This morning’s public congressional testimony by FBI Director James Comey, confirming that members of the Trump Administration are in fact subjects of an ongoing investigation for their suspected links to the Russian government, is widely and rightly being described as a bombshell. But while Comey was understandably reluctant to provide any details, what he did say included several other bits of critical information that will be lost in the headlines:
1) The previous Intelligence Community (IC) report on the hacking of the DNC was explicit in its conclusion that the Russian government was responsible, and that it was part of a larger Russian effort to influence the US presidential election – but it did not conclude that members of the Trump campaign colluded in that effort. Comey’s testimony confirmed that collusion is, in fact, part of the scope of the investigation, and that the IC report did not include that possibility because it was part of an investigation that was still ongoing.
There’s a word for conspiring with a hostile foreign power to change the outcome of a presidential election: Treason. And it’s the one charge that, if substantiated, could force the end of the Trump presidency.
That can’t happen, in almost any scenario, unless a substantial number of congressional Republicans want that outcome. In this, timing is everything.
This is likely to be an extremely complex investigation that won’t be complete for many months, possibly not until early 2018. At that point, a disgraced Republican presidency is the one thing that could endanger an otherwise solid Republican congressional majority. Far more Democratic than Republican seats in the Senate are up for election in 2018, and gerrymandering has given Republicans a comfortable majority and mostly relatively safe seats in the House. But if Republicans are seen as enabling Trump’s crimes – and if the Democrats can get off their lazy asses to seriously challenge some of those normally safe seats – that Republican majority will be in trouble next year. A lot of Republicans who are now preoccupied mostly with the threat of primary challenges from their right will suddenly find it’s in the interest of their job security to turn on Donald Trump. And it’s not like Trump has done anything to court them, either.
There’s no other likely scenario that gets this mentally unstable, megalomaniacal would-be dictator out of office before 2020. But that’s now in play.
2) Speaking of timing, Comey’s testimony that the investigation of Team Trump began three months before the election is critical. That places the start of the investigation in early August: after the hacking of the DNC had become public knowledge. At the time Russia was already widely suspected, but this was before WikiLeaks began publishing some of those hacked materials. However, several other interesting things had already happened in early summer.
The first was the June appearance of former Defense Intelligence Agency director Gen. Michael Flynn at the Moscow gala celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Russian government-owned, English language RT television network, attended as well by Vladimir Putin and a host of other high-ranking Russian officials. Flynn began paid commentary on RT shortly afterwards, advocating a Russian line on how to address Syria that was starkly at odds with US foreign policy in the region.
Former military officers are barred from receiving payment from foreign governments or any entities owned or controlled by them. Flynn was already violating that law, and he was also violating it by being an (unregistered) paid foreign consultant for the government of Turkey, a country that, while a NATO ally, is also run by an Islamist despot who is openly hostile to the closest American political and intelligence partner in that region, Israel.
Having someone with Flynn’s security clearance being paid by not one but TWO potentially hostile foreign powers would in itself almost certainly have triggered a counterintelligence investigation. But something else happened in early summer as well. Paul Manafort, a lobbyist with a long track record of consulting for foreign dictators and whose most recent long-term client had been the deposed, pro-Russian former dictator of the Ukraine, was promoted to become Donald Trump’s campaign manager.
Furthermore, just before the Republican National Convention in late July, the team of the soon-to-be-nominated Trump demanded only one change to the proposed party platform Republicans would adopt at their convention: reversal of the anti-Russian plank on the conflict in the Ukraine, including Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula. At the time, this was widely connected to Manafort, but the actual leaders of the platform change, acting on behalf of Trump, were Flynn, Sen. Jeff Sessions, and their surrogates.
We also now know that this time was the first of Sessions’ two meetings with the Russian ambassador. Sessions has claimed his meetings were part of his work on the Senate Armed Services Committee, but this explanation has been refuted by nearly every other member, Republican and Democrat, of that committee.
That was what had just happened when the investigation of Team Trump began.
3) Much will depend on the scope of the investigation. We already know that four people from the Trump campaign were being subject to phone and Internet monitoring. Three of those have assumed to be Manafort, Carter Page, and Flynn, all of whom have been forced out of their Trump jobs by revelations of improper contact with Russian officials or suspected Russian intelligence assets. It’s been widely suspected that the fourth is Roger Stone, a senior Trump campaign advisor and notorious dirty trickster who had cut his teeth in the Watergate conspiracy and had spent decades lost in far-right conspiracy circles before Trump revived his career. Stone, it’s since emerged, was the catalyst for Trump back-channel communications with WikiLeaks, before and after it published the hacked DNC e-mails.
