FBI Director James B. Comey’s testimony that an investigation is underway to determine whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in its effort to interfere with the election, and that there was no evidence President Trump had been wiretapped, marked a new low for the administration. Here is the FBI chief saying the president in effect was lying both when he claimed he was wiretapped and in denying Russia interfered for his benefit in the election.
Ranking committee member Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) elicited the devastating rebuke on Trump’s wiretapping nonsense:
SCHIFF: Director Comey, was the president’s statement that Obama had his wires tapped in Trump Tower a true statement?
COMEY: With respect to the president’s tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully inside the FBI. The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets. …
SCHIFF: So President Obama could not unilaterally order a wiretap of anyone?
COMEY: No president could.
The longer the president and his feeble press secretary cling to the allegation, the more apparent it will be that Trump has lost touch with reality.
Nearly as devastating was Comey’s testimony that Russia wanted Trump to win. He said flatly that “they wanted to hurt our democracy, hurt her, help him. I think all three we were confident in, at least as early as December.” He repeated, “Yes, our analysts had a view that I don’t believe changed, from late fall through to the report on January 6 that it had those three elements.” He also offered that “the assessment of the intelligence community was, as the summer went on and the polls appeared to show that Secretary Clinton was gonna win, the Russians sort of gave up and simply focused on trying to undermine her.”
Trump was the candidate the Kremlin wanted. Trump was the candidate the Kremlin helped. And to everyone’s, including the Kremlin’s, surprise, Trump was the president they/we got.
Republican criticism continued to surface. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) chastised the president for his unsubstantiated wiretap claim. (“He should not have done it.”) Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) pestered the president to tell us what he now believes. Graham told reporters, “I don’t know if this changes the president’s view, but I think the next question to the president, in light of this, is do you still maintain those claims?”
All of that leaves several unanswered questions:
1. Does the hearing, and in particular Republicans’ incessant efforts to divert attention to the leaks about the investigation, suggest a select committee or independent commission is needed? Yes, sort of. Former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin in an email message to his followers argued:
Unfortunately, most House Republicans participating in the hearing today demonstrated that they do not intend to execute a serious investigation of these matters. Instead, they appear committed to partisan obfuscation of even the nature of Russia’s attack and its significance before the American people.
While it is deeply unfortunate that we find our nation in a place in which our President’s campaign requires such investigation, we hope the FBI’s probe into potential criminal and counterintelligence elements of this case will help restore Americans’ confidence in their government. However, a broader investigation that also addresses the non-criminal elements of these matters is required and is unlikely to happen in the House Intelligence Committee, Congress should establish a bipartisan, special select committee to do so.
That is a reasonable position, but so long as we have confidence in the FBI’s investigation it should be allowed to proceed without another investigative body at this time. At the conclusion of the investigation however it would seem critical to evaluate the FBI findings as a policy matter, make recommendations and evaluate the FBI’s role as well.
2. Does this hit to the president’s credibility bleed over to other issues? Let’s not mince words. The president has been shown to the satisfaction of most fair-minded people to be unreliable, if not intentionally dishonest. With critical votes on health care, the budget and other matters, Republicans may view the presidency on the cusp of a tailspin. Some may conclude it unwise to follow his lead, rely on his promises and expect him to defend their positions, especially those that are publicly unpopular.
3. Why did Comey not bring this up during the campaign? Democrats are livid because of the perceived double standard. The investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails was raised, discussed in testimony (in breach of normal protocol when an investigation is closed) and then re-raised for no real reason just days before the election. The investigation into the Trump campaign remained hushed up. One topic for an independent commission would be to explain the discrepancy and to recommend procedures for future elections.
4. Will this reignite the demands for Trump’s tax returns? Democrats have argued that in order to explore potential collusion, investigators must know of any financial connections between Trump and the Russians or Trump’s team and the Russians. Already we know Trump’s dependence on Russian money is greater than he let on. Last week, Reuters reported, “A Reuters review has found that at least 63 individuals with Russian passports or addresses have bought at least $98.4 million worth of property in seven Trump-branded luxury towers in southern Florida, according to public documents, interviews and corporate records.” Moreover, the review found: “The buyers include politically connected businessmen, such as a former executive in a Moscow-based state-run construction firm that works on military and intelligence facilities, the founder of a St. Petersburg investment bank and the co-founder of a conglomerate with interests in banking, property and electronics.” For now, however, the focus is on whether contacts did occur and between which parties. If those matters are determined, then the identities of people who may have had financial ties to Trump should be considered. As a political matter, of course, if Trump lied about doing business in Russia or being in debt, his presidency will be fatally damaged.
5. How desperate is Trump? Trump’s misleading and inaccurate tweets during the hearing claiming that collusion was disproved (!) earned him four Pinocchios. (“The president’s tweets throughout the day were misleading, inaccurate or simply false. The gravity of the disclosures might have called for a more restrained response, as the White House’s well of credibility is only so deep. But the president chose another approach — which clearly backfired, tweet after tweet.”) For someone with nothing to hide and no reason for worry, his behavior strikes us as inexplicable. It was, of course, impulsive tweeting about nonexistent wiretapping that put Trump in this situation. We’ll see whether he has the self-control to stop making his situation worse, tweet by tweet.