In a completely unexpected development, the House Intelligence Committee announced this week that its exhaustive investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election has concluded, and there is no evidence of collusion between anyone in the Trump campaign and Russia. Case closed! What a relief.
Maybe it was because the news broke just before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired — as was one of Tillerson's close aides, as was the president's "body man," who apparently has some gambling issues (no security risk there) — but the Intelligence Committee's exoneration of the president didn't make quite the splash they were no doubt hoping for. Or maybe it was because by now the House Intelligence Committee has all the credibility of the 6-year-old down the street who tells you that his dad is an astronaut who plays in the NBA and invented skateboards. If President Trump wanted a whitewash, he certainly could have done better than this.
In their yet-to-be-released report, the Republicans on the Intelligence Committee grudgingly admit that Russia did attempt to meddle in our election, but they make the extraordinary claim that the Kremlin did so without any preference as to who would win. This is in direct contradiction of the American intelligence community, which last year released its collective judgment that "Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump."
It also flies in the face of everything that went on in broad daylight: When the Russians hacked into Democratic Party emails and released them with a timing meant to maximize damage to Clinton (one set was released during the Democratic convention, and the other immediately after the Access Hollywood tape came to light), it's a little hard to say they weren't trying to help either candidate. Naturally, the president gave his lickspittles an all-caps shoutout:
THE HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE HAS, AFTER A 14 MONTH LONG IN-DEPTH INVESTIGATION, FOUND NO EVIDENCE OF COLLUSION OR COORDINATION BETWEEN THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN AND RUSSIA TO INFLUENCE THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2018
What the Republicans on the committee seem to have missed is that if you want to use your investigation to throw people off the scent, you have to convey the impression of seriousness and impartiality. Instead, they've suffered one embarrassing pratfall after another in their attempts to exonerate the president and his team, the most dramatic of which was the "Nunes memo," in which committee chair Devin Nunes tried to convince everyone that the entire Russia scandal is a misbegotten outrage stemming from the FBI's unfair surveillance of former Trump aide Carter Page. Even on its own terms the Nunes memo was a dud, but when the Democrats on the committee released their rebuttal, it was shown to be an absurdly misleading dud.
And now it's going to happen all over again. On Tuesday The Washington Post's Greg Sargent spoke with the committee's chief Democrat, who revealed what's on its way:
In an interview with me this morning, Rep. Adam B. Schiff — the ranking Democrat on the Intel Committee — confirmed that Democrats will issue a minority report that will seek to rebut the GOP conclusions.
But here's the real point to understand about this minority report: It will detail all the investigative avenues that House Republicans declined to take — the interviews that they didn't conduct, and the leads that they didn't try to chase down and verify. And Schiff confirmed that the report will include new facts — ones that have not been made public yet — that Republicans didn't permit to influence their conclusions. [The Washington Post]
That sounds like it will be most enlightening.
And even what's been made public so far seems pretty clear. Trump aide George Papadopoulos was tipped off months in advance that the Kremlin was in possession of emails that would be damaging to Clinton. Trump confidante Roger Stone was reportedly in communication with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, which the Russians used to disseminate what they stole. And of course, Donald Trump, Jr. was contacted by an associate seeking to set up a meeting with a group of Russians as "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump"; Junior, after replying "If it's what you say I love it," then arranged the now-infamous meeting with Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner.
There may be more, but that's more than enough. So how can Republicans say with a straight face that there was no collusion? Part of the problem is that the definition of "collusion" has become so nebulous. You know how when you say a word over and over, it begins to lose meaning and winds up sounding like nothing more than a weird collection of sounds? That's what has happened to "collusion."
It has now reached the point where if you try hard enough you can dismiss anything that happened as not real collusion. Sure, the top leadership of the campaign sought to get dirt on Clinton from Russia. But was it written down in a signed "Contract To Collude"? Did the parties involved cut their palms with a ceremonial knife and then shake hands while gazing intently into one another's eyes? Were there commemorative key chains exchanged? Then whatever it was, it must not have been "collusion."
If there's one thing this confirms, it's that we aren't going to get a full accounting of what happened with Russia out of this Congress, at least as long as protecting President Trump is their highest priority. That leaves it to Robert Mueller, who doesn't seem to be affected by the president and his allies insisting that nobody colluded with anybody. Take it away, special counsel.