James Comey (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Russia scandal creeps on: White House is badly compromised after Comey's testimony

FBI Director James Comey confirms that Trump's campaign is under investigation as the White House flails and spins


Simon Maloy
March 20, 2017 11:55PM (UTC)

The big news out of Monday’s hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence was that FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the Justice Department is actively investigating connections between Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and the Russian government. As Comey put it in his prepared remarks, the bureau is looking into “whether there was any coordination between the [Trump] campaign and Russia’s efforts” to interfere in the 2016 election.

The other news to emerge from the House committee's hearing is that President Trump’s allegation that former President Barack Obama had “wiretapped” Trump Tower has now been refuted by pretty much every agency and entity that can possibly refute it. Comey testified that the Department of Justice had not found any evidence to support Trump’s claim, which comports with what the House and Senate intelligence committees have determined. No one can seem to unearth any proof for the president’s accusation.

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On top of that, the National Security Agency director, Admiral Mike Rogers, flatly rejected the idea that Obama had outsourced surveillance of Trump Tower to a British intelligence agency (an accusation referenced by White House press secretary Sean Spicer during one of his press briefings). Asked by committee ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., whether he agreed with comments from British officials describing that allegation as “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous,” Rogers replied, “Yes, sir.”

The immediate takeaway from all this is that the White House is badly compromised politically, and administration officials know it. Spicer, appearing before reporters as the House Intelligence Committee hearing was still taking place, struggled to downplay the more damning aspects of Comey’s testimony. Pressed on which Trump associates the FBI’s investigation could be targeting, Spicer tried to argue that Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn had barely played any role in helping Trump get elected. The record indicates otherwise: Manafort served as Trump campaign chairman until he left amid growing controversy surrounding his financial links to Russia, and Flynn was a key campaign adviser who served briefly as Trump's national security adviser — until he resigned after lying about his contacts with Russia.

Flynn “was a volunteer of the campaign,” Spicer insisted, and Manafort “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.” Even for a White House that is known for flamboyant dishonesty, those are egregious lies and show that the people around Trump understand how bad this investigation looks.

The White House’s position is made all the worse by the utter lack of credibility it labors under as a consequence of the president’s gaudy disregard for the truth. The White House’s refusal to back down from Trump’s obviously false allegations about Obama having “wiretapped” him completely undermines its parallel insistence that there’s nothing to the FBI investigation of Russia and the campaign. On the one hand, Trump and his aides argue that just because no evidence has surfaced to support Trump’s accusation doesn’t mean that it’s been disproven. On the other hand, they’re also insisting that a lack of evidence showing coordination between the campaign and Russia means the ongoing FBI investigation isn’t a big deal.

Faced with this political buzz saw, the White House is doing the only thing it seems to know how to do: deploying innuendos and leaning into allegations of anti-Trump conspiracy theories. The president’s official Twitter account spent the day of the hearing all but accusing former Obama administration officials of leaking information to undermine Trump.

As bad as this all looks for the administration, it’s important to note that Trump still has the backing of Republicans in Congress. House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and other Republicans on the committee dutifully spent Comey's hearing ignoring Russia and the president’s false attacks on Obama. Instead, they pursued the White House’s preferred lines of inquiry by asking pointed questions about the illegality of leaking classified information and rhapsodizing about how leaks harm national security.

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Republicans need Trump to ram through their health bill, tax legislation and various other agenda items. Trump also remains popular among Republican voters, so for now GOP lawmakers are happy to go to bat for an aggressively dishonest administration that finds itself mired in scandal after only two months in power. Those Republicans just have to hope that the White House is correct and there really is nothing to this Russia inquiry. But as we’ve all come to learn, trusting the Trump White House is a risky bet.


Simon Maloy

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