Recently, I broached the “T” word (treason) with respect to Donald Trump’s actions. Strange and wonderful to relate, the heavens did not fall and lightning did not strike, regardless of the Polynesian taboo that seems to prevail in polite society. (At most, the prestige media will venture with the tiresome word “collusion,” which is unfortunate, because there is no legal sanction against collusion; the word they are looking for is “conspiracy.”)
This chasteness on the part of enlightened opinion follows from the unspoken assumption of good faith on everybody’s part unless there is overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence to the contrary—and sometimes not even then. But a glance at American history shows that accusations of treason, and even the overt deed, have been inextricably bound up with our politics.
Every school child has heard of Benedict Arnold, whose mischief imperiled the very birth of the republic. The founders were terrified of potential sympathy for monarchical Britain or revolutionary France, and Washington’s farewell address was a fervent admonition against “a passionate attachment of one nation for another,” which be believed “produces a variety of evils.”
The most significant event in American history, the Civil War, was a catalogue of treason from beginning to end, however much neo-Confederate revisionists wish to gild and varnish the events.
The America First Committee started on the eve of the Second World War as a collection of persons sincerely opposed to America getting entangled in the conflict, but soon evolved, under Charles Lindbergh, into a pressure group advancing the notion that Hitler and Mussolini were swell guys (Lindbergh proudly accepted ceremonial trinkets presented to him by Hermann Göring, a top Nazi).
After Yalta and the Hiss-Chambers case, the shoe was on the other foot. Ambitious Republicans like Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon made their bones denouncing the FDR-Truman administrations as “twenty years of treason.” Ever since, Democrats have been on their back foot. They were unable to respond effectively throughout the Cold War, Vietnam, and even into the present day, during the interminable war on terrorism. Large swathes of the Republican base believed, or at least claimed to believe, that Barack Obama was a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and was conspiring to impose Sharia law upon the country.
The irony of Trump’s position with respect to potential involvement in Russian election disruption is that the very factors likely to have gotten him involved—his pathological dishonesty, abysmal ignorance, and fruit-fly attention span—are the same ones that tend to exonerate him in the eyes of those still mired in false equivalence and phony balance. He’s not a politician; he’s “still learning how to be president.” And, after all, he’s a New York real estate developer, what the hell do you expect? Apparently, swindling people out of their money makes one too unsophisticated to conspire with a foreign power.
But what about a persona as different from Trump as oatmeal from a Serrano pepper? Unlike the presumed novice Trump, Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. has been a U.S. senator since 1985, and has served as the majority or minority leader since 2007. This means that for the last 10 years, McConnell has been briefed on the most sensitive national security issues, topics not accessible even to other senators; he is no tyro on national security matters.
In October, we began hearing rumors that McConnell directly or indirectly threatened Obama that he would make it a partisan issue if the administration went public with the full extent of what it knew about Russian interference in the presidential election. A month after the election, the Washington Post published what should have been a bombshell, but was surprisingly disregarded at the time.
In the the Post’s account, in September the administration sent James Comey, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and Lisa Monaco, Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, to Capitol Hill to brief congressional leadership plus the chairmen and ranking members of the two intelligence committees.
“According to several officials, McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.”
Now, eight months since the election, the Post has published the fullest account to date on the Obama administration’s discovery of the Russian hacking and its early, fumbling attempts to respond. It reiterates the Republican role in pushing back against the revelation of Russian interference, and McConnell’s role in particular:
The meeting devolved into a partisan squabble.
“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.
Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.
While it is frustrating that Obama seemed to handcuff himself into avoiding aggressive action, and that he even appeared to fall for Republicans’ “concern trolling” that going public with the allegations would somehow play into Putin’s hands, there is no question that the villain in this saga was McConnell.
Was McConnell bluffing when he threatened to make it a partisan issue? In the event, Obama never called McConnell’s bluff, if that’s what it was. But he should have known long before that to expect good faith from a slippery character like the Senate majority leader would be an unforgivable act of naïveté. This was the same Mitch McConnell who, before Obama had even been inaugurated, declared his number one priority to be ensuring that he would be a one-term president.
Given the accelerating normalization of the abnormal in contemporary American politics, it is unfortunately all too easy to overlook the sheer rottenness of McConnell’s behavior. Almost all politicians assume a grave demeanor when the phrase “national security” is invoked, piously claiming that their only concern is to protect the American people. Much of this is theatrical hooey, but McConnell dispensed with even the pretense of respecting the ritual, using a foreign attack on the democratic process as an occasion for pressing a naked partisan advantage.
The gambit paid off for him personally. After the election, Trump duly nominated Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife, to become secretary of transportation. That is a position which will surely offer lucrative post-government opportunities for the person administering Trump’s giveaway of public infrastructure to private interests.
Although much cleverer and smoother than a transparent buffoon like House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, McConnell has been just as diligent in attempting to protect Trump from the repercussions of the Russian hacks. From the beginning, he has resisted the creation of a special committee with cross-jurisdictional powers to investigate the Russian matter. And when Trump fired FBI director Comey, he was quick to reject calls for an independent investigation of that matter (fortunately, Deputy Attorney General Rodney Rosenstein appointed a special council anyway).
In view of unrefuted witness statements that he derailed a plea for bipartisan denunciation of Russian interference in U.S. elections, a political reward to his spouse from a president at the center of that interference, and a pattern of repeatedly deflecting calls for an independent investigation of the issue, it would seem that Mitch McConnell is deeply enmeshed in what is at best a complete betrayal of public trust, and at worst, treason. When will our media start demanding answers from him?