WHY is it unsettling to see Republicans and Democrats squabbling afresh about Russian meddling in last month’s presidential election? After all, the allegation being debated has been known for months: namely, that in 2015 and again in 2016 at least two groups of hackers with known links to Russian intelligence broke into the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee, as that party’s national headquarters is known, and into the private e-mail system of such figures as John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, then released a slew of embarrassing e-mails to WikiLeaks. Before the election a joint public statement by the director of national intelligence and secretary of homeland security said that intelligence agencies were “confident” that the Russian government directed the hacking.
All that has changed is that—thanks to reporting by the Washington Post and New York Times—we now know that the CIA briefed senior members of Congress before and after the election that, in the consensus view of intelligence analysts, the Russians’ motive was not just to undermine confidence in American democracy, but to seek Mrs Clinton’s defeat. Outside Washington, Americans (who mostly dislike President Vladimir Putin according to polls) seem to have shrugged off the news. President-elect Trump was cheered by spectators when he turned up in Baltimore to watch the Army-Navy football game, an annual pageant of patriotism.
And that is what is, or should be, so unsettling. Russian interference in elections across the Western world is a nasty virus (see article). Normally, America is protected by powerful, bipartisan immune responses against such a menace. It also boasts some of the world’s most sophisticated intelligence and cyber-defences, and when spooks tell the Republicans and Democrats who lead Congress and sit on the House and Senate intelligence committees of hostile acts by a foreign power, love of country generates a unified immune response. It is not kicking in this time.
The problem is not that all Republicans dismiss the claim that Russia tried to meddle in the election. Committee chairmen have promised urgent hearings. “We cannot allow foreign governments to interfere in our democracy,” said Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters: “Everybody that I know, unclassified, has said that the Russians interfered in this election. They hacked into my campaign in 2008; is it a surprise to anyone?” The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Devin Nunes of California, said that he believes Russia is guilty, but then turned his fire on the Obama administration, blaming the president’s desire for a reset of relations with Moscow.
Yet Republicans are not conceding a more incendiary idea: that, in what seems to be the CIA’s view, the authoritarian, anti-American government of Russia tried to help Mr Trump. Mr Nunes, a prominent Trump supporter, calls that “innuendo” based on “lots of circumstantial evidence, that’s it.” Others are taking the view that it is all very complicated and murky. “All this ‘news’ of Russian hacking: it has been going on for years,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a member of Republican leadership, tweeted. “Serious, but hardly news.” According to unnamed officials quoted in the Post, some Republican members agreed that Russia was a hostile actor, but then argued that logically this meant the government in Moscow would be more likely to want Mr Trump defeated.
Democratic leaders, who are in the minority in both chambers of Congress, have responded by trying to embarrass Republicans into taking a bipartisan approach. The incoming Senate minority leader, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, called it “stunning and not surprising” that the CIA should charge Russia with trying to elect Mr Trump. “That any country could be meddling in our elections should shake both political parties to their core,” Mr Schumer said in a statement. Others have thanked Mr Obama for ordering an investigation into what is known about Russian meddling, and expressed hopes that as much as possible of the probe would be made public before the next president’s inauguration on January 20th.
The reasons for this partisan stand-off are not mysterious. Mr Trump has declared that the allegations of Russian hacking are simply unproven, and launched an attack on the credibility of the intelligence agencies that he will soon command without obvious precedent. Interviewed recently by Time magazine, Mr Trump said of the hacking: “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.” Asked about his desire for a reset of relations with Mr Putin—precisely the strategy held against Mr Obama by Republicans—Mr Trump is unapologetic. “Why not get along with Russia?” he asked Time. The Russians are “effective” and “can help us fight ISIS.” Still more remarkably, a statement from the Trump transition office mocked American intelligence agencies. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” it read. John Bolton, auditioning for a job in the next administration, questioned whether the hacking was carried out by America’s government to smear Mr Trump.
Many elements of Mr Trump’s policies make thoughtful Republicans queasy to the point of misery, from his fondness for Mr Putin to his willingness to pick up the telephone and bully company bosses, as if he were a Gaullist French president. But many of those Mr Trump brought into the party are Trump voters more than they are Republicans, and they frighten and cow members of the party that he now heads.
Some grass-roots conservatives also see much to like in a Russian-style approach to fighting Islamic terrorism, if that means an unsqueamish willingness to back secular autocrats in the Middle East, and attack targets in Syria with indifference to who is underneath. Mr Trump is clearly tempted to do a deal with Mr Putin in which America applauds as Russian warplanes carry out a campaign promise to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”. The bet in Trump Tower is that the other side of any such deal, perhaps involving the lifting of sanctions on Russia, or a promise not to back any further enlargement of NATO, will be greeted by the American public with a yawn.
There is of course no evidence of collusion between Mr Trump and Russia. Mr Putin’s fierce dislike of Mrs Clinton, who as secretary of state questioned the validity of the 2011 elections in Russia, is more than enough motive to want her defeated. It seems unlikely that last-minute leaks of Democratic e-mails changed the result. Most straightforwardly, a close election is over and Democratic leaders are not questioning the result. Does the squabble matter then? Yes. When the next president of America takes his oath of office in January, officers of Russian intelligence will think they pulled off a historic win. That this fact has divided rather than uniting the two parties that run the world’s great democracy should unsettle anyone.