Bill Dunkel: Overlooked events provide context for impeachment

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The impeachment hearings into Donald Trump's use of public funds to pressure the Ukrainian government into investigating his political opponents is just one example, among many, of the president's cavalier attitude toward foreign meddling in American elections. As public impeachment hearings begin, it is worthwhile reviewing some of the overlooked events which got us to this point and provide context for the hearings.

Russian interference in the 2016 election was massive and included breaking into the Illinois State Board of Elections' computers, stealing documents from the Democratic Campaign and creating thousands of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts which disseminated false or deceptive information to at least 127 million Americans. None of that appeared to bother the Trump campaign. When Donald, Jr. was offered an opportunity, in June 2016, to meet with Russians who promised to provide official documents damaging to Hillary Clinton, he responded "if it's what you say I love it" (Mueller Report, Vol. I, p.118). After WikiLeaks published over 20,000 stolen DNC emails and documents they had received from Russian military hackers, the president urged them on. At a press conference on July 27 candidate Trump publicly asked the Russians to hack into Hillary Clinton's server ("Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.") According to the Mueller Report (Vol. I, p.73), "Within approximately five hours of Trump's statement, GRU officers targeted for the first time Clinton's personal office." Later that summer, as he was driving to LaGuardia airport with Rick Gates, his deputy campaign chairman, Trump received a call from someone whose name is redacted in the Mueller Report. According to the Mueller Report (Vol. I, p.76) "shortly after the call candidate Trump told Gates that more releases of damaging information would be coming."

On Oct. 7, just a few weeks before the election, the Washington Post published an article about Access Hollywood videos featuring Donald Trump lewdly bragging about grabbing women's genitals. According to the Mueller Report (Vol. I, p.77), "Less than an hour after the video's publication, WikiLeaks released the first set of emails stolen by the GRU from the account of Clinton's Campaign Chairman John Podesta." The release of the documents could not have been better timed to divert attention from the potentially damaging videos. At a rally in Pennsylvania three days later, Trump referred to some of the stolen emails and added "I love WikiLeaks."

As early as Aug. 17, 2016 Trump had received a classified intelligence briefing about direct links between the Russian government and stolen Democratic emails. Nevertheless, during his Sept. 26 debate with Clinton he refused to acknowledge Russian culpability: "...it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK? You don't know who broke into DNC." The Mueller report makes it crystal clear that the Russian military hacked the DNC and that the Trump campaign knew about it months in advance of the strategically timed release of stolen documents on Oct. 7.

On Jan. 7, 2017, the directors of the CIA, FBI and NSA went to Trump Tower and briefed the president-elect on Russian interference in the recent election. Instead of expressing alarm at Russian meddling and resolving to take steps to safeguard future elections, Trump's response, repeated to this day, has been to dismiss the whole issue as "fake news" or a "witch hunt" by Democrats seeking to overturn the 2016 election. This past June 28, during a press conference in Japan with Putin sitting by his side, a reporter asked Trump if he would tell Russia not to meddle in the 2020 election. You can watch the video yourself and judge the seriousness of the president's "warning" to Putin. As if more proof were needed of Trump's willingness to accept personal political assistance from a foreign government, just a month ago he publicly urged China to investigate the Bidens.

What could be a greater threat to our democracy than encouraging dictators to meddle in our elections, or coercing another country into investigating a president's domestic political opponents? The House of Representatives has passed two bills designed to protect the integrity of our elections; both are stalled in the Senate. One requires the use of paper ballots and includes funding for the Election Assistance Commission. The other would require candidates, campaign officials and their family members to notify the FBI if a foreign government offers them political assistance. Neither Trump nor Mitch McConnell has lifted a finger to pass either of these laws. Why have they done nothing after swearing to defend the Constitution? All of this should be borne in mind as the public phase of the impeachment process begins, and Trump and McConnell should be held accountable for violating their oaths of office.

Bill Dunkel writes from Windham. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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