Team of Cowards

On Monday, March 12, 2018, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee concluded their year-long investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. They concluded that neither Donald Trump nor anyone involved in his campaign colluded with Russia. Texas Representative Mike Conaway told reporters, “perhaps some bad judgment, inappropriate meetings, inappropriate judgment at taking meetings,” but nothing amounting to a coordinated and deliberate effort working with Russians to win the White House. Though the committee’s Republicans agreed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, they “disagree with the narrative that they were trying to help Trump.”
But do the House Intelligence Committee Republicans’ findings mean there wasn’t any collusion? Absolutely not. A US intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment clearly stated that Russia wanted Donald Trump to win. Then there’s Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians for working to help Trump win through sowing divisions via the internet. Some of pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI. George Papadopoulos, Michael Flynn, and Rick Gates have agreed to plea deals in which they’ll cooperate with Mueller’s team.

On March 15, Mueller reportedly subpoenaed Trump Organization documents, including some related to Russia. Though it’s not exactly clear what this subpoena covers or why Mueller issued one, it’s not hard to guess. Donald Trump has made a concerted effort to keep his finances secret. He has never released his tax returns and despite calling himself a billionaire, we have no idea how much money he makes. Recent reports also suggested that Mueller has turned his attention to some of Trump’s business activities, including his past attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. In fact, CNN reported in February that Mueller was questioning witnesses about Trump’s 2013 trip to Moscow and asking about when he decided to run for president. Not to mention, Trump has a decades long history of corrupt business practices and shady associations with dictators and crooks.

In addition, the Mueller probe has expanded to include foreign business dealings from people within Trump’s orbit, most notably his son-in-law Jared Kushner. According to CNN, Mueller looked at Kushner’s efforts to get foreign investors for his family’s real estate company’s projects during the transition. The special counsel’s investigators have also asked witnesses about Kushner’s talks with a Chinese insurance company and a former Qatari prime minister. NBC News reported that Mueller’s team asked about Kushner’s conversations with potential investors from Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. They were particularly interested whether these business talks “later shaped White House policies.” And they didn’t leave empty-handed either. Because Qatari officials claimed having evidence that Kushner coordinated with Gulf States to hurt Qatar, but “decided against cooperating with Mueller for now out of fear it would further strain the country’s relations with the White House.”

Furthermore, Democrats on the committee have consistently argued that Republicans had no real intention of finding out the truth. In one instance, they claimed that Republicans didn’t use the committee’s full power to subpoena documents or compel further testimony that key witnesses held from investigators. They also noted that Republicans never interviewed key witnesses like former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, and his associate Rick Gates, all of whom Mueller indicted. In addition, let’s not forget that California Rep. Devin Nunes chaired the House Intelligence Committee, despite being on Donald Trump’s transition team. In fact, he had to recuse himself for sharing Trump campaign investigation information with the Trump administration without letting ranking Democrat Adam Schiff know about it. Nor did the committee Republicans let Schiff know that they’ve concluded the investigation. Nunes also wrote a memo claiming the FBI illegally surveilled a low-level Trump foreign policy adviser, which Schiff rebuked. As Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro told Vox, “The premature closing of this investigation represents a betrayal of the American people and public trust. There is no possible way that this finding can be verified given the amount of outstanding subpoenas we have, leaving the Committee and Congress’ investigative and enforcement powers at stake.”

While the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation has been marred with hyperpartisan drama, we must understand that Republicans have spent the last year to protect Donald Trump to hold onto their power in Congress. They’ve tried to delegitimize the US intelligence community’s assertion that Russia tried to help Donald Trump win the White House. They’ve tried to delegitimize the Mueller investigation. They’ve even tried to paint the whole Russian investigation as a conspiracy between the Democrats and the FBI which it’s not. But all these efforts have failed. In fact, a day after the House Intelligence Committee ended their investigation with a no collusion verdict, leading GOP members of that panel have walked away from that claim and grudgingly admitted that the Kremlin worked to undermine Hillary Clinton and boost Trump. That’s basically a 180 from what they claimed before. Still, the GOP’s sudden retreat in their assertions about Russian meddling is a latest blow to the House Republicans’ investigation credibility, which the Democrats have derided as a partisan farce aimed at defending Trump from collusion accusations rather than uncovering the truth.

