Politics & Policy

A Scandal about Smoke

(Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
Democrats want there to be fire, and Trump is providing them with plenty of smoke.

The cliché about the Russia investigation is that there’s a lot of smoke, and with the firing of FBI director James Comey, President Donald Trump rolled a military-grade smoke grenade into the room.

There were many legitimate reasons to fire Comey, who repeatedly went outside Department of Justice guidelines to comment on the investigation of Hillary Clinton during last year’s presidential campaign. Annoyance with his handling of the Russia investigation isn’t one of them.

The firing has stoked charges of a cover-up and again raised the questions, Why, if Trump has nothing to hide, does he act so guilty? Why, if there’s no fire, is there always so much smoke?

But so far, the scandal is nothing but smoke: We get hints of what might be, pending further revelations, serious misconduct, always augmented by Trump’s defensive bluster. It’s all highly suspect, yet it’s hard to see what exactly will constitute the grave underlying offense.

The most plausible of these suspicions, that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, has never made much sense on the face of it. The Russians hacked Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign e-mails and walked across the street to hand them over to WikiLeaks for dissemination. Why would any coordination with the Trump campaign be necessary?

Then there’s the motley crew of Page, Manafort, & Flynn, the former advisers evidently at the center of the Russia matter. According to the New York Times, Carter Page occasioned the FBI investigation into Trump’s campaign when he traveled to Moscow for a presentation last July. Page, listed as a Trump foreign-policy adviser when the campaign was desperate for any names, is the very definition of a marginal player.

As for former national-security adviser Michael Flynn, a haze of sketchiness surrounds him. But his offenses have to do with the alleged failure to adequately disclose lobbying work and get Pentagon approval for a paid speech for RT in Moscow (none of which involves Trump), and his deception about the content of phone calls with the Russian ambassador during the transition (for which he was fired).

Then there’s Paul Manafort. He’s a stereotypical slippery Washington operator. It’s very easy to believe that his business dealings deserve to be under investigation, but Trump fired him last August.

In short, it’s entirely possible that none of this really has anything to do with Trump directly. Yet he’s been a human smoke-making machine.

He is simply incapable of a little deftness. During the campaign, he could have easily said, “It’s clear the Russians are behind this hacking and I’m appalled by it, but boy, is Hillary Clinton corrupt.” After the campaign, he could have said, “I support any and all investigations to get to the bottom of the Russian hacking.” Anytime over the past few months, he could have said, “If there was any collusion with Russia by people in my campaign, I knew nothing about it, and I want them exposed expeditiously and punished harshly.”

Maybe Trump doesn’t say these things because he has a cognizance of guilt and fear of exposure. But there’s a ready, innocent explanation: He never makes a concession against interest. He knew admitting the Russians were involved in the hacking during the election would make his attacks on Clinton a little more complicated. He feared that any additional focus on Russia after the election would legitimize Democratic claims that the election was stolen, and considers every insinuation about Russia an attack on his standing and honor.

So he fights back hammer and tongs, and his critics sense something rotten lurking underneath the combativeness.

Even if there’s nothing at the bottom of the Russia matter, Trump and his team are still in jeopardy. Washington scandals have a way of becoming about the handling of the scandal, and the firing of Comey may signal the beginning of that phase. Certainly that’s the hope of the Democrats. Where there’s smoke, in other words, they want to make fire.

READ MORE:

The Democrats’ Weakest Trump Talking Point

Mistrust of Trump Threatens Corrosion of the Rule of Law

Editorial: Trump’s Wiretap Allegation

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2017 King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Hillary Ruins the Plan

Editor’s note: Andrew C. McCarthy’s new book is Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency. This is the first in a series of excerpts.  There really was a collusion plot. It really did target our election system. It absolutely sought to usurp our capacity for ... Read More
Religion

Another Pop-Culture Christian Loses His Faith

It’s happened again. For the second time in three weeks, a prominent (at least in Evangelical circles) Christian has renounced his faith. In July, it was Josh Harris, a pastor and author of the mega-best-selling purity-culture book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. This month, it’s Hillsong United songwriter and ... Read More
Culture

Max Boot’s Dishonesty

Before yesterday, my primary criticism of the Washington Post’s Max Boot was political in nature. As I wrote in a recent book review, I found it regrettable that Boot’s opposition to the president had not prevented him from “succumbing reactively to Trump’s cult of personality, or from making Trump the ... Read More
Elections

A Brief History of Election Meddling

Editor’s note: Andrew C. McCarthy’s new book is Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency. This is the second in a series of excerpts. ‘The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” Thus spoke President Barack Obama just a couple of weeks before ... Read More
World

The End of Hong Kong as We Know It

The protests in Hong Kong have been going on for more than four months now, and no matter how the current crisis concludes in the coming days or weeks, it will mark the end of Hong Kong as we know it. The protests started in response to an extradition bill that was proposed by the city’s Beijing-backed ... Read More