THE MORNING PLUM:
For many months, leading Republicans have practically pleaded with President Trump in public to avail himself of a simple escape hatch on the Russia scandal: If you just acknowledge that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and take seriously the prospect that Russia will do it again next time, there won’t be a scandal anymore. You have an easy way out, Mr. President. Why not just take it?
But the latest explosive revelations from the New York Times will make that posture much tougher to sustain. Or, at least, that’s what should happen. Instead, it’s perfectly plausible that Republicans will continue to throw Trump that lifeline for as long as possible, which in practice means abdicating on the use of congressional authority to force the full truth about this saga out into the open, even as learning the truth grows ever more urgent.
The Times reports that in January 2017, two weeks before his inauguration, senior intelligence officials privately presented Trump with extensive evidence that Vladimir Putin had personally ordered the campaign of cyber-subterfuge and information warfare that worked to tilt the 2016 election to Trump. If true, as many were quick to point out, then all of Trump’s subsequent dismissals of the Russian sabotage effort amounted to a much more active coverup on behalf of Putin than we knew.
This week, after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III rolled out a July 13 indictment that tied the Kremlin directly to an effort to sabotage American democracy that demonstrated extraordinary scope and reach — including a massive cybertheft crime directed at one of the two major American political parties — Trump stood next to Putin and sided with him as he denied the Russian attack. In response, leading Republicans called on Trump to accept the intelligence community’s consensus view to the contrary, to denounce Putin’s interference and to take seriously the prospect of more to come.
The Republican approach has been to set the threshold for an acceptable Trump response at the point of acknowledgment that the Russian interference effort did take place. In this arrangement, as long as Trump takes that minimal step, there is no need to talk much about why Russia interfered (to elect Trump), or about the fact that the Trump campaign eagerly sought to benefit from that Russian interference, or about why Trump lied to cover that up. There is no need for Republicans to play a more active role in trying to ensure that the fuller truth comes out (by passing a bill protecting the Mueller probe) or in trying to get to that fuller truth themselves (by forcing transparency on Trump’s tax returns, to learn whether he is beholden to Russians in some way).
In this arrangement, as long as Trump is admitting that Russia did interfere, and publicly pretending to take that seriously, House GOP leaders can also continue to lend tacit support to Trump loyalists in the House who are working to delegitimize Mueller’s efforts to flesh out the bigger story. You saw this double game afoot in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s response to Trump’s news conference with Putin. Ryan urged Trump to accept the intel community’s findings, while trying to create the impression that House Republicans are on the same page with the intelligence services on what really happened (which is complicated by the fact that the House Intelligence Committee probe did not even acknowledge that Russia interfered to help Trump).
In so doing, Ryan was simply trying to nudge Trump on to the safe ground for all of them, the place where everyone agrees Russia interfered, and everyone agrees that attacking intelligence professionals is bad (while winking at ongoing efforts to undermine them), without asking any of the follow-up questions that all of this raises. In effect, this is the escape hatch Republicans have offered him.
But the new revelations from the Times fundamentally change the situation. The question is no longer: Why won’t Trump accept the intelligence services’ verdict on what happened, and act accordingly? That question can be easily answered, by, say, the idea that Trump’s ego won’t let him publicly admit to anything that diminishes the greatness of his victory. But the question now is a lot harder: Why did Trump continue actively trying to deceive America into believing that Russian sabotage didn’t happen at all, after having been comprehensively briefed to a previously unknown extent on Putin’s direct involvement in that sabotage effort?
This should only increase the urgency of answering all of those follow-up questions, not to mention the imperative that congressional Republicans use their authority to the fullest extent possible to answer them. Yet, in an interview with CBS News that ran last night, Trump claimed he does acknowledge Russian meddling and even said he warned Putin against doing it again. And now he’s tweeting that this has been his position all along.
So it’s perfectly possible that Republicans will now profess great relief that Trump is now admitting Russian sabotage did happen, as if this settles the issue. But can they really get away with avoiding the questions raised by the new revelation that Trump has had detailed knowledge of Putin’s direct involvement for 18 months now?
* OFFICIALS DON’T KNOW WHAT TRUMP PROMISED PUTIN: The Post reports that senior military officials are scrambling to determine what Trump promised Vladimir Putin in their private meeting:
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis … has not appeared in public this week or commented on the summit. … Adding to the delay … is the fact that the president’s longest encounter with Putin, a two hour-plus session, included no other officials or note-takers, just interpreters.
Congressional Democrats want to bring in Trump’s interpreter for questioning, but shockingly, Republicans aren’t too eager to do that.
* FBI DIRECTOR: RUSSIAN SABOTAGE CONTINUES: FBI Director Christopher Wray makes it as plain as day:
“The intelligence community’s assessment has not changed. … Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and that it continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day. … malign influence operations … are very active, and we could be just a moment away from it going to the next level.”
In other words, it’s happening right now. Meanwhile:
* HOUSE GOP EXCLUDES ELECTION SECURITY MONEY: The Post reports that House Republicans will hold a vote today on a spending bill that doesn’t include new election security money for states:
Republicans argued … that states had plenty of money from prior congressional allocations to spend on election improvements. But … Democrats [said] the need for election security funding has never been clearer in the wake of Trump’s [giving] credence to Putin’s assertion that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election.
When Trump says that, it’s a signal to Putin that he’ll continue shrugging if Russia sabotages our next election. Republicans don’t appear too worried about that. Odd.
* CONGRESS SCRAMBLES TO ACT ON TRUMP: The Associated Press reports on the efforts in Congress that are coming together in the wake of Trump’s embrace of Putin:
A number of senators are swiftly signing on to a bipartisan bill … that would slap new sanctions on Russia or any other country caught posting ads, running fake news or otherwise interfering with election infrastructure. … Two other lawmakers, Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Chris Coons, D-Del., will try to force a vote Thursday on a resolution backing the intelligence community’s findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and must be held accountable.
Here’s an idea. How about trying to force transparency on Trump’s tax returns and protecting the Mueller probe as well?
* DEMOCRATS FACE DEEP STRUCTURAL DISADVANTAGE: The Upshot reports that even if Democrats enjoy a big wave, they might not win the House, due to gerrymandering, population sorting and the number of safe GOP districts:
Today, there are just nine Republicans who represent districts that tilt toward the Democrats … Republicans have so many safe seats that the Democrats would be expected to gain only 22 seats if they flipped Republican-held districts at a rate equivalent to the waves of 2006 or 2010 … It would leave them one seat short of a majority.
To win back the lower chamber, Democrats will probably have to do better than in 2006.
* DEMOCRATS DON’T NEED TO FEAR OCASIO-CORTEZ: E.J. Dionne Jr. persuasively argues that having socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic Party is good for it:
The presence of an active democratic socialist voice … laying out more adventurous positions … moves the boundaries of discussion and could, in the long run, improve the outcomes in legislative bargaining. Radical tax cuts from the right and measured austerity from the center represent a dreary choice for discontented voters and offer little hope for solving the problems that ignite their anger.
If her victory is really hurting Democratic chances in November, as some brow-furrowing pundits suggest, it’s odd that the generic ballot continues to expand.
* TRUMP’S MILITARY PARADE TO COST A ‘FORTUNE’: CNN reports:
Trump’s military parade in DC is likely to cost nearly as much as the now canceled military exercise with South Korea that Trump called “tremendously expensive” and said cost “a fortune,” three US defense officials tell CNN. The parade, which is now scheduled to take place on November 10, is currently estimated to cost approximately $12 million, the officials said.
But the military parade will get liberals mad, so it’s totally worth it.