WASHINGTON ― In an alternate universe, the Republican nominee for president holds a news conference to denounce Russian interference in the coming election. He calls out the long-known links between Russian spy agencies and WikiLeaks, and urges American voters to ignore the daily release of stolen emails designed to cripple his Democratic rival.
In this parallel reality, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or John Kasich states clearly that he doesn't want any help from Russian leader Vladimir Putin and that Putin's involvement would bring dire consequences.
"Not only would we have called for an investigation, we would have been leading the charge to drop the anvil on the head of the foreign power that did this," said John Weaver, a top aide to Ohio Gov. Kasich's presidential campaign. "It would have been smart politically, and it also would have been the right thing to do."
None of that, though, happened.
Instead, actual GOP nominee Donald Trump welcomed the assistance of WikiLeaks, at one point even asking the Russians to hack into Hillary Clinton's computers, and went out of his way to praise Putin – all of which has now put the president-elect in a bind between siding with his benefactors on the one hand or the entire U.S. intelligence community on the other.
"The difference used to be that whether you were a Republican or a Democrat, you didn't want a foreign power intervening and corrupting our elections," said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant who worked for independent candidate Evan McMullin. "A normal candidate would no more have relished Putin's help than he would have accepted the help of al-Qaeda."
But Trump repeatedly belittled U.S. intelligence assessments that Russia was meddling in the campaign. During the Oct. 10 presidential debate, he claimed that no one could actually know if Russia had done the hacking and that perhaps there had not actually been any hacking. He said that just three days after the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence issued an extraordinary statement that specifically named both Russia and WikiLeaks.
This past Friday, Trump received a formal briefing from the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA and the FBI stating not only that Russia hacked the emails of Democratic Party officials and disseminated them through WikiLeaks, but that Putin specifically wanted to help Trump win.
In Weaver's view, that session was unnecessary for anyone who had simply paid attention to the presidential campaign during the summer and autumn. "You could've been Inspector Clouseau and figured out what was going on. You didn't need an FBI briefing," he said.
Yet Trump's response to the report? That none of it really mattered anyway.
"There was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election," Trump said in a prepared statement.
A normal candidate would no more have relished Putin's help than he would have accepted the help of al-Qaeda.GOP strategist Rick Wilson, who worked for Evan McMullin
Of course, Trump's claims now that Russia's hacking and propaganda effort had no real effect raises the question of why, if the material was so inconsequential, Trump made it such a major component of his campaign.
Almost from the moment WikiLeaks head Julian Assange began posting the stolen material on his website, Trump began citing it in interviews, speeches and his ubiquitous tweets ― at times essentially calling the hacks a public service to American voters.
By August, Trump had received access to high-level briefings from the nation's intelligence agencies. From that point forward, he could have learned of their consensus view that since 2013, Assange had essentially been acting as a mouthpiece for Russian intelligence.
Despite this, Trump continued making WikiLeaks and its near-daily release of internal emails stolen from the accounts of Democratic Party officials and the Clinton campaign a central talking point.
"I love WikiLeaks!" Trump proclaimed at an Oct. 10 campaign rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and then proceeded to use the latest revelation to attack Clinton. "In another closed-door speech, she wanted to have open borders and open trade with everybody. There go the rest of your jobs," he told the crowd.
Eleven days later, at a rally in Fletcher, North Carolina, he riffed on the daily drip regarding the link between a $12 million donation by Morocco to the Clinton Foundation in 2015 and a scheduled personal appearance by Clinton in Morocco that year ― even though this was all two years after she left the State Department. "Boy, we love WikiLeaks!" he said.
And on Oct. 29, in a Phoenix, Arizona, speech, Trump even claimed, "The WikiLeaks revelations have exposed criminal corruption at the highest levels of our government" – an assertion that was patently false.
The liberal group ThinkProgress compiled 164 references by Trump to the WikiLeaks material in the final month of the campaign alone. In that same period, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio went out of his way to denounce WikiLeaks and warned fellow Republicans that legitimizing the group would one day come back to bite the party.
"Just think about this: Do we really want to be a country where foreign leaders or foreign intelligence agencies can blackmail our elected officials and say to them that unless you do what we want you to do, we're going to release emails from your campaign manager, your wife, your daughter, your son, and we're going to embarrass you," Rubio said at an Oct. 10 appearance in Tampa, while campaigning for re-election to the Senate. "Because I'll tell you that's what Vladimir Putin does. I think there's plenty of material in which to line up and take on Secretary Clinton. I think this one is an invitation to chaos and havoc in the future."
Ryan Williams, a campaign aide on Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential run, suggested that nearly any other Republican would have said something similar, had he or she been the nominee.
"I think a more traditional candidate would not have openly embraced the daily WikiLeaks releases," Williams said, but then added that he doesn't believe the leaks actually swayed the result on Nov. 8. "We're giving Putin too much credit in influencing the outcome of the election."
You could've been Inspector Clouseau and figured out what was going on. You didn't need an FBI briefing.John Weaver, campaign aide to Ohio Gov. John Kasich
Regardless of how much it did or did not boost him, however, Trump's cheerful acceptance of Russian help has become his Achilles' heel just two weeks before he takes office.
Although he has repeatedly claimed he won in a "historic landslide," Trump's Electoral College margin ranks just 46th out of 58 elections over 227 years. He won only 46 percent of the national vote, 2 percentage points behind Clinton, and collected 3 million fewer popular votes.
Clinton would be president had she found 78,000 more votes in three key states, and she would have won a landslide victory of 336 electoral votes had just 250,000 Trump voters in six states swung to her. Without the daily distraction of stolen emails from WikiLeaks ― which many voters conflated with the unrelated FBI investigation of her private email server in which she was never charged ― there is a strong possibility that Clinton would have won the presidency.
And that reality appears to have made Trump particularly defensive regarding the newly released intelligence report on Russian involvement in hacking.
"Gross negligence by the Democratic National Committee allowed hacking to take place. The Republican National Committee had strong defense!" Trump wrote in one tweet this past Saturday.
"Only reason the hacking of the poorly defended DNC is discussed is that the loss by the Dems was so big that they are totally embarrassed!" he said in another.
That response is making many Republicans who have otherwise accepted the prospect of working with Trump uneasy, while letting his longtime critics unload about his insistence on shifting the blame away from Putin.
"Trump is morally vacant and ethically compromised by the Russians, and his core audience is so conditioned by the reflexive tu quoque 'But the Democrats!' argument that they're willing to embrace a hostile foreign power," Wilson said.
Another top Republican consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect clients who are working with Trump, wondered how his party might have reacted had Putin's beneficiary been a Democrat. "If this was Obama in 2008, Republicans would be calling for him to resign. It's mind-boggling," he said.
"I don't understand what Trump's motivation is," the consultant added, running through the hypotheticals. "Does he just admire Putin? Are they blackmailing him? Are they paying him? They could be paying $1 million a day and we'd never know."