The big bad Russians supposedly swayed the 2016 election in favor of Trump, or so the story goes. Moving between being “useful idiots” (in Stalin’s words) or just plain old fashioned spy accusations, candidates for the highest office have always been the target of these tropes about Russian interference and/or preference for one candidate over another. There is nothing geopolitically wrong with a foreign nation “preferring” one person over another. Just as we prefer certain potential foreign leaders over others, so too does Russia or any other country when it comes to our potential leaders. It is what intelligence services do: analyze and assess foreign leaders and then generate preferences.
To prove the point that accusations of Russia meddling in US presidential elections is hardly new, we have to go back to an old 1976 New York Times article about Jimmy Carter. In that article, they claimed, based on the IC consensus view at the time, officials believed that the Soviet Union delayed the release of U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers to aid the electoral success of John Kennedy over Richard Nixon in 1960, the latter who was a staunch anti-Communist Cold War warrior. In fact, there is documented proof of this in Nikita Khrushev’s memoirs where he admits such. Kennedy would later go on to clash with the USSR over missiles in Cuba, but he also expressed a desire to improve relations. This latter fact led some elements, like the John Birch Society, to portray Kennedy as “soft on Communism” and a dupe of the Kremlin- accusations that dogged him until his assassination. So, we have JFK as either a dupe or a puppet of the Soviet Union.
In 1976, a former governor and peanut farmer from Georgia got the treatment also. In that Times story they said:
Aides say Carter is courted by Russians…expressing interest in the Presidential race and implying that they could possibly pursue policies that might influence the outcome.”
Again, the article cited unnamed sources within the intelligence community who had come to the consensus that they “had never seen such outreach” before to a presidential candidate. The article further stated: “I think they have been trying to tell us that they see Presidential politics as an opportunity to interfere in our politics, and that they see an ability to influence the outcome.” Begrudgingly, in a single line, they also note that the British and French were also “seeking outreach.” Carter went on to win the election after besting 14 rivals. However, by the end of his administration, he made some enemies and the narrative changed.
In 1983, we have an actual case of Russian meddling when then-Senator Ted Kennedy actually reached out to the Russians in his bid to run for president. According to a discovered document after the fall of the Soviet Union authored by KGB Director, Viktor Chebrikov, Kennedy proposed getting Yuri Andropov on American television and pledged to help their propaganda efforts in the United States. In exchange, he wanted their help in getting him elected. Call it reverse-meddling if you will, but a Democrat seeking outside help- especially Russian help- is overlooked by the righteous like Max Boot and Adam Schiff.
Finally, there is Barack Obama. In 2012, a pro-West Russian newspaper, the Moscow Times, ran a headline that read: “Why Putin Wants Obama to Win.” The reason was simple- Mitt Romney declared Russia our top geopolitical foe and Putin had once referred to Obama as an “honest man who desires peace.” This all seems rather weird given the Area 1 story.
In 2017, this cybersecurity firm claimed that Obama had been the target of Russian cyberattacks dating back to 2008. For those unaware, Area 1 was founded by former NSA members and people from the notorious collusion enthusiasts at CrowdStrike. Their “evidence” noted that not only was Obama targeted in 2008, but also John McCain. At the time, the attacks were blamed on China and many of the people named by Area 1 were actually unaware of any attacks. In 2008, the Russians loved Obama over McCain, in 2012, they preferred him, but by 2016, they hated him. According to Michael McFaul, Russia so hated Obama that they regularly led cyberattacks on him and his colleagues at Stanford long after they left the government.
The Russian collusion nexus to Obama should illustrate how silly the overall arguments are. In a few short years we went from “Russia loves Obama” to “Russia hates Obama” to “Seriously, folks- Russia has always hated Obama.” In other words, Russia’s alleged interferences and preferences shift with the backdrop political narrative. If a candidate comes off as too populist, too nationalist, or too avoidant of unnecessary foreign wars, expect the Russian collusion narrative to be trotted out. The value of the narrative has shifted with relations between the US and Russia. When the Berlin Wall fell, we saw a respite, but the political class, aided by the IC, is- if nothing else- imaginative. The story regained its footing in 2016 and currently commands an outsized explanation for events that it dominates four years later.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out in 2020 if Bernie Sanders is the nominee for the Democrats. Here, it will be one alleged beneficiary of Russian meddling (Trump) versus another alleged beneficiary of Russian meddling (Sanders). Requiring proof of any allegation is no longer required in today’s world. Apparently, proffering enough incredibility makes the narrative “credible.”