The official spin from the White House, dutifully repeated by all of President Donald Trump’s Republican enablers, is that Kremlingate is a big nothingburger. Russian interference in the U.S. election? Possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin? Nothing to see here. Move on. Or as White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Fox News Tuesday night after the shocking dismissal of FBI Director James Comey: “I think the bigger point on that is, my gosh Tucker, when are they going to let that go? It’s been going on for nearly a year.
Frankly, it’s kind of getting absurd. There’s nothing there. We’ve heard that time and time again. We heard that in the testimonies earlier this week. We’ve heard it for the last 11 months. There is no ‘there’ there.”
Unfortunately for the White House, this air of nonchalance is belied by a man who is in a far better position than a deputy press secretary to know what actually transpired during last year’s campaign. President Trump has consistently acted like a man with something to hide. Whenever the pressure from Kremlingate has grown too strong, he has lashed out in ways that are erratic and counterproductive.
Recall, for example, what happened after Attorney General Jeff Sessions admitted to lying to Congress about his meetings with the Russian ambassador and recused himself from the Kremlingate investigation. Trump must have figured that this would be a big blow because he would no longer have his hand-picked attorney general quashing the probe. That occurred on March 2. Two days later, Trump sent out his infamous tweets alleging: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
This completely unfounded allegation — followed soon thereafter by bizarre claims that Britain’s GCHQ spy agency had done the wiretapping and then that Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, had illegally “unmasked” the names of Trump aides in surveillance transcripts — served its purpose: It distracted attention from the real issue, which are the links, if any, between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. But by now, more than two months later, these faux scandals were starting to disappear from view, and Trump was left with the realization that he could not simply wish the real scandal — Kremlingate — away.
In recent weeks we have learned, inter alia, that a federal grand jury was investigating Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, who had not disclosed payments he had received from Turkey and Russia and who lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador; that the FBI had obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to monitor Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, which means he was suspected of being a Russian agent; and that Trump’s onetime campaign manager, Paul Manafort, received millions of dollars from a Russian oligarch close to Putin to influence American politics. Now Trump himself has had to hire a law firm to fight allegations that he has business links to the Kremlin.
Monday’s hearing before a Senate subcommittee, featuring former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, was a particularly tense time for Trump. His nervousness was palpable when at 7:15 a.m. on Sunday, May 7, he tweeted: “When will the Fake Media ask about the Dems dealings with Russia & why the DNC wouldn’t allow the FBI to check their server or investigate.” This was followed on May 8, the day of the hearing, by at least six more tweets revealing a high level of agitation as Yates testified that she had warned the White House that Flynn was opening himself to Russian blackmail and as Clapper publicly confirmed newspaper reports that British intelligence had accumulated evidence of meetings between Trump associates and Russian agents.
Trump accused Yates, with no evidence, of illegal leaks, and then he ended the day by adding to his Twitter header the claim: “Director Clapper reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows- there is ‘no evidence’ of collusion w/ Russia and Trump.” In point of fact, Clapper said no such thing. Just the opposite: He had testified that when he earlier said he knew of no collusion between Trump and Putin, he had not been aware of the FBI counterintelligence investigation that Comey had subsequently revealed. Simply the fact that Trump felt compelled to put this lie at the top of his Twitter feed was significant. As one sharp observer noted, “This is like if Nixon added ‘I am not a crook’ to the top of his stationary.”
The next day, May 9, Trump’s rage boiled over and resulted in the abrupt firing of Director Comey, the man who is in charge of the Kremlingate investigation. The ostensible explanation for this act is ludicrous. If we are to believe the White House account, Comey was fired for the very reason that Trump once praised him — for his willingness to make damaging public statements last year about the FBI probe of Hillary Clinton’s email. Comey certainly deserved to be fired for his inappropriate and damaging public comments, made even as he kept mum about the FBI probe of Trump’s ties to the Kremlin. And if Clinton had won the election, she might have fired Comey for those reasons — although not without lots of howling from Republicans. But this is not a plausible explanation for why President Trump fired Comey.
Within 12 hours, the truth leaked out. The Wall Street Journal reported: “Frustration was growing among top associates of the president that Mr. Comey, in a series of appearances before a Senate panel, wouldn’t publicly tamp down questions about possible collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race. A person with knowledge of recent conversations said they wanted Mr. Comey to ‘say those three little words: There’s no ties.’”
The New York Times reported that the Trump-Comey relationship had “reached a nadir when the F.B.I. director confirmed in sworn testimony in Congress that the bureau was investigating ties between Mr. Trump’s campaign team and Russia. Administration aides said on Tuesday that senior officials at the White House and the Justice Department had been charged with building a case to justify Mr. Comey’s firing since at least last week, and that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had been tasked with coming up with reasons to fire him.”
Also from the Times: “Days before he was fired, James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, asked the Justice Department for a significant increase in money and personnel for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election, according to three officials with knowledge of his request.”
Politico reported that Trump “had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.”
If these reports are accurate, President Trump may have just committed exactly the kind of “high crimes and misdemeanors” — namely obstruction of justice — that the Constitution sets as a standard for impeachment. And no doubt if Democrats take control of Congress in 2018, the Tuesday Night Massacre will serve as one of their articles of impeachment. But there is little hope that a Republican-controlled Congress will remove a Republican president; even Nixon might have survived Watergate if his own party had controlled Congress.
But there are actions well short of impeachment that any Republicans with a shred of integrity should support, such as naming a bipartisan independent commission and/or a special counsel to probe Kremlingate. There is simply no way that the truth will ever emerge from this Congress or this Justice Department. Both have been fatally compromised. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, had to recuse himself because of his role in concocting the Susan Rice conspiracy theory, and most of the remaining Republicans on the House and Senate intelligence committees have shown more interest in uncovering anti-Trump leaks than in uncovering Trump’s possible ties to the Kremlin. Even Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a well-respected career prosecutor, has now destroyed his reputation by assisting in Comey’s ouster.
Democrats already hold 48 seats in the Senate. It would not take many Republican defectors to join with the Democratic majority to paralyze the upper house — to refuse to act on any of Trump’s legislative priorities, from health care reform to tax cuts — until the Justice Department agrees to appoint a special counsel or until Congress agrees to authorize, and Trump to sign, legislation creating an independent commission. Republican Sens. Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse, Richard Burr, and John McCain have already indicated they are troubled by the manner of Comey’s dismissal. Will they now reveal themselves to be men of honor and courage who are willing to stand up for the republic rather than the Republican Party? On that question hinges the future of the rule of law in America.