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Is the Trump-Russia Scandal the New Benghazi?

If no smoking gun is produced, the Democrats could be chasing a controversy at the cost of building a better case against Trump.

Joe Raedle/Getty

Donald Trump’s friendliness with Russia—and his refusal to condemn its interference in the 2016 election in unequivocal terms—has become the single most important issue of the transition period. Earlier this week, CNN and BuzzFeed published explosive reports on an unverified intelligence dossier alleging that Russia claimed to have compromising information about Trump; that members of Trump’s inner circle were in contact with Russian intelligence during the campaign; and that Trump made a quid pro quo deal with Russia. Trump’s presidency appeared to hang in the balance, even before it had begun. If some of these allegations were true, they could be grounds for impeachment.

There are many reasons to be suspicious of the dossier. Its allegations are not only unverified, but some are unverifiable. Furthermore, the American intelligence community apparently wants to make life very difficult for Trump. But the dossier escalated a narrative about Trump and Russia that has been building for months, adding a new dimension to a story that had centered on Russia’s likely hacking of the Democratic National Committee. It also gave new fodder to hawkish Republicans, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who want Trump to take more of a hard line against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hours after Republican Senator Marco Rubio grilled Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, about his views on Russia, Trump went off on the reports from CNN and BuzzFeed, calling them “fake news.” In his first news conference as president-elect, he shouted down CNN correspondent Jim Acosta.

Partly through Democrats’ own efforts, partly through luck, and partly through some innovative reporting in the media, the Russia issue has stuck to Trump more tenaciously than his other controversies. Over the past six weeks, we have heard more about Russia than his dizzying ethical violations, the plutocracy that he is building cabinet position by cabinet position, his racist proposals to ban Muslims from entering the country and to build a wall on the Mexican border, and his full-steam-ahead push to kick millions of Americans off their health insurance. If the Democrats’ goal at the outset of his administration is to make Trump as unpopular as possible—to make him politically toxic and thereby weaken his ability to do real damage—then this is all to the good. In fact, it could pay off in a huge way, hobbling his presidency in a way that accusations of mere racism and corruption could not. But to allow Russia to dominate the conversation also carries a risk, obscuring those other stories. It could end up becoming the Democrats’ version of Benghazi.

Democrats have been fixated on the Siberian Connection since the Republican primaries, when Trump made no secret of his affection for Putin or his willingness to work with Russia. He not only went out of his way to praise the strongman, but refused to acknowledge basic facts about his government’s role in the murder of dissidents and journalists. For the Hillary Clinton campaign, Russia was a useful line of attack for two reasons. First, it allowed Clinton to deflect attention from the damaging hacked emails of her campaign chair John Podesta. In the debates in particular, Clinton did a fine job pivoting from the emails to pointing to Trump’s coziness with Putin. Second, it was part of her larger strategy of wooing disaffected Republicans, many of whom were considered to be hostile toward Putin. (Polling, however, suggests that has shifted since Trump won the Republican nomination.)

Clinton’s electoral loss has provoked introspection about the Democratic Party’s messaging and policies. A fight has been raging about the party’s relationship to white working class voters and identity politics, and as the party transitions to becoming the opposition, it would only make sense for Democrats to build its credibility as the more egalitarian, tolerant party by attacking Trump along those lines. But in the meantime, the narrative about Russia did not merely remain the same—it pitched up, particularly among the Democrats’ allies in the liberal press.

This is very convenient for Democrats. The Russia angle is expedient because it simultaneously delegitimizes Trump’s Electoral College victory as a product of foreign intervention and excuses the Democratic Party’s many failings over the course of the election, starting with the nomination of a candidate who was out of step with her times. The Russia angle has the added benefit of making Trump extremely mad, which makes him seem erratic and untrustworthy.

