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Trump’s invitation for Russian espionage is part of a bigger pattern

Donald Trump
Carlo Allegri | Reuters
Donald Trump

Not everything Donald Trump says is crazy, particularly when it comes to criticizing America's hyperactive foreign policy of the last 25 years. But he has a way of burying his important points in a welter of ill-considered comments on other issues that threaten to discredit his sensible calls for a new direction in American foreign policy.

Trump's suggestion on Wednesday that the Russian intelligence services, widely suspected of being the source of the damning Wikileaks release of internal Democratic National Committee emails, should now turn their cyber-attention to helping track down thousands of emails missing from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's private email server is a perfect illustration of this self-defeating pattern. He tried to clarify on Thursday that his remarks were meant to be "sarcastic" but whether they were or not, this was hardly an issue to play politics with.

Trump's surprising triumph over a large field of Republican rivals was in part a function of his ability to identify and advance issues and policies attractive to voters that the more mainstream candidates and the GOP had otherwise ignored. In the foreign policy realm, Trump broke with most of his Republican rivals early in the campaign in declaring President George W. Bush's Iraq War a mistake. While most of the other GOP contenders on the stage with him at last September's Reagan Library debate climbed all over each other to outdo former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's defense of his brother's war, Trump steadfastly judged it a blunder. Not only was that assessment correct but it is also in line with public opinion, which the prestigious Chicago Council On Global Affairs foreign policy survey shows is now a majority and bipartisan view.

"Donald Trump seems committed to help his Democratic rival sweep truly damaging issues under a rug of unfounded allegations or hare-brained schemes. Those of a conspiratorial cast of mind might wonder if he is the post-Cold War version of the fictional Manchurian Candidate, a secretly brainwashed communist dupe programmed to help elect a political rival."

Similarly, Trump's willingness to ask hard questions about whether our Cold War alliances still make sense in the post-Cold War world is a useful exercise, even if we do not ultimately agree with his answers. Are our allies contributing too little to the collective effort knowing that Uncle Sam will foot the bill no matter what? Do these agreements commit us to defend allies who might engage in risky behavior confident that America has their back? Is it time to reconsider the bedrock Cold War principle of nuclear non-proliferation for allies facing threats from nuclear powers in Asia?

But for every serious question the GOP nominee asks, he says other things that are both dubious and also politically unhelpful to his campaign. His tying possible Russian espionage to the Clinton scandal is a case in point. Make no mistake, the former Secretary of State's decision to use an insecure private email to conduct sensitive government business was not only unwise, but also showed a disregard for the sensitive information she was charged with protecting. FBI Director James Comey was appropriately scathing in his criticism of her "extremely careless" approach to doing business. Any lower ranking government official who displays such a cavalier attitude toward communication security would likely find him- or herself out of a job. So it is fair for Trump to raise this as a counter to the Clinton campaign's effort to cast the former Secretary as the most competent candidate to answer the proverbial 2 AM phone call as commander-in-chief.

But by dragging the Russians into this matter, Trump has, at a stroke, switched the narrative from Clinton's carelessness to Trump abetting additional Russian espionage (not that they need any encouragement). Trump's behavior here is reminiscent of the House Republicans' fixation with smoking out some nefarious scandal associated with the tragedy of the killings of the American ambassador and three other U.S. personnel in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. The idea that Secretary Clinton and her staff either knowingly lied about the cause of the attack or delayed sending forces that might have rescued our beleaguered diplomats was ludicrous from its inception and eventually debunked by the investigation. In retrospect, the whole thing looked like a political witch hunt designed to tarnish Clinton's political luster, as one disgruntled Republican charged.

Indeed, the House Republicans' pursuit of Benghazi, like Captain Ahab's pursuit of the white whale Moby Dick, distracted attention from the larger question of whether the intervention in Libya, which Clinton championed, was in fact a mistake — overthrowing an ugly but compliant regime and creating the chaos in which ISIS thrives. Likewise, the Clinton email scandal broke in the wake of the failed Benghazi investigation, which allowed Clinton and her surrogates to dismiss the furor over it as yet another instance of politically motivated Republican overreach.

Hillary Clinton is fortunate in having political enemies whose behavior makes her missteps and blunders look good. Like the House Republicans, Donald Trump seems committed to help his Democratic rival sweep truly damaging issues under a rug of unfounded allegations or hare-brained schemes. Those of a conspiratorial cast of mind might wonder if he is the post-Cold War version of the fictional Manchurian Candidate, a secretly brainwashed communist dupe programmed to help elect a political rival.

Trump as the Manchurian (or perhaps Chappaqua) Candidate probably imposes too much rationality on his politically self-destructive rhetoric. That's a shame because not everything he says is nutty, but the nutty things he says makes the rest seem so, too.

Commentary by Michael Desch, director of the Notre Dame International Security Center and a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.

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