The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion New reporting deals another big blow to Trump’s dangerous Russia spin

President Trump on Oct. 31 refused to answer questions from reporters about the special counsel's investigation. (Video: The Washington Post)


We all need to do a better job stating clearly what President Trump’s position on the Russia probes really is and what it really means. When Trump dismisses discussion of Russian interference in the 2016 election as a hoax, he isn’t merely saying the charge of collusion with that meddling is a hoax. He’s also saying that the alleged Russian sabotage itself, irrespective of whether his campaign colluded with it, definitively never happened at all and, by extension, doesn’t merit any inquiry or discussion.

Some new reporting out this morning underscores in a fresh way just how reckless, irresponsible and potentially dangerous to our democracy this stance has become.

The Associated Press reports that the Russian effort to swing the election to Trump may have been much broader than previously known. The AP reports on extensive new data collected by a cybersecurity firm — which accessed it via a misstep by hackers — that experts say leaves little doubt of direct Russian involvement in the hacking and reveals a much broader set of targets for it than previous reporting had indicated. One key revelation concerns how many Democratic Party officials were hit by the hacks, per the AP: “More than 130 party workers, campaign staffers and supporters of the party were targeted, including [campaign chair John] Podesta and other members of [Hillary] Clinton’s inner circle.”

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department has identified “more than six members of the Russian government” who were allegedly behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee. If charges are filed, the Journal notes, “the case would provide the clearest picture yet of the actors behind the DNC intrusion.”

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe is tasked, first and foremost, with investigating “the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” in addition to looking at any “coordination” with U.S. campaign officials. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s charge is similar. But Trump has repeatedly dismissed the very idea that there was any Russian interference at all as a hoax. To be fair, at times, he has acknowledged it may have happened and that we need to investigate the details, but far more often, his stance has been to dismiss the whole story as a “big Dem HOAX” and an “excuse for losing the election.”

This undermines efforts to develop a full accounting of that interference — which, in turn, undermines efforts to prevent it from happening again, something U.S. intelligence services have warned is likely. The new AP reporting, by revealing just how ambitious that interference appeared to be, underscores how much is riding on developing this full accounting, and it should prompt us to revisit just how destructive Trump’s blithe dismissals threaten to be.

The new reporting is also cause to revisit the posture of Republican lawmakers toward the Russian meddling efforts during the 2016 election. As The Post has reported, Obama administration officials privately asked senior congressional officials in both parties to show a united front against Russian sabotage, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused, claiming (in The Post’s words) that “he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.”

Former CIA director John Brennan has delivered new public remarks about this that deserve attention. Brennan told “Frontline” the following about this meeting:

“In those briefings of Congress, some of the individuals expressed concern that this was motivated by partisan interests on the part of the [Obama] administration. And I took offense to that. I told them that this is an intelligence assessment; that this is an intelligence matter.”

The key here is that we don’t know just how extensive a case for Russian meddling was presented to these lawmakers. It is plausible that it was quite extensive. And as Brennan notes, it was backed up by U.S. intelligence and represented a request for a non-partisan, bi-partisan response. Yet McConnell killed this effort at bi-partisanship by claiming he would cast any public warnings as “partisan.”

To be clear, if Trump wants to say that the Russian sabotage has not been fully verified and that we don’t know the full story; that the Obama administration didn’t do enough on its own to counter the meddling; and that collusion has not been proven — well, all of that is defensible and true. But Trump is going a lot further than that. He’s saying definitively that the meddling itself never took place. The true nature of his position keeps getting lost in a fog of charges and countercharges about collusion. But we shouldn’t let that happen.

* REPUBLICANS WORK TO KEEP TRUMP IN GOOD SPIRITS: Trump called the New York Times to insist he’s “not angry” over the Russia probes, which is almost certainly nonsense, but this is more interesting:

In the interview, Mr. Trump added that he was buoyed by fresh polling he said he had seen from swing states, supplied to him by the Republican National Committee chairwoman, Ronna Romney McDaniel, earlier on Wednesday. “I just got fantastic poll numbers,” the president said, listing what he saw as his biggest accomplishments, including a focus on deregulation and low unemployment rates. He did not cite any specific polls or reveal any numbers from Ms. McDaniel.

Yep, just keep feeding that presidential ego and hope for the best, guys.

* GOP TAX PLAN WILL REPEAL ESTATE TAX: Axios reports more details on what today’s tax rollout will look like:

The bill repeals the estate tax — though it’s phased in. And after much angst, Republican tax-writers have decided there’s too much political pain in meddling with 401k retirement benefits.

Trump will claim both of these as huge wins for the middle class, arguing that estate-tax repeal will be a huge boon to family farms and truckers, which is complete baloney.

* TRUMP HAS A BIG MATH PROBLEM: The New York Times spells out the fundamental math problem at the heart of the complications bedeviling the GOP tax-reform push, which flows from Trump’s “two non-negotiable demands”:

Mr. Trump has insisted on “massive” tax cuts, including reducing the top corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 35 percent and delivering a tax cut for the middle class. … [Republicans] are running into political challenges as they try to offset lost revenue to stay within the confines of the $1.5 trillion tax cut that lawmakers have voted to allow.

The middle-class cut will not end up happening. And needless to say, Trump can blame others if the middle class hates the plan or if it fails.

* REPUBLICANS BLAST TRUMP TERRORISM RESPONSE: Trump immediately blamed the New York terrorist attack on Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Politico reports that some Republicans are uncomfortable with this:

“I think that less than 24 hours afterward, we ought to not apportion blame and actually try to find out the facts and be a little more unified,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) added, “I don’t think it’s particularly helpful, no.”

Meanwhile, behold this, from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.): “I think the president’s entitled to do what he wants to do, and Sen. Schumer is very capable of defending himself.”

* GOP CANDIDATES RUNNING ON TRUMPIST MESSAGES: We’ve talked about how Republicans are running on Trumpist race-baiting in Virginia, but NPR reports that New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno is doing the same with her own ad:

It opens with archive video of a shackled man in an orange prison jumpsuit. A gravelly-voiced narrator says: “Illegal alien and child rapist Jose Carranza shot four New Jersey students in the head. Three died, shattering their families.” The murders on a Newark schoolyard in 2007 became one of the grisliest crimes in recent memory in New Jersey. … Carranza, one of six perpetrators, was in the country illegally.

Even if Guadagno gets crushed (which looks all but certain), 2018 will be awash in stuff like this if Republican Ed Gillespie wins in Virginia.

* AND TRUMP FOLLOWS THE AUTOCRAT’S PLAYBOOK: E.J. Dionne Jr. casts Trump’s ongoing embrace of loopy conspiracy theories about Mueller (while denying the realities revealed by the Russia probes) as something we’ve seen before:

Trump is faithfully following the autocrat’s playbook. He’s trying to undermine a lawful inquiry that endangers his hold on power. He has suggested that his opponent in the last election deserves to be jailed. He’s inventing stories about dark coverups by his enemies to sow confusion about the proven facts of his own team’s skulduggery. … What’s going on cannot be written off as normal partisanship. The push to discredit and derail Mueller risks becoming an existential threat to our democratic values and republican practices.

Yes, and all of this should be seen not merely as an effort to “distract,” but also as a clear sign of his fundamental unfitness to serve.