It’s generally difficult to surprise hardened, cynical political observers who feel, justifiably, that they’ve seen it all. But yesterday, much of the political world seemed genuinely caught off guard when Donald Trump publicly called for Russia to intervene in an American election.
As MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin summarized, “The charge that Donald Trump has effectively allied his campaign with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin would sound like a crackpot conspiracy theory if it didn’t come from Trump’s own mouth.”
The New York Times reported today:
There is simply no precedent for this: A presidential candidate publicly appealing to a foreign adversary to intervene in the election on his behalf.“This is unprecedented — it is one of those things that seems to be genuinely new in international relations,” said Paul Musgrave, a University of Massachusetts professor who studies American foreign policy.After a long pause, Mr. Musgrave added, “Being shocked into speechlessness is not the sort of thing you’re really used to in the business of foreign policy analysis.”
Musgrave isn’t the only expert who seems gobsmacked. Dr. Eliot A. Cohen, a veteran of the Bush/Cheney State Department, told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent Trump’s comments were “appalling.”
William Inboden, who served on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, told Politico the comments were “an assault on the Constitution.” The same article quoted Philip Reiner, a former National Security Council official in the Obama administration, saying of Trump’s rhetoric, “Of course it’s a national security threat.”
Michael Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency under George W. Bush, told BuzzFeed what Trump said was “incredibly stunning” and “very dangerous.”
For his part, Trump’s defense, as articulated this morning on Fox News, is that this was some kind of attempt at sarcastic humor – which, he believes, observers on the left, right, and center misunderstood.
But even if taken at face value, the explanation is hardly exculpatory. The aforementioned Paul Musgrave told the New York Times that the rhetoric itself can weaken norms. “Trump is legitimating behaviors that nobody ever thought could be legitimated,” Musgrave said, calling the incident “one of those reminders about how fragile norms are.”
Jeremy Shapiro, a Brookings Institution scholar of foreign policy, who “sounded physically exhausted by Mr. Trump’s comments,” added that the Republican candidate “has no sense of what an extraordinary statement that was.”