Now the Democrats aren’t above the trivial partisan mudslinging. But seeing how Republicans conducted themselves during the House Intelligence Committee, it’s difficult to disagree. Especially when it comes to Republicans rejecting a January 2017 report by the CIA, FBI, and NSA claiming that Russia was initially focused on harming Clinton but “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” Democrats have also publicly detailed leads they claim Republicans should’ve pursued but didn’t. These range from whether the Trump campaign worked with Wikileaks to whether Donald Trump has undisclosed ties to Russia which can give them leverage over him. They say that Republicans should’ve forced tech companies like Apple, Twitter, and WhatsApp to provide access to messages to Trump’s campaign team sent to other aides and outside organizations like Wikileaks. They also wanted Republicans to make sure firms like Google, Facebook, and Snapchat turned over more information about Russia’s potential use of social media accounts to spread messages undercutting Clinton and boosted Trump.

There’s also a little-known Trump aide named Tera Dahl who held a senior role in his campaign and served as deputy chief at the National Security Council after he took office. Before becoming a formal campaign staffer, Dahl was part of the foreign advisory office the Trump campaign set up in April 2016 after Donald Trump announced a slew of advisers to his team, including George Papadopoulos and Carter Page. After the office’s establishment, Trump adviser Walid Phares suggested to the head that the campaign try to set up contact with foreign diplomats. Dahl was tasked with running the initiative with 2 other campaign staffers. According to them, that outreach was in part to try to preemptively sell Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban” to other countries’ leaders. Advisory team staff met with the Italian ambassador to the US and were scheduled to meet with Spain’s ambassador before senior Trump campaign officials shut down the outreach program after less than a month. Since resigning from the National Security Council in July, Dahl has largely remained out of the spotlight. But Democrats are interested in her because in July 2016, Carter Page sent her and another Trump adviser an email offering to report back on a planned trip from Moscow that month. Page promised he’d send “a readout soon regarding some incredible insights and outreach I’ve received from a few Russian legislators and senior members of the Presidential administration here.” Those Russian “insights” are precisely why Democrats want to hear from her and why they thought she should’ve been forced to testify. As Rep. Schiff said in his critique, “The Committee has reason to believe that Ms. Dahl would have insight into Trump campaign-related meetings and calls with foreign persons, including Russian officials or representatives.” Due to House Republicans formally closing their probe, we won’t be hearing from Dahl anytime soon, if ever. Guess it’s up to Robert Mueller to get this canary to sing.

We should also understand that Donald Trump ran a chaotic and disorganized presidential campaign like you’d expect by a political novice. His lack of organization, combined with unorthodox policies like attacks on traditional allies and kind words about traditional US adversaries, led most mainstream Republican operatives and experts to shy away. As a result, his campaign attracted a cast of incompetent, questionable, and/or pro-Russian characters. Russia saw Trump’s chaotic campaign as an irresistible target for Russian intelligence and repeatedly attempted to penetrate it. In fact, they successfully contacted several Trump campaign officials ranging from junior figures like George Papadopoulos to at least one member of Trump’s inner circle, Donald Trump Jr. Because Russia tried reaching out to the Trump team on so many occasions and through so many avenues, Mueller now has plenty of leads to investigate.

Though the notion of Russia attempting to influence American elections isn’t particularly new, what made 2016 stand out was the combined outreach to a potentially friendly presidential campaign and spreading fake news with the theft of Hillary Clinton’s private emails. It was a comprehensive campaign that would’ve never really worked without a campaign like Donald Trump’s in the field. Trump’s mercurial personality and heterodox policy ideas alienated much of the mainstream Republican Party and virtually all its foreign policy establishment. In fact, neoconservatives and other GOP Russia hawks from the George W. Bush administration and Mitt Romney’s 2012 foreign policy team were among the party’s loudest Never Trumpers. So with the top tier of talent unavailable, Trump had to draw people outside the GOP mainstream: people who had been marginalized either due to little experience and questionable views on race or for having surprisingly pro-Russian policy positions. Campaign aide Sam Nunberg had limited political experience and a history of racist Facebook posts. George Papadopoulos was 29 and listed the Model UN on his resume and lied about the extent of his involvement but still got to be a Trump foreign policy adviser. This would be like me getting a cab driver job despite having no driver’s license and lying about driving a toy car during my childhood. Paul Manafort’s sketchy decade-long work for pro-Russian Ukranian leader Viktor Yanukovych wouldn’t put him on any other GOP candidate’s shortlist for campaign manager. Steve Bannon ran Breitbart as a platform of the Alt-Right. Steve Miller is in his early 30s and was a buddy white supremacist in high school. Even the Trump advisers with the most impressive-seeming resumes like Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions had unusually close ties or warm feelings about the Kremlin. This whole dynamic made Trump a candidate appear friendly for the Kremlin if he won along with several access points through staff they knew or inexperienced that the Russians tried to exploit. As former CIA operative John Sipher told Vox, “[When] Trump people are being positive toward Russia or even helping out, you almost have a perfect storm, where all the Russian efforts are coming together, and they’re seeing they have enough material to put together a comprehensive program.” Those appearing to have Kremlin ties tried tactic after tactic to gain access to Trump’s camp. Donald Trump Jr. was offered Russian assistance through his friend and Russian pop star Emin Agalarov. A group of Russian hackers involved with the Clinton email theft used the persona Guccifer 2.0 to exchange private Twitter messages with Trump political adviser Roger Stone. Papadopoulos met with a London-based professor claiming to have “thousands” of Clinton emails and a woman claiming to be Putin’s niece. Too bad for him the feds got wind of it when he drunkenly bragged about it to an Australian ambassador.

