We May Be Nearing The Russia Scandal Tipping Point, But We’re Not There Yet
The dismissal of national security adviser Michael Flynn on February 13 was a turning point in the Russia scandal. Four months later comes the highly anticipated public testimony of dismissed FBI Director James Comey, and the possibility that the scandal has finally reached a tipping point. Then there is the exhaustion point, which many of us certainly reached a while ago.
This is what I mean by tipping point:
Think of the Russia scandal as a balance that it teetering between tipping one way or the other.
On one side of the balance are piled aspects of the scandal that give Trump an advantage. These include the inherent powers and built-in immunity of the presidency, the route to impeachment being blocked by a Republican majority and the deck being stacked to the extent that while Attorney General Sessions, to cite but one example, has officially recused himself, he played an overt role in Comey’s dismissal.
Finally, there is the difficulty of finding a proverbial smoking gun that would prove that Trump not only knew about Russian election meddling but actively encouraged it, and that he does not merely oppose the scandal investigation but is actively working to obstruct it.
On the other side of the balance are piled aspects of the scandal that give the good guys an advantage. These include the certainty that the Russians did meddle in the election by, among other things, sabotaging Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the large and accumulating body of evidence implicating a half dozen Trump associates and the appointment of no-nonsense special counsel Robert Mueller to lead the Justice Department probe.
Finally, there is mounting public anger as a fuller picture of the scandal has emerged, including new revelations this week that the Russians launched a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials.
What could tip the balance to Trump? At this point, there is virtually nothing because the scandal cannot we washed, wished or tweeted away.
What could tip the balance to the good guys? Probably not Comey’s testimony on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
This is because — despite all the rolling of drums, advance hype and the fact the testimony of a fired senior official who can repudiate the president will be carried live by the networks — much of what Comey will say is well known. We can thank Trump himself for that.
After shuffling through a number of obfuscations, Trump admitted why he summarily fired the man leading the most perilous of the scandal probes, reiterated that in his infamous meeting with the Kremlin’s foreign minister and U.S. ambassador and, for good measure, implied that he could blackmail Comey if he went public because of secret tapes he apparently had of their conversations.
And then this week Trump railed at AG Sessions ostensibly because he thinks Justice is screwing up Muslim ban appeals, which remain stalled in federal courts. This is a smokescreen because what really has Trump angered is that Sessions’ recusal led to the appointment of Mueller, which is yet another indication that he is way too crazy to understand the consequences of his tantrums, especially when they are focused on perceived disloyalty. Sessions was disloyal because he recused himself while Comey was disloyal for not obeying his orders to shut down his investigation into Flynn.
Meanwhile, Comey has kept court admissible “field notes” of his interactions with Trump just like a good G-Man should.
These field notes include detailed accounts of Trump’s one-on-one attempt on February 14 to get Comey to drop his investigation of Flynn, Comey’s February 15 confrontation with Sessions, whom he tells that he does not want to be left alone again with the president, Comey’s February 24 refusal of a White House request to refute news reports about Trump campaign ties with the Russian government, Comey’s March 5 request to Justice to deny Trump’s claim that President Obama ordered the phones at Trump Tower to be wiretapped, and Comey’s early May meeting with Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein to request a substantial increase in funding and personnel to expand the FBI probe because of new evidence of Trump-Russia collusion.
(Rosenstein is testifying before the Senate committee on Wednesday about his role as one of Trump’s henchmen and that he knew the president was going to fire Comey before he was told to write a reverse-engineered memo justifying the action. Also testifying are two of the nations top intel officials. Like Rosenstein, they have the same story to tell: A frantic president was going to extreme lengths to try to derail the FBI investigation.)
I’m not precluding a tipping-point quality bombshell from Comey on Thursday. It is much easier to predict that Trump will strike back with a storm of tweets as he did last month when former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified before a Senate subcommittee about the repeated warnings given Trump and his White House legal counsel about Flynn being a security risk because of his meetings with Russians connected to the scandal.
It just doesn’t seem particularly likely that Comey will say something hugely dramatic because of something else we know: That behind the scenes he is in contact Mueller, whose probe is now said to include the circumstances surrounding his ouster, and will not say anything that would get in the way of Mueller’s work.
There is another sign that we’re not at a tipping point but may be nearing it.
Democrats involved in the Senate and House intel committee investigations have toned down their rhetoric. Part of this is their understanding that the sheer complexity of the investigation has caused even people who may not have reached that exhaustion point to become confused.
But Democrats’ newfound circumspection may also mean that a smoking gun has hoved into view and they are tip-toeing around anything that might get in the way of grabbing that gun and going after Trump with it.