With Washington seemingly consumed by the Russia investigation, when they aren’t being shot at playing baseball, I thought I’d hazard a comment in media res. In short, I suspect there is more smoke here than fire, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the smoke became a turning point in Trump’s presidency or even, although unlikely, led to his resignation or removal. As to the lack of fire, I think there is almost zero chance that Trump or, more to the point, his associates, were “colluding” with the Russians to influence the election. That seems to be the main charge justifying the various Congressional inquiries. I don’t think either party would have known how to accomplish this or have even thought they knew how. That is not to say there were not improper contacts between Trumpites, particularly Michael Flynn, and Russian officials. It’s hard to guess, however, what was behind these contacts. Was the Trump team sincerely trying for a reset in US-Russia relations for a good purpose – e.g., reducing tensions and hoping to work together in Syria – or was there a Trump-brand commercial benefit on the table? Perhaps the Trumpies didn’t even know what they were doing and were just impressing themselves with the access their newfound position gave them to play world diplomat. I also give the Trump team the benefit of the doubt that they were not aware that their contacts with Russia may have been illegal and were certainly inappropriate. Their, and especially Trump’s, ignorance of how the US government works and established constraints on presidential conduct has been manifest time and again in the months since the reported contacts. So, if these were just innocent blunders of an overzealous and uninformed transition team and no harm was done, why might this be a real problem for Trump?
Answer: like Watergate, it is the coverup, not the crime, that matters. Trump and his associates have been playing fast and loose with the facts of their contacts with Russian officials. They failed to mention them on government forms when required, they have no memory of them when questioned by Senators, they can’t get their stories straight about what was discussed when meetings are admitted. This all fits a pattern that has run through the early Trump administration – mainly, that the president and his people are above the law. Trump has carried his campaign philosophy – “I could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and people would still vote for me” – over to his governing style. “I didn’t do it, but even if I did I’m told it’s perfectly all right” is his double-pronged answer to complaints that he has done something wrong. But Trump is now not facing his voters, but special counsel Robert Mueller, and in the background a Senate committee, and they aren’t going to gloss over the Fifth Avenue shooting. Trump’s lies work on the campaign trail and Fox News, but will cause him problems with Mueller.
So, what will happen? I expect criminal charges will eventually be brought against Flynn, but Trump can survive that – think Scooter Libby in the Bush-Cheney administration. A report will be issued that points out lies, obfuscations and obstructions of justice by Trump and other top officials. This will so infuriate Trump that he will seek to suppress the report – after all, he has never had to disclose his tax returns – or attack Mueller (if he hasn’t already fired him). This will be the point at which Republicans in Congress will have to decide, do we continue to put up with this guy or should we turn to Pence as a better vehicle to promote and enact our agenda. If we stick with Trump, are we opening ourselves up to serious attack at the next election. How can we distance ourselves from him if we haven’t done anything in response to Mueller’s report?
If Trump goes, it won’t be because of his Russian connection, although yesterday’s 97-2 Senate vote confirming sanctions against Russia shows Trump’s vulnerability there. It will be, as it should be, because of Trump’s ignorance, arrogance, untruthfulness and the incompetence of those around him. (6/15/17)