What Did Donald Trump Know, and When Did He Know It?

As news rolls in about Russia’s likely sabotage of the American political system, the noose is beginning to tighten uncomfortably around Republicans. The only question that matters now is this: what did Donald Trump know about the hacks on his political opponents, and when did he know it?

It is becoming increasingly clear from all sides that Russian intelligence–likely at the specific direction of Vladimir Putin–perpetrated the hack on the Democratic National Committee and on Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. It appears to have been done with the specific aim of making Donald Trump president over Hillary Clinton, handing control of American government to a man who is not only more willing to do Russia’s bidding around the world, but also has business interests in Russia that make him personally vulnerable to blackmail and corruption.

The CIA has said so directly. The FBI is corroborating the CIA. The current President of the United States, not given to hyperbole, is in agreement. The Russians themselves, while officially denying involvement in the sabotage, have been celebrating Trump’s victory. Trump himself called on the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails during his last press conference. There isn’t a smoking gun of “proof” yet, but there rarely is one in cases of international cyber-espionage.

It’s important to remember the context here. “Hacking” is seen as so routine in our modern age that it’s easy to lose sight of historical precedent. The Watergate scandal that brought President Nixon to his knees began with a burglary attempt on Democratic campaign offices–a failed attempt to do the same thing that the Russians allegedly succeded in accomplishing far beyond Nixon’s wildest dreams. If anyone in the Republican firmament had knowledge of Russia’s efforts and aided and abetted them in any way, it would be a scandal orders of magnitude worse than Watergate. The optics alone are disastrous.

In response, recently triumphant Republicans are lurching from one bad talking point to another.

First comes outright denial of the truth: both Trump and RNC chair Reince Priebus have openly attempted to discredit the findings of American intelligence agencies in defense of Russia. Trump’s transition team mocked the CIA by falsely blaming the agency for poor intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (in truth, it was the Bush Administration that manipulated the evidence in order to go to war.) Priebus tried to claim–falsely–that there was no official report implicating Russia. But no one outside the Republican Party and a few Glenn Greenwald adherents are seriously in doubt about Russia’s role in all of this.

Trump campaign manager KellyAnne Conway is taking a more brazen approach, saying that we should just forget about it and let bygones be bygones in the spirit of patriotism and “love of country.” In this funhouse mirror world, ignoring a foreign manipulation of our democracy is the highest form of patriotism, while insisting on getting to the bottom of it is petty and partisan. That’s not likely to get traction beyond Trump’s committed base.

Then there’s GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who is going one step further by insisting that no matter who was behind the hacks, they were a good thing. Needless to say, Rohrabacher would not be so pleased if it had been the RNC and KellyAnne Conway whose private emails had been compromised by, say, the French or Mexican governments. Republicans would be calling for treason trials.

This situation seems almost to have been ripped out of the pages of a bad dime novel, but that is the reality in which we live.

The big question now is whether Republicans knew about it in advance and cooperated or helped in any way. There are enough warning signs to warrant suspicion. We know that erstwhile Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort is under investigation for his longstanding work on behalf of Russia in defiance of American interests, which was directly tied to pro-Russian tweaks to the GOP platform on Ukraine. We know about the strange and unexplained communication between a server in Trump tower and a Russian bank. We know that Trump’s business ties to Russia are extensive, and that his pick for Secretary of State has close ties to Vladimir Putin.

Americans should not rest until we learn exactly what, if anything, Trump and his team knew about the hacks, and when they knew it. This is not a partisan issue: if Trump and/or his advisers are guilty, Republicans will still control the government. This is a matter of basic patriotism.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.