Of course, we don’t know the extent to which this lead to actual, intentional collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign or if such collusion happened at all. But the extent of the contacts makes it difficult to believe there wasn’t any. But what’s clear is the Trump campaign didn’t tell anyone to knock it off. In fact, roughly the opposite happened. Trump Jr. took the meeting with Agalarov’s representative, answering to the offer of Russia dirt on Clinton with the line: “If it’s what you say I love it.” When a “professor friend” offered Papadopoulos “thousands” of Clinton emails stolen by Russia, he didn’t report it to the FBI. In fact, he went around telling top Trump campaign officials that he wanted to set up an official Russian visit, writing in an email: “[I] have been receiving a lot of calls over the last month about Putin wanting to host him [Trump] and the team when the time is right.” We don’t know the extent to which Trump Jr. and Papadopoulos spoke for the overall campaign. But things in the Trump campaign were so disorganized that nobody told these 2 political neophytes to cut it out. Even if they weren’t authorized to talk to Russians, it would’ve been reasonable for the Russians to think they were. By refusing to tell the Russians to stop and creating a chaotic pro-Russian campaign, Donald Trump implicitly encouraged Vladimir Putin to intensify his attempts to interfere with the US election.

The House Republicans’ willingness to end their year-long investigation into Russian election meddling by rejecting the US intelligence community’s unanimous assessment presents the most tangible evidence to date that they’re going all in to shield Donald Trump from campaign collusion accusations. As Rep. Eric Swalwell said in a statement, “Instead of defending America from a future attack, the Republican response has been to constantly attack the police and intelligence officials charged with guarding our democracy.” The release of an upcoming report comes as Trump’s defenders inside and outside Congress step up their attacks on Mueller, pointing to a mound of “evidence” (much of it exaggerated, mischaracterized, or outright false) to justify his firing. By accepting that the Russians meddled but saying that they didn’t prefer Trump, Republicans aim to build a public case that there’s no need for the Mueller probe since there’s no actual evidence for collusion. Making that case means attacking the US intelligence and law enforcement who explicitly reported that Russia meddled in the US election to explicitly help Trump win the White House. Naturally, Trump and his allies have rejected the 2017 findings, partly because they believe they’re part of a broad attempt to delegitimize his surprise electoral win and prevent his administration from focusing on its policy agenda. There is also a faction of congressional Republicans who believe that Mueller’s probe is biased against Trump and that its leader needs to be fired. The fight has spilled into public view and grown increasingly ugly. But the Republicans’ willingness to retain power through any means necessary undermines Americans’ trust in government and democracy. Instead of honestly assessing Russian election meddling, the GOP prefer to brush the whole thing as a distraction. Because honestly assessing the whole thing might mean turning against Trump and losing elections. If they didn’t find any evidence of collusion, then it’s because they didn’t want to.

While the question of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign remains, there is no question that Donald Trump has tried to interfere in the investigation. Trump has tried ordering counsel Doug McGahn to fire Mueller and later lie about threatening it to the public. He’s also brought up his former chief-of-staff Reince Priebus’s testimony with Mueller investigators during the latter’s December visit to the White House. These two interactions could fuel perceptions that Trump tried influencing both Mueller witnesses, putting him in further legal trouble. He’s reportedly asked Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the Russia investigation and whether the guy was on his “team.” Hell, Mueller wasn’t involved in the Russia investigation until after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, whose “loyalty” he requested. He’s also inquired Attorney General Jeff Sessions about who then-deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe voted for in 2016. He’s asked Sessions about his “loyalty” after his recusal from the Russia probe. Trump has also publicly doubted increasingly clear evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 election on Twitter, TV interviews, and rallies on numerous occasions. Mueller’s case against Trump looks incredibly damning as of 2018. The more Republicans defend Trump, the more they enable him to inflict damage on our democratic institutions. Avoiding to honestly assess the Russian meddling situation is not good for America, no matter what the reason.

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