Paranoia is suddenly what’s for dinner in Washington. The most fervent patriot can be a spy and never know it until someone posts a video of the high crime and misdemeanor of someone shaking a Russian hand.
“There I was,” recalls Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and a prominent Washington lawyer, “standing in the entrance hall,” about to join a lavish holiday party of diplomats, journalists, consultants, lobbyists and former officials of several governments at the home of the French ambassador.
He saw the ambassador, whom he knew, talking to a Slavic-looking man in a dark suit, whom he didn’t know.
“The French ambassador said, ‘Do you know Sergey [Kislyak], the Russian ambassador?’ I said I did not, and we shook hands,” Mr. Potter recalls to Molly Ball of the Atlantic magazine.
Mr. Potter, a fixture at many of the receptions and dinners that are the playing grounds of politics in the nation’s capital, thought there was nothing particularly notable about the encounter. But now, with the Russian ambassador fingered as a high-level spy, everyone who is anyone in Washington is trying to remember whether they shook the ambassador’s hand and exchanged a word or two of greeting, and where, and who else was there. Paranoia rules the playing grounds.
But “spying,” if you want to look at it that way, is what ambassadors do. “Spying” is not all the work of seductive, sultry vixen, or microfilm of super weapons hidden in an artichoke bottom in the salad at an embassy dinner party. It’s more than sending clandestine radio messages to headquarters from a tiny transmitter disguised as the filling in an ambassador’s tooth.
The ambassadors of the major nations represented in Washington are out every night, meeting, supping, sipping and greeting whoever they can who looks like having an insight into how America ticks and tocks. That’s why they were dispatched to Washington. American ambassadors are making similar contacts in London and Paris, Rome, Tokyo and Moscow, and maybe even Port-au-Prince, if they are doing their jobs well.
Nevertheless, it’s the Russian ambassador who’s the man of the moment, suspected of spreading taint wherever he goes, which can be anywhere. Some of that taint, in the telling of a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, rubbed off not only on the Donald, but on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, too.
Dmitry Peskov, interviewed by CNN News, insists that Russia did not hack the November election, and by insisting it did the United States is “self-humiliating” itself. He defended the work of the Russian ambassador, whose “clandestine” meeting with Michael Flynn caused President Trump’s national-security adviser to lose his job for misrepresenting his conversations with the ambassador.
“This is his job,” he said of Ambassador Kislyak. “He was talking about bilateral relations, about what is going on in the United States, so we have a better understanding in Moscow. This is what happens all over the world.
“If you look at some people connected with Hillary Clinton during her campaign, you would probably see that [the ambassador] had tons of meetings of that kind. There are lots of specialists in politoligy, people working in think tanks advising Hillary or advising people working with Hillary.”
“Self-humiliation” may be a little strong, but the furor over Ambassador Kislyak reveals a media that is far short of how knowledgeable, worldly and sophisticated it thinks it is. It’s what happens when the denizens of the media join the mob in the parlor, plotting insurrection and the mindless destruction of a president. If Hillary did not meet the Russian ambassador during her years in Foggy Bottom and during the months of her campaign for president, she was derelict in her duty to country and campaign.
Candidates, like diplomats, meet and talk to the savory and the unsavory alike, often over a brandy or a 12-year-old Scotch. There just aren’t enough virgins to go around, so the business of government, like the business of everyone else, must be done by the clever and smart, even if a little soiled.
Neither Hillary nor Barack Obama were accused of working to give away the nation’s secrets for their promises to Moscow to be “more flexible” in dealing with Russia after the 2014 congressional elections. The New York Times merely called it “a private moment of political candor,” and The Washington Post called it “a rare glimpse of a world leader speaking frankly about the political realities he faces at home.” Maybe that was all it was.
There’s rich irony at play. For decades it was the Democrats who were accused, rightly in some cases, of cuddling with Communists, sneering at Republicans for peddling paranoia. Now look who’s talking.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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