Election meddling has become the new normal of US diplomacy

Election meddling has become the new normal of US diplomacy
© Getty Images

Foreign interference may well now be a permanent feature of elections in the United States. With a wink, a nod (“Russia, if you’re listening…”) — and maybe more — from Donald Trump in 2016, Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinPelosi, Schumer hit 'flailing' Trump over 'sham ceasefire' deal Pompeo to meet Netanyahu as US alliances questioned Pelosi explains what she was saying to Trump in viral photo: 'All roads lead to Putin' MORE ordered the release of emails with damaging information about Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFarrow: Clinton staff raised concerns over Weinstein reporting Perry says Trump directed him to discuss Ukraine with Giuliani: report The Memo: Once the front-runner, Biden now vulnerable MORE, the targeting of the election infrastructure in all 50 states, and a sweeping and systemic social media disinformation campaign. In 2019, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocratic senator rips Trump's 'let them fight' remarks: 'Enough is enough' Warren warns Facebook may help reelect Trump 'and profit off of it' Trump touts Turkey cease-fire: 'Sometimes you have to let them fight' MORE told George StephanopoulosGeorge Robert StephanopoulosKudlow: 'I don't honestly know' if Trump was joking about China investigating Bidens The Hill's Morning Report - Trump's impeachment woes mount Jordan refuses to say whether Trump asking China for investigation was appropriate MORE of ABC News that if he were offered dirt from another country on a Democratic rival, “I think I’d take it … You don’t call the FBI … give me a break – life doesn’t work that way.” Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told CNN “there’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.”

In stark contrast to the president who appointed them and to Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pence says Turkey agrees to ceasefire | Senators vow to move forward with Turkey sanctions | Mulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe On The Money: Senate fails to override Trump veto over border emergency | Trump resort to host G-7 next year | Senators to push Turkey sanctions despite ceasefire | McConnell tees up funding votes McConnell tees up government funding votes amid stalemate MORE (R-Ky.), who has refused to allow the U.S. Senate to vote on legislation designed to protect the integrity of elections, FBI director Christopher Wray and former Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray Coats281 lobbyists have worked in Trump administration: report Former intelligence chief Coats rejoins law firm Remembering leaders who put country above party MORE have warned that Russia is locked and loaded for the 2020 presidential campaign. And, it now appears likely that President Trump has pressured the leader of Ukraine to supply him with damaging information about Joe BidenJoe BidenWarren warns Facebook may help reelect Trump 'and profit off of it' Trump accuses Biden of 'quid pro quo' hours after Mulvaney remarks Testimony from GOP diplomat complicates Trump defense MORE, the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Less well-noticed is President Trump’s flouting of the diplomatic norm, observed by all of his predecessors, barring foreign leaders from meddling in the internal politics of other countries. Trump frequently criticized British Prime Minister Theresa MayTheresa Mary May Boris Johnson says Brexit deal between UK, EU reached UK's Johnson sends EU 'final offer' on Brexit Saagar Enjeti warns 2020 Democrats against embracing Hillary Clinton MORE, for example, for “doing a very bad job with Brexit. It’s a disaster and it shouldn’t be that way.” During a state visit (and much to the embarrassment of Queen Elizabeth as well as May), he met with several Conservative party Brexiteer “friends” during the “executive time” carved out for him, and turned down Jeremy Corbyn’s request for a sitdown, dismissing the leader of the Labour Party as a “negative force.” Trump subsequently supported the candidacy of Boris Johnson to replace May in Number 10 Downing Street. “I think we’re going to have a great relationship,” he predicted. “I think Boris will straighten [Brexit] out.”


President Trump also played a “starring role” in the re-election campaign of Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE, Israel’s prime minister. Reversing decades of American policy, and without consulting Congress, Trump announced in March (two months before what proved to be an inconclusive election) that the United States would recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the strip of land seized by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War. The decision, according to Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, was “a clear intervention in the Israeli electoral process.” When Netanyahu declared that his government would soon put Jewish settlements in the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty as well, the Trump administration declined to comment.

And on Sept. 14, just days before another election in which Netanyahu, who has been charged with corruption, was running neck-and-neck with the centrist Blue and White party led by former chief of Israel’s armed forces Benny Ganz, Trump indicated he had discussed with the prime minister the possibility of a Mutual Defense Treaty “to further anchor the tremendous alliance between our two countries.” In an interview on Israeli TV Netanyahu declared “I’m going to get us a defense pact that will provide us with security for centuries but for that I need your votes.”

The downside of meddling in elections in other countries in such blatant ways should be obvious. It is disrespectful. By conflating the personal preferences or political interests of a leader with those of his or her people, it invites corrupt bargains. It can be counterproductive (especially if the “other” candidate wins). It invites leaders of other countries to put their thumbs on the scale as well. Most important, meddling is an affront to the integrity and autonomy of national elections, the essential feature of democracies.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic:  Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.