in at least one respect: Each carries a tremendous amount of baggage. On one side of the ticket, criticism arises in response to the Clinton Foundation’s “pay to play” practices, former President Bill Clinton’s role as a ‘90s-era #MeToo poster child and Sec. Clinton’s role in the Benghazi fiasco. On the other side of the ticket, Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, his womanizing ways and his penchant for divisive hyperbole earn him all manner of allegation — from a xenophobe to a misogynist — giving rise to what becomes “the resistance“.
3) Gen. Joseph Dunford testifies in the months prior to the election that Clinton’s proposed “No Fly-Zone” over Syria would lead to direct confrontation with Russia (war). The reemergence of Cold War rhetoric inspires fear, even, among former USSR leader Mikhail Gorbechev who breaks a long post-retirement silence to express concern that the West and Russia will become embroiled in a “hot war” — a story American media all but refuses to carry. Clinton, however, successfully drives a media narrative that her opponent is temperamentally unfit for the nuclear codes. This allegation becomes a social media meme about an authoritarian, narcissistic Trump who will thrust the United States into World War III. The narrative continues more than a year after the election despite the successful release of North Korean hostages and despite a conflicting narrative in which President Trump is alleged to admire the very dictators with whom he may pick a disastrous fight.
4) Although neoconservatives from the G.W. Bush era forward earn the “warmonger” moniker for taking a tough foreign policy stance, particularly while in the midst of political campaigns, candidate Trump in 2016 does an about-face in advocating for a “let’s get along [with our enemies] approach”. In a modern political first, roles reverse and Sec. Clinton becomes the hawk — backing a neocon (“liberal interventionist”) foreign policy stance in the 2016 campaign. While this role reversal is largely ignored by political pundits, war-weary voters nonetheless face a dilemma: Vote for a Democrat who will go tough on Russia — but might get us into a direct confrontation — or back the candidate who is alleged to be a “Putin pal”.
5) While no charges are brought against Clinton in conjunction with the use of a private email server in her capacity as Secretary of State, the minimum action — had it been anyone else — would be the loss of her security clearance for failure to securely and properly handle classified communications. Rather than a “slap on the wrist” the negative publicity surrounding the mishandling of classified information is candidate Clinton’s sole punishment. Only much later do Americans learn that despite initial denials in widely circulated news reports, Sec. Clinton’s non-government secured email server was, in fact, compromised by foreign actors after all — a disturbing revelation mainstream media largely ignores.
6) Americans learn through WikiLeaks that Sen. Bernie Sanders, a popular candidate in the lead-up to the Democratic nomination, was viewed as little more than an obstacle among Clinton’s supporters according to internal Democratic National Committee communications. This no doubt contributes to a “silent crossover” of disaffected Sanders’ voters to the Trump side of the ticket — made possible, in part, by the fact that both candidates appeal to their bases in a populist fashion.
7) The Russian hacking mainstream media largely conflates with Sec. Clinton’s electoral loss more than a year after the election of President Trump remains unappreciated for the ubiquitous scam it in fact is/was: a phishing attempt of the kind most, if not all email users, have encountered. What Americans know simply as a “Russian hack” began, by all accounts, when Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, allegedly clicked a link to update a password and the rest of the so-called hack is history. Mainstream media, still asleep at the wheel, does not delve into whether the subsequently-indicted hackers obtained access to DNC contacts linked to Podesta’s compromised Gmail account, opening the door to Russian intrusion of the DNC servers. In the end, Americans may never know what led to what because the DNC, for reasons known only to themselves, refuses to allow the FBI to conduct the primary investigation — a fact we are supposed to be entirely okay with because former FBI Dir. James Comey — who is not an IT security expert in his own right — says so.
8) The Inspector General’s Report in June 2018 reveals that former FBI Dir. Comey made use of a Gmail account to transact FBI business — a likely violation of his own security clearance requirements that has gone without acknowledgment in subsequent political reporting. Mainstream media, preoccupied with repeated interviews with a porn star’s near-bankrupt attorney and a former Playboy Playmate whose affair with Trump is said to have been silenced by then-candidate Trump as part of an undisclosed misuse of campaign funds, fails again to connect the dots in the broader investigative picture: Top officials at the FBI could not very well hold Sec. Clinton’s feet to the fire for use of non-secured email if, in fact, top FBI officials, too, were stepping outside the confines of a government-secured email system to use the same phishing-infested Internet-based email services the rest of us do!
9) More than a year into the Russian-collusion investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, a key question remains largely unexplored: The legality of inviting foreign nationals to compile and/or heavily inform opposition research on behalf of presidential candidates. This little-explored legal and ethical gray area is relevant given that both candidates leaned on Russian sources for “dirt” on one another in the lead up to the 2016 election. Trump’s campaign is said to have had direct talks with Russians — giving rise to claims of collusion — whereas Clinton’s campaign made use of the proxy FusionGPS to complete, with the help of additional DNC funding, what becomes known as the Steele Dossier. More than a year later, the nation continues to reel from the fallout associated with giving hostile foreign nationals input into the American political process via dubious opposition research practices. Opposition research contained in the Russian-dominated Steele Dossier, nonetheless, is repeatedly tapped for FISA Court surveillance warrants and, in turn, plays a supporting role in launching the special counsel investigation. The national discussion fails to account, all the while, for the fact that Russia’s most successful yet least reported-upon effort to “interfere” is ongoing thanks to the legal gray area that allows foreign nationals to inform not just candidate’s opposition research but to serve as legitimate triggers for Department of Justice investigations.
If someone had said five years ago that we would find ourselves ensnared by Russian interference in the 2016 election almost two years after the fact, Americans would be forgiven for refusing to accept such a bizarre assertion.
Yet that is exactly what we face.
It is time to bring a polarizing first-chapter in this Cold War Revival to a close. With hindsight as our guide, perhaps we will have learned a lasting lesson in the importance of elevating candidates of unimpeachable character to the top of the electoral ticket so that those who have the most to gain from a nation divided — hostile foreign powers — can no longer undermine and demoralize the American electorate with ease — not merely by exploiting social media and/or candidates’ poor cybersecurity awareness — but by seizing upon the weaknesses already-maligned, highly controversial candidates, themselves, unwittingly offer. All the good in the world that a candidate promises to do, after all, is of little consequence if the road to the Oval Office could just as easily pave the way to jail.