Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence waits for the start of the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on Oct. 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nev. 
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty

Pence echoes Trump on dubious election-interference argument

Updated

Donald Trump spoke at a United Nations Security Council meeting last week, and while reading from a prepared text, the American president made a provocative accusation against China.

“China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election – coming up in November – against my administration,” Trump alleged without evidence, adding, “We don’t want to them to meddle or interfere in our upcoming election.”

This morning, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech announcing how right Trump was, accusing China of having “initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections, and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections.”

From the prepared text:

“China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections, and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections. […]

“When it comes to influencing the midterms, you need only look at Beijing’s tariffs in response to ours. They specifically targeted industries and states that would play an important role in the 2018 election. By one estimate, more than 80% of U.S. counties targeted by China voted for President Trump in 2016; now China wants to turn these voters against our administration.”

Pence said an unnamed “member of our intelligence community” recently told him, “What the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what the China is doing across this country.”

The idea that China’s election “meddling” is somehow worse than Russia’s may be self-serving for this White House, but it’s also tough to take seriously.

Right off the bat, there are real, substantive problems with Pence’s pitch. Indeed, just like Trump’s message last week, the vice president is failing to fully appreciate the distinction between direct election interference and indirect election interference.

As we’ve discussed, Russia’s targeting of our elections was a multi-million-dollar espionage operation launched by the intelligence arm of a foreign adversary. It was a sophisticated, covert attack.

To believe this “pales in comparison” to Beijing’s actions is silly. What Pence – and to a lesser extent, Trump – has described is actually something altogether less serious: the White House expects people to believe that China’s retaliatory trade tariffs should be seen as election “interference” because many of the voters effected by the policy are Republicans.

But in this case, more important than the “what” is the “why.” I care that Pence is peddling a dubious story, but I care more about what’s behind this little public-relations campaign.

The answer, I suspect, is a clumsy attempt to hide the ball: Russia attacked the United States in order to put Trump and Pence in power, and while that’s the subject of an ongoing investigation, the White House sees value in telling Americans that the real scandal is some other country that’s attacking the United States because it opposes Trump.

TPM’s Josh Marshall argued, I believe accurately, that “it is crystal clear that the White House is trying to delegitimize the on-going Mueller probe by setting up China as the real meddler in US internal affairs and democratic practice.”

Quite right. Don’t be surprised if, in the coming weeks and months, it becomes a standard Republican line that Russia’s election attack was a minor mishap from the past, while China’s “meddling,” which doesn’t appear to actually exist in any meaningful sense, is the scandal that deserves attention.

My point is not that China is somehow an innocent player in the world of international espionage. That’s absurd, too. Rather, what I think matters here is Trump World’s attempt to create some misguided “counter-narrative” in the hopes of downplaying their own devastating controversy that undermines the legitimacy of the Trump presidency.

It’s whataboutism on a grand level. Every time we heard “Russia scandal” or “Special Counsel Robert Mueller,” the White House wants the public to ask, “But I heard China is the one that’s engaging in even more serious election interference? Forget Russia, what about that other rival?”

It’s nonsense, but we’re seeing it take shape in real time.