The Corner


The Sudden Public Skepticism About Trump–Russian Collusion

The theme of the last Morning Jolt of the week is “Tired of All the Winning” — a good jobs report, a sudden decline in attempts to illegally cross the border, U.S.-supported Syrian forces advancing on the ISIS headquarters city of Raqqa. Then there’s this odd development in the past few days, as a couple of voices who aren’t particularly enamored with Trump are attempting to lower expectations about the story of Russia’s attempts to influence the election.

While James Clapper announced his intention to retire in November, he served as Director of National Intelligence until January 20. Between Trump’s election and inauguration, there was a lot of speculation about Russian efforts to influence the presidential election.

Last week, on Meet the Press, Clapper said this:

We did not include any evidence in our report, and I say, “our,” that’s N.S.A., F.B.I. and C.I.A., with my office, the Director of National Intelligence, that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. There was no evidence of that included in our report.

Clapper said that evidence could conceivably have been discovered since January 20; if so, he wouldn’t know about it. And yes, yes, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” But you have to figure that U.S. intelligence agencies would have been looking pretty darn hard for evidence of collusion in the time period between Election Day and Inauguration Day.

Ali Watkins of BuzzFeed talked to staffers on the Senate Intelligence Committee on their review of the information so far.

A month into its sweeping investigation into the Kremlin’s efforts to undermine the US election, the Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to answer all those questions — publicly, coherently, and fast. As the days tick by, they’re less and less sure they’ll be able to.

Even some Democrats on the Intelligence Committee now quietly admit, after several briefings and preliminary inquiries, they don’t expect to find evidence of active, informed collusion between the Trump campaign and known Russian intelligence operatives, though investigators have only just begun reviewing raw intelligence. Among the Intelligence Committee’s rank and file, there’s a tangible frustration over what one official called “wildly inflated” expectations surrounding the panel’s fledgling investigation.

Her BuzzFeed colleague, Miriam Elder, contends that the obsession with finding evidence of Trump’s guilt is downplaying focus on Russia’s actions, which are not disputed and should be a bipartisan concern.

The Russian cyberattack of 2016 was widely documented, but what’s happening now is that some of Trump’s critics are turning the fabric of diplomacy into conspiracy. They’re trying to find evidence that it was his camp that directed those hacks, rather than investigating how they originated in Russia.

Now throw in Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, who has displayed an unexpected level of skepticism about the speculation fueling this story. (He lived in Russia in the 1990s.)

. . . whether the investigation involved a potential Logan Act violation, or election fraud, or whatever, the CIA, FBI, and NSA had the ability to act both before and after Donald Trump was elected. But they didn’t, and we know why, because James Clapper just told us – they didn’t have evidence to go on.

Thus we are now witnessing the extremely unusual development of intelligence sources that normally wouldn’t tell a reporter the time of day litigating a matter of supreme importance in the media. What does this mean?

Is it likely that the Russians wanted to muck around, mess with Hillary, expose embarrassing information from the DNC and John Podesta, and undermine faith in the American system of elections? Yes, it is. Is it likely that Russia saw Trump as a friendlier or more easily manipulated U.S. leader? Yes.

But based on what we know so far, and barring some stunning new revelation, the Senate Intelligence Committee is going to find that two separate entities (Russia and the Trump campaign) worked separately towards the same goal (Hillary’s defeat). Surely the Trump campaign didn’t mind, and in fact gleefully touted the WikiLeaks revelations about the DNC and Podesta. But that isn’t the same as collusion, which is defined as “secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose.”

We don’t know what the Senate Intelligence Committee’s final report will say; the investigation is still ongoing. But we know the intelligence community, with all of its resources and every incentive in the world, couldn’t find a smoking gun in the two-and-a-half months or so between Election Day and Inauguration Day.

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