Should there be a thorough investigation into possible relationships between members of the Donald Trump campaign and the Russian government, with a special focus on the question of whether there was coordination between the Trump operation and the hackers, presumably affiliated with Russian intelligence, who made so much trouble for the Democrats last time around? Of course there should.
The problem is: Whom would you trust to do it?
There is in fact not all that much currently in the public record that offers a great deal of cause for concern regarding the Trump team and the Russians. There was the Paul Manafort business. There have been some other self-inflicted wounds, including Jeff Sessions’s clumsy and not-altogether-forthcoming statement during his confirmation hearing, when he said he had not met with Russian officials during the course of the campaign; in reality, he had met twice with the Russian ambassador, the overtime-earning, omnipresent Sergey Kislyak. Sessions says he was misunderstood, that he meant he’d never met with the Russians in his role as a campaign surrogate, not that he’d never met with them at all.
Of course Senator Sessions had met with any number of foreign representatives in the course of his legislative duties, but his meetings with Kislyak came at two very politically charged moments: first, at the Republican convention, and then in September, in his office, as the political world was convulsed with the hacking story in the run-up to the presidential election. Perhaps they only discussed the bumper wheat crop of 2016, which is the pride of Rostov Oblast.
There was also the question of why a server at a Russian bank kept pinging a U.S. server registered to the Trump Organization, but nothing came of that. There has been a federal investigation into, as the New York Times put it, “possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump,” but it “is not clear whether the intercepted communications had anything to do with Mr. Trump’s campaign, or Mr. Trump himself. It is also unclear whether the inquiry has anything to do with an investigation into the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computers and other attempts to disrupt the elections in November.” (Andrew C. McCarthy takes a long look at the question here, with a whole Kara Sea’s worth of cold water.) There is the possibility (“likely,” the Wall Street Journal says) that Donald Trump Jr. had the bad taste and poor judgment to accept a $50,000 speaking fee from a couple of Vladimir Putin’s allies in the middle of all this. And there are bits and pieces more.
I enjoy a good conspiracy theory, but in the same way I enjoy Star Wars movies: It is entertaining to spend a little time in that world, but I don’t expect to see any Kowakian monkey-lizards in this one, unless I am visiting Middlebury College. The most likely explanation for all of this is the most obvious one: Putin takes a zero-sum view of world affairs and believes that having a fractious and divided United States serves Russian interests; Trump, who does not have much background in politics, is not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially with the prospect of a humiliating defeat to Hillary Rodham Clinton bearing down on him. One version of this view, that Moscow interfered with U.S. elections with the intention of seeing the election of a weakened Mrs. Clinton rather than an emboldened and pugnacious Donald Trump, does not strike me as far-fetched, and it offers the poetic possibility that both Trump and Putin are in the position of the Yorkie that finally caught up with the speeding Buick and now has no idea what to do with it.
But allow me to suggest, with due humility, that my best guess is not what you want to hang the future of the Western world upon, which is why a sensible person without any strong partisan commitments could look at this situation and say, “Well, maybe we ought to have a look into all this, just to be sure.”
Which is an excellent idea, except for the small problem alluded to above: Whom do we trust to oversee such an investigation?
The Obama administration left us with a poison bouquet, a federal government whose investigatory agencies are thoroughly corrupted, politicized, and untrustworthy. We know for a fact that the Internal Revenue Service, acting after demands from Democratic elected officials, targeted conservative-leaning activist groups for investigation and harassment, and that this harassment was outrageous, including demands that religiously oriented organizations disclose the very contents of their prayers. We know that that Internal Revenue Service illegally and maliciously leaked information about the donors of the National Organization for Marriage, in order to facilitate political and financial retaliation against them. We know that evidence, including e-mails, was destroyed to subvert investigation into this criminal conspiracy, and that congressional Democrats went to extraordinary lengths to protect IRS officials from being punished for their wrongdoing. We know that one of the key figures in that case, Lois Lerner, is enjoying a large federal pension rather than a small federal prison cell.
We know that the Department of Justice was wildly politicized during the Obama years, doing Democrats’ bidding on everything from voter-intimidation cases to the Clinton e-mail case. We know that the National Labor Relations Board was used as a political weapon to try to punish Boeing for setting up new production in Republican-leaning South Carolina rather than Democratic-leaning Washington State. We know that the ATF was used to audit a business whose owners were not involved in A, T, or F, but who were involved in election-reform projects, and that the same firm was targeted by OSHA and the IRS. We know that a politicized EPA was involved in such extraordinary shenanigans that its director felt the need to set up a pseudonymous e-mail account in order to hide her activities from ordinary oversight. Even our Democratic friends have concluded that the FBI under the Obama administration was politicized, though they cannot quite seem to make up their minds about the direction or intent of it.
Barack Obama liked to talk about capital-H History, about “making History” and being “on the right side of History.” And though he may not go down as a particularly consequential figure (much of the drama of the Obama years was just that: drama), Obama will be remembered by the historians for a few things: for being the first black man elected president in a country with a complicated, ugly, and brutal history on the issue of race; for attempting to walk away from U.S. commitments in the Middle East only to reinvade Iraq, lose a game of chicken in Syria, misunderstand the nature and the aims of the Arab Spring, and send U.S. forces into nebulously defined conflicts in several African countries; and for being the first president to institute a policy of assassination of U.S. citizens as a matter of national security. But what probably will end up being most consequential about President Obama is the corruption, which was systemic despite his media sycophants’ insipid insistence that his was a presidency without scandal. The corruption of the Obama administration was not of the apple-stealing/intern-bothering Clinton variety, but the much more serious matter of perverting necessary public institutions for political purposes. He oversaw this at the federal level and inspired it at the state level: Consider all those Democratic attorneys general banding together to shake down Exxon and lean on free-market think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, or Kamala Harris’s campaign to do to California’s conservative activists what the IRS did to the National Organization for Marriage, demanding donor lists.
The Trump administration’s ties to Moscow probably should be investigated, if only for the sake of putting aside the wilder fears and more inflamed passions of less responsible partisans. The trouble is, the Obama administration and its Democratic allies in Congress have left us with no credible institution to undertake such an investigation. Whom would you trust? The Justice Department? The State Department? The FBI? The intelligence community? A special investigator? A bipartisan special committee that would be subject to the high ethical standards of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer?
Obama and the federal government have already damaged trust in our institutions.
The most precious asset held by a democratic government is the trust of the people. Trust cannot be bought, and repairing it is a long and difficult process. If you want to see how trust shapes the life of a self-governing people, you need not go very far: Consider our two immediate neighbors in the world and the difference in their relative qualities of governance: Sitting literally between Canada and Mexico is one thing; sitting metaphorically between them is another.
Do I think Senator Sessions and Ambassador Kislyak were discussing wheat prices? What do you think Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch were discussing on that airplane for an hour? Yoga and their grandchildren? Whom would you trust for answers?
What we might find out about Trump and the Russians — might — could damage trust in our institutions. What we already know about Obama and the IRS, EPA, NLRB, OSHA, ATF, etc., already has. That damage is not irreparable, but it is not being repaired.
–– Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.