Hitting the Siberian Connection has many undeniable attractions. For one, it allows Democrats to make the case that Trump is a wholly different kind of monster. There is some irony here—both Barack Obama and George W. Bush pledged to have friendlier relations with Russia and were both pilloried for it—but in Trump’s case, the point is to implant the idea that he is an aspiring autocrat, not your father or grandfather’s Republican. By tying Trump to Russia, Democrats are also tying him to autocracy, plutocracy, and thuggery. In this respect, “Russia” is more of a concept than anything else, a catch-all phrase for the president’s many flaws. It is not unlike the way Republicans used “Benghazi” to explain Clinton’s alleged contempt for American values, ordinary Americans, and the rule of law.

There is more than enough in the latest revelations from CNN and BuzzFeed to merit a congressional investigation. Golden Showers aside, if there was communication between Trump associates and Russian intermediaries—which seems plausible, given his inner circle’s connection to pro-Russian parties—it could undercut Trump’s presidency from the very beginning. It could even end it prematurely, though Democrats would then be presented with an even more unified, albeit scandal-plagued, Republican government led by Vice President–elect Mike Pence. At the very least, Trump could be bogged down in a quagmire of delegitimizing controversy, forcing him to waste political capital addressing the Russia issue, instead of achieving his administration’s other legislative goals.

But all of this comes with a cost. Democrats—and to be fair, Republicans as well—have been spending a lot of time focusing on Russia during the confirmation hearings, an ideal time to build a narrative about what we know a Trump presidency will bring: Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department will be a nightmare for civil rights, while Rex Tillerson and education nominee Betsy Devos and treasury nominee Steve Mnuchin and labor nominee Andrew Puzder will pursue policies that reward the wealthiest of the wealthy. The Democrats can’t control the press, which is equally invested in the Russia story, but they seem more than content to let this story dominate the headlines at the expense of a long-term strategy to frame Donald Trump’s government as one that will give corporations massive amounts of power and make the lives of America’s most vulnerable citizens significantly worse.

Furthermore, the danger for Democrats is that “Benghazi” was a much-mocked attack that never gained much traction beyond the viewership of Fox News. (It certainly did not have the impact of Clinton’s email controversy or her Wall Street speeches.) Republican partisans are already tuning out: It’s just Democratic “sour grapes,” one Trump supporter told The New York Times. The Trump-Putin link may be based on nothing more than Trump’s admittedly terrifying affection for strongmen. It’s possible that there will never be a smoking gun that shows a Trump quid pro quo with the Russians or direct communication between Trump associates and Russian officials.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s testimony against Jeff Sessions was an example of what Democrats should be doing more of: Grandstanding about Trump’s radical and corrupt cabinet, many of whom have been champions of policies, well outside of the mainstream of American politics, such as Medicare privatization. Rex Tillerson’s ties to Vladimir Putin, for instance, aren’t nearly as dangerous as his ties to ExxonMobil, which operates as a shadow government, has a horrifying record on human rights, and has shown no interest whatsoever in anything other than enriching itself. This will be the story of Trump’s presidency as it pertains to everyday Americans: The extremely rich getting richer, while the less fortunate lose basic rights and protections.

This also happens to be a winning message for Democrats, albeit one that will take many months and years to develop. The tantalizing allure of the Siberian Connection, in contrast, is that it could blow up Trump’s administration in immediate and spectacular fashion. But it could also become a high-profile distraction, giving the Trump administration a convenient scapegoat—it’s already being referred to as a witch hunt. And it remains to be seen if voters, who are primarily concerned with domestic and economic issues, will rally to the cause, minimizing its power as a rallying cry.

The Democrats must push for a public investigation—something credible that tranfers the Russia story from sensational press coverage to a formal inquiry. But they should also resist the temptation to turn it into the focal point of the resistance. Defeating Trump and Trumpism will take more than tying him to Vladimir Putin. Instead, Democrats need to emphasize how a Trump presidency will actually affect the lives of their voters. That was the consensus almost immediately after Trump won the election, but two months later, the Democratic Party is in danger of losing sight of that goal.