There are dozens of important political stories percolating at the moment, from President Donald Trump blithely saying,"nobody knew health care could be so complicated" to an administration proposal to slash necessary government programs to the bone to pay for a massive increase in military spending. There are also discussions about putting large numbers of troops on the ground in the Middle East and ongoing horror stories about the large-scale deportation of immigrants and harassment at the borders and other points of entry.
But there are two stories that keep bubbling up to the surface no matter what else is going on: the investigations of Trump's possible connections to Russia and his holy war against the press. Indeed, according to Chuck Todd of NBC's "Meet the Press," the two are related. On Sunday's show Todd reported an apparent pattern: Every time a news organization publishes another story about the Russian investigation, Trump has an additional tantrum about the media. It's like clockwork.
This pattern doesn't prove anything other than the fact that the Trump administration is touchy about the story. We can't conclude it is consciously trying to punish the press for reporting the Russian-related stories or that the Trump team is attempting to distract attention from them. Nevertheless, how the administration has been dealing with the Russian investigations in other ways certainly raises questions.
On Sunday we found out that, according to Politico, the White House was so obsessed with leaks that Sean Spicer gathered White House lawyers and forced his staff to turn over personal and work phones for searching. On Monday CNN reported that Trump had personally signed off on the order. Calling such behavior "Nixonian" is a cliché, but there's just no way around it. This is paranoid behavior. It's also revealing, since Trump likes to say that the media has no sources and is just making stories up — and yet he's obsessed with leaks. Something doesn't add up.
But that's just a story about inside the White House. As revealing as it is, it's not as important as the Axios report that in the wake of stories suggesting that Trump campaign personnel had "repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election," press secretary Sean Spicer had personally connected journalists with Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, and Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; both are involved in current investigations of the matter. Spicer even stayed on the line while reporters spoke to those officials, according to Axios. Burr and Pompeo apparently told reporters the stories were "not accurate," without offering details. (Assuming that they were telling the truth, all that means is that something in the stories was inaccurate, not that they were entirely false.)
This news came as a follow-up to an earlier report that the White House had reached out to Republican members of the intelligence committees in the House and Senate in an attempt to knock down the Russian-connection stories. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, also a member of Trump's executive transition committee, denied that the White House had pressured him, but nonetheless went on record to assure the country there was nothing to the allegations. How could he possibly know that? The investigation hasn't really even begun.
The point here is that it is improper for the White House to use the CIA director and the heads of congressional committees as its PR damage control department. It's particularly improper for such collusion to happen in a case in which the latter are personally involved in the investigations in question. But let's face facts. Scandals like these are almost always partisan affairs. Even if Spicer and the White House had not displayed outrageous disregard for normal protocol, a special prosecutor or a bipartisan commission likely would have been needed at some point to take up the investigation. That's even more obvious now.
As troubling as all this White House outreach to congressional Republicans is, it's nothing compared to inappropriate interactions between White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and Andrew McCabe, the deputy FBI director, according to CNN reports. Their contact apparently related to a New York Times story concerning connections between the Trump campaign and Russian officials before the election.
Priebus went on the Sunday talk shows and said he had been told by intelligence officials that there was nothing to the story and further that he had been authorized to say so publicly. That's an odd thing to say and CNN reported that Priebus, like Spicer, had tried to get the FBI to "publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence.”
That's not just inappropriate or unethical; it could be obstruction of justice. At the very least it violates longstanding Department of Justice rules in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal that prohibit such contacts between the bureau and the subjects of an FBI investigation. (One of the articles of impeachment introduced against President Richard Nixon was for "interfering or endeavoring to interfere" with an FBI investigation.)
This is undoubtedly why the White House amended Priebus' comments days later, saying that the FBI's McCabe had actually approached Priebus to tell him the Times story was "bullshit." It was then that Priebus asked the FBI to "knock down" the story publicly, which the FBI told the White House it could not do. But CNN has reported that, according to the White House, both McCabe and the FBI's director, James Comey, "gave Priebus the go-ahead to discredit the story publicly, something the FBI has not confirmed."
It's certainly possible that the White House is misrepresenting the FBI's involvement. The Trump administration's credibility gap is the size of the Grand Canyon and growing. But if the Priebus account is correct, we are once again looking at an FBI that is behaving in a partisan and unprofessional manner on behalf of Donald Trump. In this case, its conduct may even be illegal. After Comey's overt interference in the election and refusal to sign on to the original reports of Russian interference, it's mind-boggling that everyone in the bureau, especially Comey himself, would not go to epic lengths to avoid even the slightest whiff of impropriety.
This might all add up to nothing in the end. But at this point these unethical and possibly illegal contacts between the White House and various agencies, congressional officials and the FBI have made an independent investigation an absolute necessity.