Since at least late 2016, the FBI—and later the office of special counsel Robert Mueller—has been investigating potential collusion between members of Donald Trump’s campaign and agents of the Russian government or the Russian Intelligence Service, GRU. The investigation centers around allegations that Russia coordinated with the campaign to release damaging information on Trump opponents, provided the campaign with funds or material assistance, and spread targeted propaganda to discourage voter turnout. It is illegal under US law to accept campaign contributions from a foreign government, or indeed any foreign individual. It would also be illegal to receive or profit from stolen data, as some allege campaign officials did with thousands of DNC emails stolen by Russian GRU agents, or to launder Russian money to conceal its origin from election officials or tax authorities. Whether or not the investigators find that Trump campaign staff violated any law, or whether they were just the lucky recipients of an uncoordinated and separate Russian effort to undermine Hillary Clinton, the inquiry points to a disturbing trend. The apparent eagerness of the Trump campaign to accept foreign help recalls two earlier instances of collusion from two other Republican Presidents: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. It seems a fitting time, then, for a brief retrospective of collusions past.
Richard Nixon was, perhaps, the most exasperating, capricious, opportunistic, volatile man to hold the presidency. Seen in his time as an efficient technocrat, a pragmatist, a master politician, if lacking in charisma, he has become known to historians through his secret recordings and the notes of his advisors as a raging anti-semite, a reactionary of the highest order, a weasel, and a hopeless drunk who had to be restrained by his secretaries, on several occasions, from making inebriated nuclear escalations to the cold war.
His paranoia and ambition eventually led to his downfall in the Watergate scandal. The president was implicated in the burglary and bugging of his political rival, George McGovern and the subsequent payments of hush money to the arrested “janitors” who carried out the break-in. He was also caught on his own tapes consulting with his lawyer on the best way to obstruct the investigation into the presidency. The case is rank with irony. Nixon installed tape recorders in the oval office so as to blackmail and intimidate those he met with. He did not anticipate them being use against him. Furthermore, the crime itself relatively minor compares to other crimes committed under Nixon’s watch, and indeed was unnecessary. At the time of the break in, Nixon has a massive lead in the polls and would have won in a landslide with or without dirt on McGovern.
That was Richard Nixon. He was not the savvy operator many thought, indeed he was more a creature of neurosis: loathe to sit back and enjoy a sure win, he had a compulsion to use every available means to destroy his opponent. Nixon’s pre-presidential career is an array of humiliations. Despite being a former representative, senator, and vice president, he lost the 1960 presidential election to relatively young and inexperienced John Kennedy. Almost immediately, he lost the California gubernatorial election—already a step down from national politics—to another democrat, a chagrined Nixon later griped that the media wouldn’t “have Nixon to kick around anymore”. For a career politician like Nixon, plagued as he was by paranoia, a sense of failure, and a chronic deficiency of morals, the general election against Hubert Humphrey was a must-win. Nixon was handed every advantage: a retiring democratic incumbent, an unpopular and deadly war in Vietnam, a divided democratic party which had lost its base of support with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and a southern democratic defector named George McGovern running a spoiler campaign. But, Nixon needed a sure thing.
Nixon was paranoid that President Johnson’s peace conference in Paris was a ploy to boost the democratic candidate. He utilized a Chinese-American socialite and lobbyist named Anna Chennault to create a secret back channel with the South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States ahead of the 1968 peace talks in Paris. The message was unambiguous: pull out of the peace talks, and Nixon will get you a better deal when we are elected. The South Vietnamese did pull out of the talks, making Johnson and, by extension, Humphrey look weak. The war became the democratic albatross and Nixon achieved a massive electoral college victory at the polls. Unfortunately for everyone besides Nixon himself, he was unable to deliver a better deal for Vietnam. Instead he expanded the war illegally into neighboring Laos and Cambodia, intensified the use of indiscriminate carpet bombing, chemical warfare, and support for death squads and free fire zones. The war would go on for the US for at least four years, and for South Vietnam for another seven, culminating with the fall of Saigon and the defeat of the South Vietnamese forces.
