Talking Points

Harry Reid was a brawler. He may have helped give us Donald Trump.

One thing about Harry Reid: He was happy to do the dirty work of politics.

The Nevadan, who led Senate Democrats during the Obama administration and died Tuesday at the age of 82, was frank about his brawling proclivities. "I was always willing to do things that others were not willing to do," he told the New York Times after his retirement. On his passing, many Democrats celebrated Reid's pugnaciousness, because partisans love to see one of their own taking the fight to the other side.

But there was a downside: Reid may have helped give us the presidency of Donald Trump.

The story starts in 2012, when then-President Barack Obama was running for re-election. His Republican opponent was Mitt Romney, who had made a fortune as a partner at Bain Capital but was declining to release an expansive account of his wealth. Reid stepped forward to charge — without evidence — that Romney had paid no taxes during the previous decade. "He didn't pay taxes for 10 years! Now, do I know that that's true? Well, I'm not certain," he told Huffington Post. "But obviously he can't release those tax returns. How would it look?

Romney ended up releasing his tax returns, and it turned out Reid was lying. But he had no regrets: "Romney didn't win, did he?"

Four years later, Reid emerged to charge that Trump's first presidential campaign was colluding with Russia to win the election against Hillary Clinton. He wasn't wholly off the mark: We later learned Trump ally Roger Stone had told Trump in advance that Wikileaks would release Russian-hacked documents that embarrassed the Clinton campaign, and that the CIA had evidence during the summer of 2016 that Russia was backing Trump's overall efforts. The Obama administration was clearly concerned about possible links. Eventually, the probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded Trump's campaign was "receptive" to Russia's interference. 

At the time, though, journalists figured Reid was crying wolf once again. "Either Harry Reid has an explosive secret on Trump's Russia ties or he's just making things up," proclaimed Vox. "We don't have to look too far in the rear-view mirror to find another example of Reid offering an evidence-free claim about a Republican presidential candidate," added Aaron Blake at The Washington Post. These assumptions were natural enough given the Romney lie in 2012.

Reid did have some magnificent accomplishments during his career. But his willingness to tell a meaningless lie for the sake of a Democratic election victory meant that when his voice was needed, his credibility was shot. That's part of his legacy, too — and should serve as a warning to the "but he fights" crowd in both of our major political parties.