Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi, Kenya, and the author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As President Donald Trump spent his Monday slandering the United States, defending Russia against accusations of meddling in American elections and singing the praises of Russian president/human rights abuser Vladimir Putin, the Justice Department was announcing the arrest of Mariia Butina, who is alleged to be a Russian agent working to undermine American democratic elections.
Butina did not register as a foreign agent but nonetheless, prosecutors allege, infiltrated the National Rifle Association in an effort to get in the GOP’s good graces so she could sway American policy in Russia’s favor.
In a normal administration, this would be stunning; a normal political party interested in maintaining American democracy and free and fair elections would be outraged, even if the scandal implicated their allies. But the Trump administration is not normal; the Republican Party has become the Party of Trump, with a disturbing number of members willing to debase themselves to curry the favor of Dear Leader.
Even on the left, some remain skeptical of widespread claims of Russian influence. Some seem to be waiting on a smoking gun – evidence, perhaps, that Russian state hackers broke into electronic ballot-counters and gave Trump extra votes, or a video recording of Putin shaking hands with Trump and declaring, “You’re hired.”
That, of course, is not how sophisticated intelligence operations work. The claim isn’t that the Russians swooped in and stole the election wholesale. It’s that they exploited weaknesses in the American system (including the way we use social media, and the unregulated Wild West ethos of social media platforms) and managed to illicitly push their agenda by latching onto long-held American bigotries and inflaming them with broad disinformation and manipulation campaigns.
That’s where Butina comes in – and where the Republican Party needs to do some serious soul searching. She correctly identified the NRA as an influential wing of the GOP, capable of getting Republican politicians to do its bidding. And so, authorities say, she got cozy with the gun rights organization to in turn get cozy with the GOP, all in an effort to push Russian interests in the United States – without registering or identifying herself as a foreign agent.
It’s not surprising that the Russian government sends covert agents to America and attempts to influence our politics (the US certainly does the same thing, and is no stranger to election influence abroad). What is shocking is the degree to which self-identified patriots and ostensible public servants don’t care. Some Republicans are, rightly, aghast at the news about Butina, especially coming on the tails of Trump’s toadying visit with Putin.
Despite American intelligence agencies agreeing that the Russian government is a hostile force that attempted to influence the 2016 elections, the American President took the word of the Russian leader instead. And then he took to Twitter to complain about “American foolishness and stupidity” in our relationship with Russia – an appalling statement, even from the typing fingers of this president.
And yet the Republican party—and the same supporters who don America First hats and relish attending nationalist rallies – seem to offer little more than a collective shrug when their President demeans America and praises a tyrant.
This should be a moment of reckoning for Republicans: Why was it so easy for Butina to allegedly find common cause with the GOP through the NRA? Why does that one organization have such outsize power on the right – to the point where it’s a convenient vehicle to undermine our national interests?
Some Republican congressmen have issued tweets and other statements critical of the Trump/Putin meeting, but words don’t change the terrifying reality in which we are living; actions do. Congress is hardly powerless here, and instead of tut-tutting, it needs to step up and do its job – which includes protecting American democracy and holding President Donald Trump accountable.