This backchannel, contemporaneously captured by FBI wiretaps of South Vietnamese officials, and called “treason” by Lyndon Johnson, captures the spirit of what we talk about when we talk about collusion. True collusion has to meet the following four criteria:
1. A group of Americans asks for something from a foreign power, that
2. Will hurt the overall interests of the United States (otherwise it is just diplomacy)
3. Yet will benefit the small group of Americans
4. In exchange for favors or a quid pro quo
In Nixon’s case, what is asked for is withdrawal from the peace talks, which did hurt the US interests (getting out of the war, ending casualties, etc) yet did benefit Nixon and company by making their opponent look weak, and they did offer a quid pro quo, though it was never actually delivered.
America’s actions in Indochina, especially those during Nixon’s tenure, severely damaged America’s reputation. Millions were killed, the environmental holocaust caused by the millions of gallons of chemical defoliants dropped on the jungle persists to this day, as do the birth defects and disabilities. More tonnes of high explosive bombs were dropped on Indochina than were used by all sides in World War Two. This is the disgrace of collusion; we must be able to trust our politicians to work for those they represent, not for themselves, and not for a foreign power. Nixon, in his conceited ambition, represented only himself, not the electorate tired of a prolonged war, and certainly not the Vietnamese civilians being roasted alive by napalm bombs or shot in the back from snipers on American helicopter gun ships.
What is there to say about Ronald Reagan that hasn’t already been shouted from the pulpits and panel shows of the nation until our collective throats ran dry? If Watergate and the proliferation of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories turned public opinion against the idea of beneficent government, it was Reagan who delivered the coup de grace. In isolation, Richard Nixon’s policy of lies could be seen as a disgusting aberration. In reality, the only difference between Richard Nixon and every republican who followed him was this: Richard Nixon lacked any kind of charm, even the superficial kind that was Reagan’s bread and butter. Nixon personified moral bankruptcy and it showed in his sweaty forehead and permanent scowl. Reagan betrayed the same hypocrisy, the same wild disregard for human dignity, the same ambition, yet he hid it behind a paternalistic smile and an appeal to the very same unease Nixon fermented. It was not that we had chosen bad leaders, he told us, it was that no government can be good. He groomed us to accept his barbaric and hypocritical foreign policy, and tricked us into rejoicing as the regulatory apparatus and the welfare state was rolled back. No more would we be victimized by big government, only big corporations. No more War on Poverty, hello War on Drugs.
But what’s at issue now, for the discussion of collusion, is not the general skullduggery and immoral guile of Mr. Reagan, but rather one singular event. An episode of American history so rife with hypocrisy that it seems almost like a satire. It’s the time the evangelical savior, who ran against Jimmy Carter’s weakness on Iran and favored moral absolutism and the death cult of Christianity over practical diplomacy and common sense when he dubbed the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” and exploded our deficits to bankrupt them in a monetary game of chicken, decided to subvert Congress and sell anti tank missiles to the Ayatollahs of Iran to finance death squads in Central America who were fighting to overthrow a democratically elected government.
This would seem like a bizarre conspiracy theory—one of dozens that have sprung up around the Reagan/Bush administration—were it not backed up by thousands of pages of senate testimony, indictments, and journalistic investigation. The scheme is as follows: the US agreed to sell Iran, through Israeli intermediaries, thousands of TOW missiles in exchange for Iran’s help freeing American prisoners in Lebanon. The missiles were destined for use in the Iran-Iraq war, one of the ugliest confrontations of the twentieth century. Iran relied on child conscripts and human wave attacks reminiscent of the Eastern Front of World War One, while an increasingly bogged down Iraqi force used chemical weapons and practiced ethnic cleansing. Iraq, a secular dictatorship unnerved by the theocratic revolution in Iran, turned to the US for help in the war after Iran repulsed Saddam’s initial invasion and struck back into Iraqi territory. The US provided Iraq with intelligence, weapons components, and monetary and material aid to drive out the Iranians. So, though obliquely and covertly, the US was siding with Iraq in the conflict. Indeed, Iran was subjected to an arms embargo while Iraq was removed from a list of state sponsors of terrorism. Why then did Reagan’s administration secretly sell Iran thousands of missiles?
