Our so-called president must so much want it to be so. Or more accurately, to seem so.
He told the press on Feb. 16: “Russia is a ruse . . . I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does.” And on Tuesday night he gave an hour-long speech to Congress without once uttering the word Russia while it was foremost on many viewers’ minds.
We know he lied about Russia. Now his attorney general Jeff Sessions has recused himself from Russia-related probes because he lied about his own contacts with the Russian ambassador, and Trump had already fired his national security adviser Michael Flynn for lying to the vice president about contacts with the same ambassador.
It is being argued that there was nothing wrong with these contacts, and indeed there may have been nothing wrong. But if that is so, why did Trump and Flynn and Sessions all feel the need to lie about them?
Sessions hadn’t even been asked whether he had such contacts when he quickly volunteered that he did not—like a guilty child who blurts “I didn’t do it” before being asked. Al Franken, at Sessions’ confirmation hearing to be attorney general, had put a different question: “. . . if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?” To which Sessions answered, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
Now of course Franken has more questions. We all do. But let us not lose sight of the real issue here. It is not Jeff Sessions or Michael Flynn, or even the entire administration’s fevered lying. The only issue—until it is resolved—is whether and to what extent Donald Trump is beholden to the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He cannot govern effectively until that issue is closed. And if he cannot close it, congressional Republicans will have to make a most weighty decision.
The evidence is all circumstantial, but there is a mountain of it.
First there is the public agreement of all 17 American intelligence agencies that Putin ordered Russia’s cyber attack on behalf of Donald Trump’s election as president. It is this issue that makes Russia the subject of every important question. Until the Russia questions are answered American democracy remains in doubt.
But the larger record goes way back, to Trump’s failed attempts to cut business deals in Moscow, his Miss Universe contest there, his campaign’s successful demand last July to remove the Ukraine plank from the Republican Party platform before the Cleveland convention, his assurance to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that Putin “won’t go into Ukraine” when Russia was already there, Trump’s defense of the occupation of Crimea and his repeated praise of Putin and Russia and questioning of their adversaries.
On the day the United States expelled 35 Russian diplomat/spies in retaliation for Russia’s interfering in the American election, Flynn phoned the ambassador to undermine President Obama by assuring the Russians that Trump would reverse course within days. It is a violation of the rarely-if-ever-enforced Logan Act if not an act of treason to undermine the U.S. president’s foreign policy.
Putin was equally unorthodox in his response. He broke long-standing precedent in not retaliating against Obama’s action by expelling an equal number plus one of American diplomat/spies. Then, having proved to the adoring world that he had cut a deal with Donald Trump, Putin ordered his air force to buzz an American warship in the Black Sea and stationed a Russian spy ship off the coast of Connecticut.
All of that pales in comparison to what we already know to be true, that Russia interfered in America’s presidential election, and free elections are the bedrock of our democracy and our liberty.
Because both houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans and the Supreme Court soon will be dominated by conservative justices, there is little chance this issue will get the thorough investigation by a nonpolitical commission that it requires. Until that happens the United States will become progressively more vulnerable to Russian demands.
It is that fact which Donald Trump devoutly wishes to avoid. And that is why nothing else matters.