Neither John le Carre, nor Frederick Forsyth, nor Robert Ludlum could have topped the real-life drama of international intrigue that is currently consuming Washington. None of those spy novelists could have created a tale as twisted, characters as corrupt or a plot as implausible. Nor would they have crafted a story that has the Russians winning without a single shot fired.
Yet, that’s where we find ourselves. Just look back at the stunning testimony of Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week. Asked by Sen. Angus King of Maine whether he’d had a briefing on Russian interference in the election of an American president, Sessions said he had not.
“But I have to tell you, Sen. King, I know nothing but what I’ve read in the paper. I’ve never received any detailed briefing on how hacking occurred or how information was alleged to have influenced the campaign,” Sessions said.
That is, quite simply, astonishing. The attorney general acknowledged that the intelligence community has come to the conclusion that the Russian government interfered in the election in an effort to boost Donald Trump’s chances, but Sessions shrugged it off. Never mind that he has authority over the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is part of the national security apparatus.
While it’s true that Sessions rightly recused himself from any investigation into Russian hacking in March, he had already had a month to learn about Russian interference in the election. And he still could ask for a briefing without putting the investigation, now headed by special counsel Robert Mueller, in jeopardy. Isn’t he concerned?
Sessions’ lack of alarm about Russian interference is matched by that of several Republican senators, who have gone to great lengths to try to insulate both Sessions and Trump from any suggestion of wrongdoing. Desperate for a defense now that Mueller may be investigating the president, Trump’s allies complain about leaks and, incredibly, Hillary Clinton’s emails.
That just shows the extent to which Moscow has come out ahead. And Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has managed that while spending far less on defense than the U.S. does. In 2017 fiscal, the U.S. will spend approximately $611 billion on our military, according to federal data. Russia, by contrast, will spend $69 billion. We spend more on defense than the next eight nations combined. Trump campaigned on the claim that the U.S. Armed Forces had been stripped of their primacy during the Obama years. He pushed an increase in military spending through Congress.
Clearly, Putin hasn’t managed to upset the international order through sheer military might. While the Pentagon still focuses on tanks and ships and warplanes, the Russians have seen the future more clearly, concentrating on cyber warfare. They use propaganda, fake news and an admirable understanding of the psychology of American voters.
This week, the Senate did rouse itself to take away the president’s authority to overturn sanctions against Russia unilaterally. In a rare show of bipartisanship, the Senate voted 97-2 on a measure that also bolstered those sanctions, originally put in place by President Barack Obama. That means even Republicans are aware of the danger represented by a resurgent Russia that is bold enough to interfere in an American election.
But that vote won’t stop Putin – not when his government has succeeded in casting doubt on the integrity of the American electoral process, exacerbating partisan tensions and, as a bonus, befriending an American president perfectly willing to place his financial interests over the welfare of the republic. Putin already knows how to deal with corrupt kleptocrats. The Kremlin is full of them. If he can tempt Trump with a few billion-dollar deals, what has he got to lose?
Of course, if you were reading this in a le Carre novel, you’d dismiss it as ludicrous. Who would have thought you’d be reading it in your newspaper?
• Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.