Foreign intrusion in U.S. domestic politics dates to the beginning of the Republic, but nothing in our history remotely resembles the events of recent weeks.
George Washington’s oft-quoted Farewell Address is remembered mainly for its warning to “steer clear” of “permanent alliances” with foreign powers. Our first president even more fervidly admonished his people to be “constantly awake” to the “insidious wiles of foreign influence” in their nation’s politics. A young, weak country, deeply divided internally, was a ripe target for foreign meddling. And in 1796, French diplomats did so with reckless abandon, even threatening war with the United States unless the presumably pro-French Thomas Jefferson was elected president. French threats seem to have backfired. Federalist John Adams won the election.
Foreign interference took other forms in 1940 when actions the now much stronger United States might take became crucial to the warring European governments. Nazi Germany made modest and ineffectual efforts to deny Franklin Roosevelt a third term. Great Britain waged a much more vigorous and sophisticated campaign to defeat isolationist members of Congress and assist those sympathetic to its interests.
During the Cold War, meddling in foreign elections by the Soviet Union and the United States became standard operating procedure across much of the world.
We know of one Soviet attempt to sway U.S. electoral politics. Fearing the nomination of the presumably more hawkish John F. Kennedy, USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1960 sought to assist the more dovish Democrat Adlai Stevenson by offering to print in the Soviet press articles praising—or attacking—him, whichever appeared more likely to help. An indignant Stevenson told a Soviet intermediary that the proposal was “highly improper, indiscreet, and dangerous to all.” (Contrast that with Donald Trump, Jr.’s eagerness in 2016 to learn what the Russians might have on Hillary Clinton.)
Some thirty years later, an embattled George H.W. Bush campaign rejected a proposal to seek information from Russia on Democratic opponent Bill Clinton’s trip to Moscow as a student because, as one official put it, “we absolutely could not do that.”
Given this firmly embedded tradition of resisting foreign intervention in elections, it is especially alarming today that some Americans are inviting it.
Candidate Richard M. Nixon pointed the way in 1968. Fearing that President Lyndon Johnson might pull off a last-minute Vietnam peace agreement that would dash his hopes, Nixon secretly assured our South Vietnamese allies that they would do better with the Republicans than Democrats. LBJ knew of Nixon’s shenanigans and branded them “treason,” but he refused to go public, partly because his information came from wiretaps, also, perhaps, because at times he seemed to favor Nixon over his own vice-president and Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. Saigon helped obstruct a peace agreement and Nixon won by a narrow margin, although cause and effect cannot be established.
As in so many areas, Donald Trump has broken radically—and recklessly— with precedent. As a presidential candidate, he publicly welcomed Russia’s intervention in the election of 2016 (and later smiled knowingly when President Vladimir Putin, with a telling wink and nod, denied it).
Far more egregious is his recent effort to browbeat and even bribe Ukraine’s highly vulnerable new president into doing his bidding. He held up a desperately needed shipment of military aid to Ukraine that had been deemed a vital American interest. In that now infamous, “perfect” phone call, he used the promise of such aid as leverage to persuade his Ukrainian counterpart to dig up dirt on former Vice-President Joe Biden, his major Democratic challenger, a brazen abuse of the powers of the presidency for personal political gain. Before the furor had begun to subside, he publicly called for China to investigate Biden and his son.
Such renegade behavior poses a dire threat to the integrity of our electoral process, the heart of our democracy.
George Herring is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Kentucky