All four of these men are likely being investigated. But a number of other Trump officials have dubious political or business ties to Russian oligarchs, government officials, or intelligence assets – which, in the land of Vladimir Putin, are often all the same people. That includes several members of Trump’s cabinet, notably Sessions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
If the scope of the investigation is expanded to include Trump’s business ties, a number of dubious former business partners of the Trump Organization are Russian oligarchs, and several have also already been publicly named as suspected Russian intelligence assets.
Now that Trump is president, a number of other issues are coming up involving corruption and conflicts of interests between Trump, his company, and Trump family members and foreign governments, including Russia. Corruption is a different set of crimes from colluding to influence the election – but Trump, who remains a businessman before he’s a politician, is the link that ties both. It may be impossible to investigate one without including the other.
Incidentally, this is where Trump’s tax returns – which haven’t been made public, but which would be available to any investigation – become important. Unlike the 1040 form Rachel Maddow had last week, it’s the schedules that show where Trump’s income came from. That will tell a story the public has yet to hear.
As Maddow made clear in her commentary, Russia is the only country that has such extensive, recurring connections to Trump – and they’re showing up in every aspect of Trump’s business and political careers. This inevitably raises questions about Trump himself. It would be surprising if any investigation didn’t look into Trump’s role in surrounding himself with such people, regardless of their roles – but it all hinges on how expansive the scope of the investigation is.
4) Lastly and most importantly, this investigation is not shaping up to be a whitewash.
Comey was careful this morning to stipulate that he’d gotten permission from the Department of Justice to make public his confirmation of the investigation. This could not have happened unless now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions had not recused himself from the investigation.
That, in turn, happened because intelligence sources leaked to the media that Sessions had met with the Russian ambassador – and had perjured himself in his Senate confirmation testimony by denying he had ever done so. That should have forced Sessions’ resignation – but it did force his recusal. A similar leak previously forced the resignation of Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser after only three weeks on the job.
In other words, members of the intelligence community acted proactively to get out of the way two administration officials who were suspected to be national security risks and who had the power to stop an investigation that they, personally – as well as, potentially, their boss – were targets in. And they were targets of the investigation before Donald Trump named them to those key Cabinet-level positions.
That raises the question of whether one of Trump’s motivations in naming Flynn as his National Security Advisor – the sole Cabinet-level post that doesn’t require Senate confirmation – and Sessions as his Attorney General, was as insurance that one or both of them would have the power to kill any remaining investigation of the DNC hacks and the Trump campaign’s connections to them. That means IC and DOJ staff wanted to insure, as much as possible, that there wouldn’t be political interference in their investigation – and they acted quickly because they thought both Flynn and Sessions were not only security risks, but threatened the investigation itself. With a mandate from their boss, the president.
And if that is the case – remember Watergate? Several Nixon advisors and cabinet members went to jail for their part in the cover-up. “The cover-up is always worse than the original crime.”
This time, the alleged original crime is pretty bad, too.
All of this risks being an enormous shitshow that, in the end, leaves nothing proven and distracts from the far more immediately damaging aspects of the Trump agenda. But it also has the potential to utterly destroy that agenda, to depose Trump, and to discredit a Republican Party that is on the verge of having a long-term lock on control of all three branches of government, but cannot bridge its own internal divides between its reality-challenged base and “Freedom Caucus” zealots, on the one hand, and the oligarchs that back it, on the other. That division is already playing out in the laughable-yet-terrifying Republican health care proposal and in Trump’s failure to get any meaningful early legislation through Congress.
As further investigation leaks will make clear, IC members want no part of an administration with so many dubious ties to a hostile foreign power; business elites have no use for Trump’s Russian nonsense; and the rubes who elected Trump don’t care about Russia but are at risk of getting hammered by that agenda.
At that point, nobody, not even the Russians, will have any use for Donald Trump. It’s easy to see him in the Nixon role at the end, alone, friendless, roaming the White House hall and spouting incendiary tweets at 3 AM.
The next year is going to be…interesting. It would be tremendously entertaining if it weren’t the future of American democracy at stake.