Politics & Policy

More Media Misdirection on Trump-Russia

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)
The most useless committee on Capitol Hill has answered a question no one was asking.

The headline is an attention-grabber, particularly the subhead. The New York Times breathlessly reports that a Republican-led Senate panel has issued a report that “undercuts claims by President Trump and his allies that Obama-era officials sought to undermine his candidacy by investigating Russia’s 2016 election meddling.”

Naturally, you’re thinking: “That’s it. All Trump’s diatribes about a ‘hoax’ have been the usual claptrap. Even the GOP admits that the Obama administration had good reasons to investigate whether Trump’s campaign was colluding with Russia.”

Except . . . that’s not what the Times story actually says. Carefully parsed, it’s not even what the headline says.

In truth, the story is a nothing-burger. We learn that one of the most useless committees on Capitol Hill, the Senate Intelligence Committee, has issued a 158-page report — festooned with the usual “there are things we can’t tell you” redactions — as a capper to its three-year investigation into a question no one is asking: Did the intelligence community competently conclude that Russia interfered in the 2016 campaign?

No one is asking that question because, for the vast majority of people closely following the collusion caper, that would be like asking whether the Chiefs won the Super Bowl.

We know Russia interfered in our campaign. Given Moscow’s long history of meddling in American politics, it would only have been a story if Russia did not meddle. The principal argument by President Trump and other intelligence agency critics has not been that Obama officials undermined Trump’s candidacy and presidency “by investigating Russia’s 2016 election meddling.” The argument is that they undermined Trump’s campaign and presidency by claiming that Trump and his campaign were complicit in Russia’s 2016 election meddling.

On that key question the Useless Committee is, as is its custom, mum.

To be sure, there are some pockets of doubters on the question of Russia’s culpability. There always will be because, as I described chapter-and-verse in Ball of Collusion, (a) the Obama administration habitually politicized intelligence to serve its narratives, and (b) the Obama-era Justice Department and FBI ignored rudimentary investigative practice by failing, in one of the most consequential investigations in American history, to take custody and conduct their own forensic examination of the body of the crime, the Democratic Party servers that had been hacked — relying, instead, on a DNC contractor with deep connections to the Clinton campaign and the Obama administration.

Add to this that Robert Mueller, that senescent Washington fixture, larded his staff with activist Democrats whose indictments were long on political narrative but short on actual crimes. Add, too, that Mueller’s case against Russian companies charged in the “troll farm” scheme collapsed after it became painfully clear that the social-media propaganda conspiracy was laughable, improvidently charged, and could not be tied to the Kremlin.

You get the point: Few people doubt that Russia is guilty, but if the Washington establishment cannot convince everyone of that fact, it’s got itself to blame.

But that’s all a sideshow.

The real question is whether the Obama administration and its officials held over by the new administration fabricated a tale about the Trump campaign’s complicity in Russia’s hacking. Did they peddle that tale to the FISA court while willfully concealing key exculpatory evidence? Did they continue the investigation under the guise of counterintelligence after Trump was elected, in the hope of finding a crime over which he could be impeached? Did they consciously mislead an American president about whether he was under investigation? Did they purposefully suggest in public testimony that the president was a criminal suspect, while privately assuring him that he was not one? And finally, when the Trump-Russia collusion nonsense was collapsing in a heap, did they open a criminal obstruction case — based on an untenable legal theory and facilitated by a leak of investigative information that was orchestrated by the just-fired FBI director — in order to justify continuing the probe under the auspices of a special counsel?

On these questions, the Useless Committee’s report is silent. Indeed, the report says right up front, in the findings section, that the intelligence agencies, over the FBI’s objection, did not include information from the infamous Steele dossier in its December 30, 2016, assessment on Russian interference — though, “as a compromise to the FBI insistence,” dossier allegations were included in an annex to the assessment. The Senate-report findings do not get into why the FBI was pushing so hard on the preposterous dossier. Nor do they mention that, by the time of the assessment, the bureau had already heavily relied on the dossier to obtain a surveillance warrant from the FISA court, and was even then preparing a submission to get yet another warrant — telling the federal judges the bureau believed that the Trump campaign was conspiring with the Kremlin.

We don’t hear much about what matters from the Useless Committee. Indeed, when last we heard mention of the committee, it was because Senator Richard Burr (R., N.C.), its chairman and the ultimate insider, made news for having feverishly dumped $1.7 million in his personal stock holdings on the eve of the coronavirus market collapse.

On the matter of Trump-Russia collusion allegations, the intelligence issue that roiled the nation for three years, the Intelligence Committee has had little to say. For a while, there was some dark collusion innuendo from Burr’s friend, Senator Mark Warner (D., Va.), the ranking member on the preeningly bipartisan committee. But we haven’t heard much since Warner was caught using the Washington lobbyist of a Putin-tied oligarch to try to score a tête-à-tête with the dossier fabulist, Christopher Steele. As Warner observed at the time, in a text to the lobbyist, we’d “rather not have a paper trail” on this one.

And then there was Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla), another senior Useless Committee Republican. He was heard from a while back, assuring the media that, from all that he had seen, there was “no evidence” that the FBI had been investigating the Trump campaign. Rubio was regurgitating the FBI’s talking points about how tasking informants to chat up Trump campaign officials about the campaign’s purported collusion with Russia was somehow not investigating the campaign. This, by the way, was after public disclosure that the FBI, in its FISA applications, had proclaimed its suspicion that the Trump campaign was enmeshed in a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” with the Kremlin — an allegation the bureau copied nearly word-for-word from the too-good-to-check Steele dossier (which baselessly alleged that this “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” was managed on the Trump side by campaign manager Paul Manafort, with Carter Page as an intermediary). Senator Rubio has not had much to say since the Justice Department’s inspector general began issuing reports about the FBI’s serial deceptions of the FISA court.

So now, the committee that does nothing has released a report about nothing new, which the Times promptly serves up as a bombshell that purportedly undercuts Trump contentions about the Obama administration’s Russia investigation . . . even though the committee report does not actually address the president’s main contention: that Obama intelligence and law-enforcement officials tried to frame Trump for conspiring in Russia’s election meddling.

Par for the course.

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