Revelations, Recriminations, Recusals & Reality: The Russia Scandal One Year On (Yes, Really)
There has been but one constant in the year of revelations, recriminations and recusals that have become known as the Russia scandal: Donald Trump has never — not once — expressed concern about the greatest assault on democracy since Soviet spies stole atomic bomb secrets after World War II, and that tells you all you need to know about the relationship between America’s greatest foe and one of its greatest celebrities, as well as how that treasonous tryst birthed the demon spawn of a presidency that has shaken Washington, the nation and world.
As huge as that underlying reality may be, it’s easy to overlook now that the scandal has exploded, like a Fourth of July firework, into so many fiercely burning streamers of light that it can induce a kind of blindness.
And has for many people who look away in horror or move on in shock rather than try to comprehend the scandal’s numbing complexities, not realizing that once the process of chipping away at democracy commences, and the deceit underlying Trump’s victory was just that, it makes getting back the protections we assumed we’ve had all along much more difficult, if not impossible.
My own comprehensive timeline of the scandal now includes some 130 events of note, including nearly 40 since the beginning of May alone as it has grown from a lot of smoke to a nasty fire and on to a general-arm conflagration that eventually will take down the Trump presidency, although not soon enough.
It was a year ago that American intelligence agencies confirmed something deeply disturbing.
Britain’s GCHQ, which is equivalent to the U.S.’s National Security Agency, had informed the NSA late in 2015 that it had become aware of suspicious interactions between individuals connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents. The NSA passed on the information to the FBI and CIA, among other American intel agencies.
By early June, the CIA had concluded in an internal report that Russia was actively engaged in meddling in the presidential election, including the goal of getting Trump elected, and not merely disrupting the U.S. political system. The FBI, which routinely monitors the communications of Russian officials in the U.S., opened an investigation to examine possible links between the Trump presidential campaign and Russians who had been identified as people of interest, as potential perps are called in the spy community. Among the Americans of interest were campaign manager Paul Manafort, advisers Michael Flynn, Carter Page and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.
A year later, we know because of a tsunami of leak-based disclosures that more or less simultaneously with the contacts between Russians and these individuals, that the Kremlin’s election-meddling plan was revved up and its focus came into view for the intel agencies monitoring these contacts. It would be a multi-pronged attack to sabotage the Hillary Clinton campaign through email hacking, disinformation and false news stories.
It can be argued that the CIA and FBI were too slow to notify the Obama White House and high ranking members of Congress colloquially known as the Gang of Eight who by law are to be briefed on important intelligence matters. But it also can be argued that once the president and his advisers and eventually those key members of Congress were in the loop following briefings by CIA Director John Brennan, they too moved too slowly to sound the alarm, while Republicans lining up behind nominee Trump were downright resistant.
This tug of war between good and evil, and that is what we’re talking about when the onion-like layers of my scandal timeline are peeled away, was to continue through Election Day, when it became shockingly obvious that the meddling-and-sabotage plan had succeeded, and on to last Thursday when fired FBI Director James Comey uttered the instantly immortal words, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
The explosive testimony of Comey and Trump’s sanctimonious counterattack — in which any hint of concern about his Russian pals hijacking the election was yet again conspicuous in its absence — were high political theater and showed how far our understanding of the scandal has come yet how far we still have to go before we know the full story and the frog walking can commence.
Next up: Attorney General Sessions, who keeps taking bites out of the perjury apple, making history by having to re-recuse himself. This process could begin as early as Tuesday when he answers a request from the Senate Intelligence Committee to chat about why his name kept popping up during Comey’s testimony.
That testimony was, in a word, devastating, both legally and more importantly in the short run, politically.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will run its course, as will the four congressional investigations. Based on what we now know, Trump obstructed justice and at least a few of his associates are in huge trouble even if impeachment remains an abstraction with Republicans firmly in control on Capitol Hill.
And as if we needed reminding, while Comey was testifying British Prime Minister Theresa May was going down in flames. Because of the differences between the UK’s parliamentary system and ours when it comes to dealing with failed leaders, she may be long gone before Trump is. No snap election for The Donald.
Along with Trump’s continuing refusal to condemn Moscow, also conspicuous in its absence last week was any sense that Republicans as a group believe their president is being treated unfairly.
The questions asked Comey by Republican members of the intel committee betrayed in their mechanical dutifulness that these people know Trump is toxic, that Comey’s description of the president of the United States as dishonest and untrustworthy is accurate, that Trump’s boasts of being exonerated and offers to testify under oath are hogswallop, and that they are now in a race for time. Can Trump help them enact their agenda before the weight of the scandal is so great that the White House ceases to function?
Questioned the day after Comey’s testimony about Trump’s outrageous claim of “total and complete vindication,” administration spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders harrumphed that “the president is not a liar. I think it’s frankly insulting that that question would be asked.”
The truth of course, is that Comey merely confirmed what we already knew.