The Trump-Russia scandal continues to widen, with revelations that are making it increasingly clear that not only do we need a full investigation, but that investigation needs to be independent and bipartisan, and include public hearings. Some Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, have suggested that the Senate Intelligence Committee can handle it.
But let’s make no mistake: that’s a way of sweeping it under the rug. The Intelligence Committee’s hearings are closed to the public and press, and while there will certainly need to be parts of this investigation that are kept behind closed doors lest “sources and methods” be compromised, we need to learn as much as possible about this scandal. A dusty, redacted report released a year from now will not be enough.
If this keeps going in the direction it’s headed, this could stand alongside Watergate and Iran-Contra as one of the most important scandals in modern American history. It’s increasingly looking like a hostile foreign power run by a murderous thug tried to swing an American election, and may have succeeded — at least, in helping to tip it.
The latest revelation comes from William Arkin, Ken Dilanian, and Cynthia McFadden of NBC News:
U.S. intelligence officials now believe with “a high level of confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin became personally involved in the covert Russian campaign to interfere in the U.S. presidential election, senior U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News.
Two senior officials with direct access to the information say new intelligence shows that Putin personally directed how hacked material from Democrats was leaked and otherwise used. The intelligence came from diplomatic sources and spies working for U.S. allies, the officials said.
Putin’s objectives were multifaceted, a high-level intelligence source told NBC News. What began as a “vendetta” against Hillary Clinton morphed into an effort to show corruption in American politics and to “split off key American allies by creating the image that [other countries] couldn’t depend on the U.S. to be a credible global leader anymore,” the official said.
Now we should caution that it’s possible these reports are mistaken. The sources are anonymous, and the information could be erroneous. But that makes it even more important that we learn everything we can about what exactly happened and what Putin’s involvement was.
There’s also a report by Eric Lipton and Scott Shane in the New York Times about how Russian hackers targeted Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives, penetrating their systems, finding documents describing their campaign strategies or other damaging information, and then releasing that information with the help of anonymous local American bloggers. That information was then used against them by these candidates’ opponents, and by groups like a super PAC tied to Paul Ryan. The candidates in question were well-chosen to include those in key swing districts. How did Russian hackers know who to target? Who were the American bloggers working with them? Those are only a couple of the questions that this report raises.
And this is critical to understand: There is reason for serious skepticism about whether the Republican Congress can be trusted to investigate this scandal. Their response to Donald Trump’s copious and appalling financial conflicts of interest has essentially been, “eh, no biggie.” As this blog detailed yesterday, that response is part of a broader pattern in which Republicans are effectively looking the other way while Trump assaults our norms and democracy, and given that, there’s no reason to assume Republicans will investigate the allegations of Russian interference with the seriousness they deserve.
For the sake of completeness, here’s a list of all the different strands that connect Donald Trump to Russia and the Kremlin. Some of these are relatively benign and others less so, some of them relate to the hacking scandal and some don’t, but it’s helpful to see them all together:
- Hackers connected to the Russian government penetrated the systems of the Democratic National Committee and the email of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta, then passed what they found to Wikileaks, which released it over an extended period of time in order to maximize the political damage to Clinton. The American intelligence committee has concluded that this was done for the purpose of helping Donald Trump get elected.
- As of now it is unknown whether Russian hackers also penetrated the systems of the Republican Party or Republican officials, or what they might have found and are now holding if they did.
- We now have reports that Vladimir Putin was personally involved in directing the hacking.
- Russian hackers, with the cooperation of at least some Americans, obtained private information on Democratic House candidates and released it in order to damage them.
- Roger Stone, a longtime friend and adviser to Trump, admitted in October that he had “back-channel communications” with Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, about the release of the hacked emails.
- Again and again, Trump has offered public praise for Vladimir Putin’s leadership, his strength, and his popularity. “I will tell you that I think in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A,” Trump said.
- Trump has also defended Putin against charges that the Russian president has had his political enemies and critical journalists murdered, something that has been extensively documented. “It’s never been proven that he’s killed anybody,” Trump claimed last December. “So, you know, you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, at least in our country. He has not been proven that he’s killed reporters.”
- During the writing of the 2016 Republican platform, Trump staffers moved to gut a section expressing support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, over the objection of many on the committee.
- On one occasion Trump read to a rally a distorted version of a hacked John Podesta email which he apparently got from Sputnik News, a site created by the Russian government to disseminate propaganda.
- At the same time, Trump was denying that Russia had anything to do with the hacking and even denying that any hacking had taken place. “I notice, anytime anything wrong happens,” he said during one of his debates with Clinton, “they like to say the Russians are — she doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking.”
- Paul Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign manager, acted as an adviser to former Ukrainian prime minister and Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Moscow in 2014 when Ukrainians revolted against his rule. After it was revealed that “Handwritten ledgers show $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Mr. Manafort from Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party,” Manafort left the campaign but continued to advise Trump informally.
- Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, has made a paid speech to Russia Today, a Russian state media outlet, and sat next to Putin at a dinner celebrating RT’s anniversary. Flynn claims that RT — which exists in order to promote Putin and his government — is no different from CNN or MSNBC.
- In March, Trump cited Carter Page as one of his principal foreign policy advisers. Page is a controversial figure with shadowy connections in Russia; the Trump campaign later insisted it had nothing to do with him.
- While much of Trump’s finances are opaque because of his refusal to release his tax returns, we know that he has long sought business opportunities in Russia. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump, Jr. said at a real estate conference in 2008. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
- In July, Trump invited Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s email. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said.
- Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has extensive dealings with the Russian government in his role as CEO of ExxonMobil. The Russian government gave Tillerson its Order of Friendship award in 2013, and Tillerson has been critical of sanctions on Russia.
- Trump has suggested that if Russia attacked a NATO country, he would not automatically come to that country’s defense, but would consider whether he felt they were contributing enough to the alliance.
To repeat, some of these items have nothing to do with the scandal and some are defensible. But they all relate to how the next administration is going to deal with Russia. What’s important now is that we get an independent, unconstrained, public investigation, so Americans can know exactly what happened in 2016. Anything less will be a betrayal of the public trust.