Despite all the testimony from American intelligence and law enforcement officials confirming that the Russian government was behind the hacking of Democratic Party and Clinton campaign official John Podesta's emails, President Donald Trump still insists that the whole controversy is a plot by Democrats to explain away their candidate's defeat in the 2016 presidential election. Earlier this month he said he still wasn't convinced. He told John Dickerson of CBS News a few weeks ago that it "could've been China, could've been a lot of different groups."
On Tuesday, the president tweeted:
Trump is not alone in this assessment. That same day, the Associated Press reported:
In an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro, [Vladimir] Putin reaffirmed his strong denial of Russian involvement in the hacking of Democratic emails. The interview was recorded during Putin’s Monday trip to Paris and released Tuesday.
He said the claims of Russian meddling are driven by the “desire of those who lost the U.S. elections to improve their standing by accusing Russia of interfering.”
Putin added that the “people who lost the vote hate to acknowledge that they indeed lost because the person who won was closer to the people and had a better understanding of what people wanted.”
Those comments are so similar it makes you wonder if that covert back channel had not been created after all.
But President Putin isn't the only politician parroting the Trump party line on this. Talking Points Memo has reported that the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., told prospective donors at a fundraiser last month that he stepped down from overseeing the investigation because "left-wing activist groups" filed ethics complaints against him for his midnight shenanigans coordinating with the Trump White House. He was quoted in Talking Points Memo as saying:
The Democrats don’t want an investigation on Russia. They want an independent commission. Why do they want an independent commission? Because they want to continue the narrative that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are best friends, and that’s the reason that he won, because Hillary Clinton could have never lost on her own; it had to be someone else’s fault. They have tried to destroy this Russia investigation, they’ve never been serious about it.
Considering that they are practically completing each other's sentences, Trump and Putin certainly sound like besties these days — Nunes, too, for that matter.
It's possible that some Republican voters truly believe the Russian investigation is a Hillary Clinton plot to delegitimize Trump's election victory. Of course, those same people may also believe that Hillary Clinton murdered Vince Foster and ran a pedophile ring out of a Washington pizza parlor, so this is downright benign by comparison. But I'm going to take a wild guess that neither Trump, Putin nor Nunes actually believes any of those things.
Even more cynical than this crude misdirection is the reaction to the Russia probes by other GOP leaders. Their casual dismissal of the hacking during the election campaign and the possibility of collusion between members of the Trump team and the Russian government is a serious abdication of responsibility. It's certainly possible that this is all essentially innocent on the part of the Trump people. That would make them stupid and inept but not criminal, and they might very well ride out the storm. But if members of Trump's team did collude with a foreign government or have some kind of blackmail material hanging over their heads, the Republican leadership needs to gird itself and prepare for such information to come out because eventually it will. They will be held liable for failing to take this type of matter seriously.
Less than a year ago, this is what House Speaker Paul Ryan had to say after FBI Director James Comey held his famous press conference to explain that the bureau was closing the inquiry of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server:
These days Ryan can hardly rouse himself to comment on the ongoing Russia scandals despite the presence of a special counsel, several congressional probes and daily or hourly, breaking news stories indicating that some of Trump's closest confidants who currently hold security clearances behaved very suspiciously prior to the inauguration. As of this writing the House speaker has had little or nothing to say about the fact that Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser is being investigated for having met with Russia's Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and allegedly requesting a covert back channel to Moscow, using private Russian communications technology.
On the Senate side, John McCain said he didn't "like it" that Trump transition team members might have met with Russians and failed to report it on their security clearance applications. Sen. Bob Corker, on the other hand, praised Trump's overseas trip as if he were Alexander the Great, fatuously proclaiming that it was "executed to near perfection."
Regarding the reports about Kushner, Corker could only say, "He's been overseas and I'm sure he'll make clear what his intentions were and what his thoughts were at the time if any."
Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN he suspects Kislyak used an open line to spread disinformation that Kushner sought a covert back channel. That might be a reasonable guess if it weren't for the fact that White House staffers haven't denied the allegation, suggesting they might be concerned that "someone" has Kushner on tape. And that inevitably raises the question of whether the president's senior adviser and son-in-law may have opened himself up to possible blackmail.
There are numerous strands connecting various actors in Trump's orbit with Russian mobsters, oligarchs, propagandists and government officials. Republicans who were screaming bloody murder over Hillary Clinton's private email server are now shrugging off all these Trump connections as if they were a mundane affair or a tainted donation. If it turns out that national security really was put at risk, these officials will not only be exposed as the hypocrites they are; they will also be seen as derelict in their duty to the Constitution and accomplices to the crime. So far there is little sign that they care.