Part of the reason, as previously mentioned, was to secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon. However, the plan would not have been green-lit if this was the only reason. The United States—unlike many of its European counterparts—has a longstanding policy not to negotiate with terrorists. No, the reason the arms sale was allowed was to secure funding for a pet project of Reagan’s CIA: the overthrow of the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. After many years of covert action American in Latin America, Congress decided to reign in the CIA with a bill banning funding of terrorist groups known as “Contras”. This culminated in 1984, when the socialist president won two thirds of the vote in Nicaragua in a free and fair election, and the Congressionally allocated funding for the Contras expired, legally requiring Reagan to end the covert support for the group responsible for: an assassination program aimed at the legitimate government of Nicaragua, the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors, death squads, a civil war claiming upwards of thirty thousand lives, and a spillover into neighboring Honduras.
Reagan’s administration, chagrined at Congressional oversight and dead set on victory over “communist” forces within America’s supposed sphere of influence (the entire New World), ignored the mandate to cease assistance to the Contra terrorists, and instead sought funding from elsewhere. Along with murky allegations that the CIA raised funds by selling or trafficking Contra cocaine, most of this funding came from theocratic Iran. The collusion cycle looked like this: Reagan asked for a favor from Iran, untraceable cash, against the interests of the United States, in order to fund his pet project in South America (doubly against the interests of the United States, by the way) in exchange for violating the international weapons embargo against Iran and selling them missiles.
The crimes contained under the heading of “Collusion” are of a special sort. They are not just crimes against the laws of the United States, in Reagan’s case, or crimes of war, in Nixon’s case, they are crimes against the idea of a representative government. The people need to trust their leaders to work in the people’s best interests, not their own. When a democratic leader colludes with a foreign power, he does so not in order to conduct diplomacy to further the goals of the country, but rather for selfish gain, to essentially trick his constituents into believing something that is not true. Nixon’s collusion tricked voters into believing the war was inevitable, allowing it to continue for years. Reagan tricked voters into believing there was a real anti-communist rebellion happening in Latin America, instead of a shambolic war-for-hire mercenary operation against a popular government that would crumble without US tax dollars. This furthered his political career by portraying the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire with its tentacles in every country, fought at every step by noble resistance. The truth would be revealed only five years later when the Soviet Union collapsed, bankrupt and powerless, the resistances in so many countries revealed as the state-sponsored terroristic madmen that they were.
If it is revealed that Mr. Trump colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election, the public can have no faith in him. He would have shown that to him, a political victory is more important than the interests of a fair democratic election. Whatever he exchanged for the assistance, whether it be money, influence, promises kept or unkept, the cost will be borne by the citizens of the country he was given charge of. Whatever crimes Russia committed in 2016, the American people are the victims and Mr. Trump the beneficiary. At least Mr. Trump can take comfort in the fact that he will not be alone. Apologists will be quick to spring to his defense, as they have with Nixon (China! EPA!) and Reagan (Berlin Wall! Taxes!), telling us, no doubt all about how his actions were excusable because of his results. Assuming, always and once more, the big conservative lie that we cannot have it both ways. That all politicians are dirty so it’s better to have an effective dirtbag.
Sources and Further Reading:
Walsh, Lawrence E: Firewall
Hitchens, Christopher: The Trial of Henry Kissinger
Chomsky, Noam: Pirates and Emperors, Old and New