Foreign influence and the integrity of our democracy
MARC H. MORIAL | 12/26/2016, 1:11 p.m.
National Urban League
“Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence [I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens] the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government … The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is … to have with them as little political connection as possible.” — President George Washington, Farewell Address, September 17, 1796
In 1840, President Martin Van Buren was fighting for re-election. He ultimately lost his presidential bid to a war hero, William Henry Harrison, who easily won over the widely unpopular Van Buren, nicknamed, “Van Ruin,” for presiding over the nation during an economic depression. The presidential campaign of 1840 was heavy on image and light on substance, painting Van Buren as an elitist and Harrison as an everyday man. Harrison – accused of being helped by British bankers during his campaign – won the Electoral College vote and an extremely close popular vote. In 1888, Grover Cleveland was favored to win his presidential re-election campaign, but ultimately lost the presidency because he appeared partial and subservient to British interests. The voters turned against him and his perceived British sympathies. While he managed to win the popular vote, he lost the Electoral College vote, and, hence, the presidency.
If the past is prologue, history suggests that Americans resent the interference of foreign governments and interests in our presidential elections. As evidence of Russian tampering via cyber-attacks and hacking continues to mount, and President-elect Trump has tapped Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State – who Trump described as doing “massive deals in Russia” and was awarded the “Order of Friendship” by Vladimir Putin – it is the duty and obligation of our Congress to thoroughly investigate whether or not Russia has interfered with our election process to tip the scale for a Trump win and, in the process, undermine and sow distrust in our democracy and its institutions.
President Obama has ordered a full intelligence review of the alleged Russian hack into the Democratic and Republican National Committees to be completed before Inauguration Day. In a break with Trump, the top two Republicans in Congress have lent their support to a bipartisan congressional effort to investigate the alleged Russian cyber-attacks. Calling any breach of American cyber-security measures “disturbing,” Senator Mitch McConnell added that, “the Russians do not wish us well … It defies belief that somehow Republicans in the Senate are reluctant to either review Russian hacking, or ignore them.” As of my writing, it has been reported that more than 50 Democratic voters in the Electoral College are asking for an intelligence briefing from the director of National Intelligence into possible foreign intervention in the presidential election before the college meets to cast its vote for our next president and vice president.
Trump and his associates have dismissed the allegations of Russian interference, painting them as “ridiculous,” and “another excuse.” Trump has – quite characteristically – explained away the legitimate concerns of our institutions, political leaders, the press and the people by blaming the Democrats for disseminating conspiracy theories because “they suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics in this country,” to conceding that if there was any interference or hacking, “they have no idea if it’s Russia, or China, or somebody.” “It could be somebody sitting in a bed someplace,” he said in a televised interview.
Trump, and I’m sure many of his supporters, see the investigation into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election as an attempt to – yet again – delegitimize his recent win. But the president-elect would do better to understand that to not thoroughly investigate these allegations would leave a permanent stain on his administration, his tenure and his motives. To not look into these allegations seriously would further erode public trust in the already embattled mechanics of our democracy. If domestic voter suppression sits on one side of the coin, the unwanted influence of a foreign power in American elections sits on the other. Rather than enrich us, and our system of representative government, both serve to undermine true democracy.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.