WASHINGTON — It's a given that political candidates will target each other with as much oppositional propaganda as they can get away with. But with the Kremlin now playing a third-party shadow role in U.S. elections, the usual game seems to be shifting from blood sport to cold war.
Given Russia's well-established preference for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, it's possible, if not likely, that the next round of election meddling will be geared toward keeping the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
For Democrats, this added pressure from Russia could easily begin to feel like a threat. Imagine believing that you're not only running against a Republican but also against a former KGB agent who seems to be in cahoots with your very own president.
What else should one think?
During a rally Thursday evening in Pennsylvania, Trump once again referred to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation as the "Russian hoax." This, amid the intelligence community's stepped-up warnings about new Russian interference. And, let's not forget the 12 Russians whom Mueller indicted last month for hacking Democratic Party computer networks.
Mueller is not generally known as a hoaxer.
But Trump remains the slick salesman, entertainer and pot stirrer he's always been. Just hours before his stick-it-to-'em jamboree, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and several national intelligence officials convened a media briefing to address Russian attempts to impact the midterm elections.
That is, with a slight modification. In her statement, Sanders assured gathered media that the administration "will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections from any nation-state or other dangerous actor," clearly indicating that the focus would not be only on Russia.
As it should be, given that others would also like to meddle in our affairs. But as the gathered officials made clear — including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — Russia is of central concern here and now. Wray said that Russia "continues to engage in malign influence operations" that target "the integrity of our democratic institutions." Coats said: "We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States."
Then why is the president undermining his own advisers?
Although Trump is referring primarily to Mueller's core mission — to determine whether the Trump campaign was involved in the Russian interference — he seems more than willing to minimize the importance of what we already know. Thus, the question has to be: Why, if there's no concern about collusion, would Trump keep pounding Mueller while defending Putin?
One can only conclude that either there's a little smidge of guilt, a problematic family connection, a dossier embarrassment — or the president of the United States doesn't care that Russia tried to ruin Clinton so that he could become president. He seems to care so little, in fact, that he's essentially calling America's intelligence community a pack of liars and Mueller a hoaxer. Meanwhile, last month in Helsinki, Trump said Putin was an "extremely strong and powerful" denier. (Have these guys exchanged jewelry yet?)
If Putin says he didn't do it, then Trump takes him at his word? Yet, when teams of skilled, honorable investigators tackle the problem and present indictments based on facts, Trump insinuates that they're making it up?
This reversal of loyalty to his own people, not to mention the country he is tasked with leading, is so preposterous that normal people are at serious risk of joining lemming colonies. It isn't possible to use logic with the illogical; it's futile to explain the obvious to the willfully thick; and when it comes to Trump's base, witness only the rally last week in Florida where CNN reporter Jim Acosta was the target of dozens of Trumpers extending their middle digits and shouting, among other salutations, "You suck!"
Perhaps, some in Trump's camp see things like steady job growth and low unemployment and say to themselves, Who cares how he got elected? And if Russia likes Trump, why is that necessarily bad? The president, they would note, has been checking off his list of campaign promises without so much as changing his expression.
One could make such an argument, but this would be a narrow view and an unserious response to other facts. These include what almost any Russian would surely tell you — that Putin is playing Trump like a fiddle — and that something was stinky in Helsinki.
Kathleen Parker's email address is email@example.com.