Is ‘I’m not a Russian agent, you’re a Russian agent’ the future of American politics?

Who’s winning the Moscow primary?

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On Feb. 21, the Washington Post reported that Russia is trying to help boost Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination: “U.S. officials have told Sen. Bernie Sanders that Russia is attempting to help his presidential campaign as part of an effort to interfere with the Democratic contest, according to people familiar with the matter.”

But it’s apparently a bipartisan affair as, in the very same story, the Russians are simultaneously reportedly backing President Donald Trump, too. The article refers to “a briefing to lawmakers last week in which a senior intelligence official said that Russia wants to see Trump reelected, viewing his administration as more favorable to the Kremlin’s interests…”

Here we go again.

So, if it comes down to Sanders and Trump in the general election, who does Russia support?

It doesn’t matter, because none of this is real. Sanders and Trump are once again being targeted with the very same allegations made against them in 2016 that they were favored by Russia, when it was a means of discrediting them both as Manchurian Candidates in order to bolster the prospects of Hillary Clinton — and to put down future anti-establishment political campaigns.

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Here, a defensive briefing of the Sanders campaign was used to hurt Sanders in the Democratic primary race against Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg by broadcasting Moscow’s supposed preference for Sanders.

For now, it’s a campaign talking point.

But they can become more than that.

In 2016, the allegations were weaponized by intelligence agencies and the Justice Department, which obtained Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants against the Trump campaign beginning in Oct. 2016. The government then spent three years looking at Trump and his campaign, only to have Special Counsel Robert Mueller proclaim in anticlimactic fashion in 2019 that the allegations were bunk, that there was no conspiracy between Trump and his campaign and Russia to hack to the DNC and John Podesta emails and put them on Wikileaks.

And now that the Mueller probe is over, the Justice Department has gone back and found that at least the last two of the spying warrants against Trump and his team were obtained illegally upon further review by the Justice Department and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, leading to calls to reform FISA by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.).

But not before American politics have been redefined with new rules, providing a role for named and unnamed intelligence officials to engage in electioneering by smearing anti-establishment candidates — like Sanders and Trump — as would-be Russian agents.

What role should intelligence agencies have in gauging Russia’s support for candidates and then broadcasting it? The information is not remaining classified, and is therefore political.

These assessments do far more to influence and interfere in our political process than anything Russia was accused of. A negative side effect is that it convinces voters that democracy is a sham and that Vladimir Putin is stuffing the ballot box, delegitimizing our elections. That’s supposed to be what Putin wanted in 2016.

And intelligence officials are once again bolstering that narrative in an election year — creating more hysteria.

To be fair, if the Washington Post article is correct, Sanders and his campaign obtained a defensive briefing from the Justice Department, unlike the Trump campaign in 2016. But the briefing itself can be used as a political weapon, as it was used against then President-elect Trump by former FBI Director James Comey when he revealed the Christopher Steele dossier’s allegations to the incoming President in Jan. 2017. That became a basis for leaking it to the media, exactly what happened here.

This was coupled with the Director of National Intelligence, then James Clapper, publishing the intelligence assessment in Jan. 2017 alleging that Russia sought to have Trump elected just days before President Trump was to be inaugurated. What a mistake.

That normalized and laid the predicate for the same tactic to play out in every election cycle from here on in. Now, those same intelligence assessments are being done for all political campaigns apparently, as with the Sanders campaign, and are immediately politicized by the media.

Is anyone surprised National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien went on CBS’ Face the Nation uncritically repeating without any evidence the same claims of the Feb. 21 Washington Post story that the Russians want Bernie to win? O’Brien said, “What I heard from the FBI is that Russia would like Bernie Sanders to win the Democrat nomination and would probably like him to be president, understandably, because he wants to spend money on social programs and probably would have to take it out of the military, that would make sense.”

Is it the FBI’s job to evaluate the prudence of the Sanders political agenda? Here, “I’m not a Russian agent, you’re a Russian agent,” a schoolyard taunt, has become a mainstay in American politics.

Except, the intelligence agencies and the FBI really are vetting our candidates for office, in very public view, and those assessments immediately become materials used by the campaigns when they are leaked.

Is this what Americans really want out of their political process?

The Red Scare wasn’t this dumb. At least back then, there really were Soviet agents who had infiltrated the government and stole nuclear secrets. Today, it’s phony dossiers paid for by political committees or the most baseless of conjectures that convince most Americans that officials in Washington, D.C. have lost their minds, undermining faith in not only our political system but the nation’s intelligence agencies and judicial process.

It also makes diplomatic relations with Russia all the more difficult in the nuclear era where both countries still have thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at one another and the treaty framework for strategic arms reduction is unraveling before our eyes.

The Justice Department under Attorney General William Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham are doing the right thing by getting to the bottom of the original 2016 investigation into the Trump campaign that was falsely predicated with these silly allegations.

They have to determine if this is how our politics will now be operated, or if law enforcement agencies are going to get back to fighting crime and preventing terrorism, and stop giving the appearance of interfering in political campaigns by chasing Russian phantoms.

After everything the deep state put President Trump, his family, associates and this country through, falsely accusing him of being Russian agent and ruining people’s lives with these ludicrous allegations and threatening constitutional government, it is disheartening to see the witch hunt continue. That doesn’t prevent this from happening again, it guarantees it will happen again.

Who cares who the Russians want to win? Whether Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or someone else, it is the American people who will elect the President in 2020, not Moscow.

Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.

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