It’s starting to feel like 2016 all over again, only worse.
Back then, the Kremlin mounted a comprehensive effort to help Donald Trump win the White House, an effort that included multiple attempts to coordinate with the Trump campaign, a wide-reaching social media disinformation program, and the hacking of Democratic electronic systems. The latter, which revealed broad antipathy within the Democratic National Committee to Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, fed his supporters’ belief that the primaries had been rigged against him.
And here we are again. At the end of last week, The New York Times and The Washington Post reported that in a briefing to the House Intelligence Committee, the Department of Homeland Security official in charge of election security told members of Congress that Russia is once again attempting to intervene in our elections to help Trump win. And then we learned that a month ago, intelligence officials told Bernie Sanders that the Russians are trying to help him, too.
At the moment, there are conflicting reports, and the truth is a bit hard to discern. The White House is denying that Russia is helping Trump, though as always they make it rather hard to believe them. Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, went on television Sunday to claim that “I haven’t seen any intelligence that Russia is doing anything to attempt to get President Trump re-elected.” Either the multiple sources who spoke to the Times and the Post were lying, O’Brien is out of the loop, or he’s the one who is lying. It’s hard to know for sure, but given that O’Brien is such a committed Trump lickspittle that he literally prints out the president’s tweets and distributes them to NSC staff so they know what they’re supposed to pretend is true, it’s reasonable to suspect that he’s telling the world what he knows Trump wants us to believe.
We may not understand the full scope of Russian efforts to interfere with the current election until it’s over. But one thing we can say for sure is if Vladimir Putin doesn’t want Trump re-elected, he has no idea what’s good for him.
When this subject comes up, administration officials protest that Trump has been tough on Russia, citing a couple of relatively minor decisions, including some sanctions and the release of weapons to Ukraine (after Trump got caught holding up military aid that Congress had appropriated, of course). But that’s small potatoes in the context of Putin’s broader interests.
And Donald Trump serves almost all those interests. In particular, Trump has tried aggressively to weaken the Western alliance, fraying the economic, diplomatic, and military ties that bind the world’s most powerful country to our European allies. Not even Putin is as openly contemptuous of international organizations like NATO.
This is one of the prime motivations behind the election meddling Putin has undertaken in country after country. He might have a preference between candidates in a given election, but what he wants above all is to cause chaos that weakens the target country and makes its politics more dysfunctional, thereby validating the case to his own people that having a strongman rule for life is far preferable to the systems of the West.
And he never accomplished more toward that goal than by helping Donald Trump become president of the United States. Give Trump four more years, and American democracy could be on the brink of collapse.
Perhaps that’s an overstatement—but it might be just what it looks like from Russia. Which is where Bernie Sanders comes in.
Why would Putin want to promote Sanders? The idea Republicans are promoting—that Putin wants Sanders to be elected because of Sanders’s decades-old affinity for Soviet Russia—doesn’t hold water. The former KGB official is many things, but sentimental is not among them. He may have gone a long way to pull Russia back to its bad old Soviet days, but it’s not the socialism he has tried to restore, it’s the authoritarianism.
There’s a much simpler explanation for why Putin would support Sanders. As Julia Ioffe reports, in Russia they see a Sanders nomination as a gift to Trump. “All of this infighting, this cannibalism, they create and deepen the crisis of the American system,” a friend of the Russian foreign minister told her. “Your country is hurtling toward the abyss. I feel badly for you!”
To be clear, there’s no reason to credit the Russians with particular insight into the likely outcome of our election; Putin himself and the people who work for him are observing American politics at a distance. But they can receive signals, most particularly from Trump himself.
And he’s sending them loud and clear. In 2016, Trump said, “Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” and according to information gathered by Robert Mueller, they began their attempts to penetrate Hillary Clinton’s electronic systems that very evening. Today, Trump is sending an equally obvious message, sounding like the angriest Bernie Bro as he insists at every opportunity that the Democratic primaries are rigged against Sanders.
For months, Trump has been stoking the paranoia of Sanders supporters (“They are taking the nomination away from Bernie for a second time. Rigged!”), and after Sanders won the Nevada caucuses he did it again, saying, “it was a great win for Bernie Sanders” and adding, “I just hope they treat him fairly. I hope it is not going to be a rigged deal because there’s a lot of bad things going on and I hope it’s not going to be one of those.”
It doesn’t take a seasoned intelligence analyst to figure out what Trump is doing here. Whatever he thinks about the possibility of facing Sanders in a general election, he’s trying to ensure that if someone else winds up being the Democratic nominee, Sanders supporters consume themselves with bitterness and anger, then vote third-party or stay home.
After 2016, Russia knows that they can meddle in American politics without any real consequence, and for a relatively modest investment. And just think of what Vladimir Putin will get from four more years of a Trump presidency. The institutions of American democracy will be degraded and discredited, as Trump systematically dismantles everything that makes our system an example to people wishing their own countries could be less corrupt and more committed to the rule of law. Putin—along with dictators everywhere—will be only too happy to watch it crumble.