The accusations about the Trump team's ties to Russia are simultaneously alarming, confusing, unsubstantiated, and ever expanding. It feels like every damn day a new story about Donald Trump's connections to the Putin regime emerges. It's still unclear whether Jeff Sessions knowingly lied about his communications with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings. We still don't know how significant Trump's meeting with the Russian ambassador was during the campaign, or what erstwhile Trump advisor Carter Page's role was in all this. Most of all, we don't know why Trump's people keep denying that they've had meetings with representatives of the Russian government—even when there are perfectly reasonable reasons for them to have those meetings.
We do know that in December the FBI and CIA agreed that Russia was trying to influence the election in favor of Trump. We know it took months for Trump to just concede that the Russians were responsible for the email hacks that targeted Democrats. (Trump eventually admitted Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee's emails.) We also know that Trump has been unusually pro-Putin and pro-Russia for a prominent US politician since the beginning of his campaign. For months, the media, liberals, and anti-Trump conservatives have made a lot of noise about what the president is hiding and why.
Trump's supporters, however, have looked at the same stories everyone else has and come to very different conclusions. Curious to see what the MAGA crowd thought of the sprawling Russia scandal, I asked six Trump supporters to explain to me why they weren't too concerned.
Since the evidence linking Trump and his team to Russia is unverified, many see the accusations as part of a larger "fake news" problem, an attack by the biased media to undermine the president. Even the notion that Russia interfered with the election didn't hold water for Trump fans I spoke to. "If you've ever visited grassroots America you'd know he'd never need to cheat," Spencer Raitt-Forest, a New York City–based Trump supporter, told me. He believes "the media" is pushing the narrative of Trump's connection with Russia because they don't "like to be wrong."
"What happened to innocent until proven guilty?" Raitt-Forest mused. "With the media, it seems like Trump is guilty until proven innocent."
A Mississippi Republican—who voted for Trump for the sake of getting another "conservative Supreme Court justice" and asked to remain anonymous because her job doesn't permit her to publicly express her political beliefs—explained that she believes the president's ties to Russia became a major issue because the media is lazy. "It is not my place to look into the motives or heart of others," she said, but added, "Media jobs are hard to come by. News outlets have cut staff and increased output expectations."
She also believes the stories about Trump's links to Russia would have more credibility had they also looked into "Clinton's issues, such as the pay to play as secretary of state or the sale of US uranium to Russia."
Conservative talking head and Twitter celebrity Bill Mitchell echoed a similar sentiment, mentioning the same uranium deal. "People involved in that deal, people benefiting from that deal donated $140 million to the Clinton Foundation," he told me over the phone. "It looks like pay for play took place here. That's why I'm surprised the Democrats even brought this Russia thing because they are so deeply implicated in doing some corruption with Russia themselves."
(The story of Clinton's approving a shady uranium deal, widely circulated on conservative media, was dismissed by fact-checkers like Snopes that noted the former secretary of state played a minor role at best in allowing a Russian state-owned company to take 51 percent ownership of a company called Uranium One in 2010. )
More broadly, Trump supporters reject the notion that their man would ever collude with the Russian government. "The Russians had no real reason to want Trump and Republicans in power," Michael Warner, a Trump-supporting college student from Indiana, told me.
Almost every Trump supporter I spoke to asked this question—how would a Trump presidency benefit Russia? As Mitchell told me, "Russia doesn't want Trump to be president. Trump has just announced he's going to increase military spending by $54 billion. He is going to dramatically increase our readiness, dramatically strengthen us, strengthen our navy, strengthen our air force, save money. Why does Russia benefit from a stronger American military? They don't."
Still, not every Trump supporter I spoke to dismissed the Russia thing. A 30-year-old Alabama college professor—who asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons and voted for Jeb Bush in the primaries but Trump in the general—told me, "The administration needs to take the questions of the Russian connections more seriously than they are."
"They have a responsibility to the country, Republican and Democrat, to explain and to alleviate those fears, or if there are deeper more problematic connections, they need to have a transparent investigation and take care of whatever the issues are," he explained. However, he doesn't think Sessions intentionally misled Congress during his confirmation hearing, and he finds the nature of the allegations questionable. He said he had a hard time believing how genuine the Democrats' concern is regarding the claims. Referencing an Obama quote from the 2012 election, the professor told me, "The 1980s called. They want their foreign policy back." In other words, cut the Cold War scare tactics.
As for the liberal fantasy that has Trump being impeached for some as-of-yet-undefined transgression, Michael Warner figured it wouldn't matter too much: "The thing they don't understand is if it is found true, we still win. Pence will be the president of the United States, and I don't think there's any reasonable Republican who will be upset about it."
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