Politics & Policy

GOP-Controlled Senate Committees Just Undermined Republican Conspiracy Theories about the Russia Investigation

Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Richard Burr (R-NC) and the committee’s vice chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-VA)(5th R) stand with members of the committee as they speak to the media about the committee’s findings and recommendations on threats to election infrastructure on Capitol Hill, March 20, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Now more than ever, a full airing of the facts of the case is vital.

Yesterday, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr released a joint statement with his Democratic vice chairman, Senator Mark Warner. It declared that there was “no reason to dispute” the Obama-era intelligence community’s determination that Russia attempted to aid Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Burr and Warner said committee staff had determined that the community’s “conclusions were accurate and on point. The Russian effort was extensive, sophisticated, and ordered by President Putin himself for the purpose of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton.”

Also yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee released 2,500 pages of testimony and exhibits, much of it pertaining to Donald Trump Jr.’s decision to meet with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer connected to the Kremlin and to Fusion GPS, the firm that commissioned the infamous Steele Dossier, in Trump Tower on June 9, 2016. At the time, Trump Jr. was told that the purpose of the meeting was to provide him with “high level and sensitive information” that was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

The younger Trump received a direct and unambiguous invitation to collude with Russia, and he took the meeting. The Senate testimony reveals two things: First, he is defiant, stating that he “didn’t think that listening to someone with information relevant to the fitness and character of a presidential candidate would be an issue.” And second, at least according to the available testimony, the meeting was a disappointment: Veselnitskaya didn’t deliver the goods.

Publicist Rob Goldstone, the man who helped set up the meeting, testified that he apologized to Donald Jr.: “I said, . . . ‘Don, I really want to apologize. This was hugely embarrassing. I have no idea what this meeting was actually about.” Paul Manafort’s notes from the meeting are cryptic, but to the extent that they’re decipherable they relate mainly to the Magnitsky Act, an Obama-era sanctions regime targeting specific, influential Russian citizens.

In other words, Donald Jr. tried to collude. He attempted to facilitate Russian “support for Mr. Trump,” but his potential collaborators didn’t produce what they promised.

Now, what does this all have to do with Republican conspiracy theories? If you’ve followed conservative websites, listened at all to talk radio, or watched five minutes of Fox News, by now you know the “worse than Watergate” counter-narrative to the conspiracy-minded Left’s obsession with the idea that not only did Trump collude with Russia to win the election, he’s also governing while “compromised” by damaging Russian intelligence.

The right-wing conspiracy theory goes something like this:

Russia did not interfere with the American election to assist Trump. To the extent that it interfered at all, it did so for the purpose of sowing generalized chaos and distrust. If anyone actually “colluded” with Russia, it was Democratic operatives who used Russian sources to create a false dossier that created the pretext for partisan bureaucrats to launch their existing “witch hunt” investigation as an “insurance policy” against Trump’s election.

In other words, the idea is that we’re not dealing with a legitimate, good-faith investigation at all but are instead witnessing one of the worst abuses of government power in history, with corrupt law-enforcement and intelligence officials attempting to overturn an American election.

The need for one investigation does not preclude the need for the other, nor does the existence of misconduct on one side preclude the existence of misconduct on the other.

But let’s back up a moment. We now have Republican concurrence with the Obama-era intelligence agencies’ assertion that Russia was trying to help Trump. We now have further confirmation that Don Jr. himself was in fact eager to collude with that effort. If you combine these new developments with other evidence — the fact that an allegedly Russian-affiliated professor told George Papadopoulos in April 2016, well before the first WikiLeaks release, that the Russians “have thousands of emails” and “dirt” on Hillary Clinton; the reality of Paul Manafort’s longstanding and lucrative ties to a pro-Putin thug; previous Russian attempts to recruit Carter Page as an agent (which he rebuffed); and Michael Flynn’s payments from Russian-related entities — you have a situation that is crying out for further inquiry.

In fact, we know that Republicans, when confronted with reasonable suspicions of collusion, would be demanding an investigation of Democrats . . . because that’s exactly what they’re doing now. Republicans are entirely correct to want to understand more fully the role that the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS, and Christopher Steele played in attempting to influence the course of the 2016 election and American law enforcement. There are solid grounds to believe that at least some FBI agents were tainted by partisan motivations (any reasonable FBI official should be shocked and appalled at the Peter Strzok–Lisa Page text messages), and it is entirely worth exploring whether the Carter Page FISA application was proper and legally sufficient.

But the need for one investigation does not preclude the need for the other, nor does the existence of misconduct on one side preclude the existence of misconduct on the other. And the tangle of claims and counterclaims means that a full, complete, and transparent airing of relevant facts is necessary to ensure the continued health of our body politic.

This month an inspector general’s report is expected to be released, and many believe that it will expose systematic failures and perhaps even material wrongdoing at the FBI. Let’s see that report. At the same time, Robert Mueller’s work must continue. I have real respect for Trey Gowdy, and in February — responding to the release of the Republican memo alleging FISA abuse in the FBI’s surveillance of Page — he said words that every member of the GOP needs to hear: “There is a Russia investigation without a dossier.”

To the extent the memo deals with the dossier and the FISA process, the dossier has nothing to do with the meeting at Trump Tower. The dossier has nothing to do with an email sent by Cambridge Analytica. The dossier really has nothing to do with George Papadopoulos’s meeting in Great Britain. It also doesn’t have anything to do with obstruction of justice.

Put simply, there are facts already in the public square that should raise public concern. It’s a problem that Russia tried to support Trump. It’s a problem that his son was eager to meet with a purported Russian representative to assist in that scheme. It’s ominous that a Trump-campaign official knew of damaging Democratic emails months before WikiLeaks dumped hacked messages into the public square, and it’s inexcusable that he lied to the FBI about those communications. It’s disturbing that Trump surrounded himself with senior advisers who had financial relationships with the Kremlin and Kremlin-backed entities.

None of this means that “collusion” actually occurred, and it’s telling that no concrete evidence of collusion (aside from Donald Jr.’s enthusiastic attempt) has yet emerged. But it does make it exceedingly difficult to believe that the Russia investigation is a deep-state “insurance policy” that was corrupt to its very core from Day One, especially since it remained largely hidden before Election Day, at the time when public revelations would have been most harmful to the Trump campaign. Indeed, before Election Day, the FBI was releasing information that was profoundly damaging to Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump.

The public debate surrounding the entire affair is toxic, and it’s rendered more toxic by the fact that we’re still largely working with various scraps and crumbs of information. We’re connecting dots, but we can’t yet see the full picture. You can read tens of thousands of words of analysis on the left without any serious reckoning with the origin of the Steele dossier or of the problematic Strzok–Page text exchanges. You can read tens of thousands of words of equivalent analysis on the right without any serious effort to grapple with the contention that Russia tried to help Trump win and the reality that Trump’s son tried to collaborate with Russia.

Thankfully, two GOP-controlled Senate committees put those latter topics back in the debate. Let’s deal honestly with their implications. The conspiracy theories can wait.

Editor’s Note: The professor who provided information to Papadopoulos was allegedly Russian-affiliated, though not a Russian national.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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