WASHINGTON – In the outpouring of commentary on President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, his greatest single achievement is almost never mentioned, which is itself a sign of what a major triumph it is: We are not talking much about whether Russia colluded with Trump’s campaign to help elect him.
Our distraction was not inevitable. Recall that just a little over a month ago, FBI Director James Comey told the House Intelligence Committee that the bureau was investigating possible cooperation between Trump’s team and Russia’s hacking and disinformation campaign to undercut Hillary Clinton. As The New York Times wrote, Comey’s testimony “created a treacherous political moment for Mr. Trump.” Yet the president slipped by.
In mid-February, the administration should have come under sustained inquiry when Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, was forced to resign because he misled White House officials about the nature of his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.
Flynn, who had led the Republican National Convention in “Lock her up!” chants against Clinton, turned out to have received $65,000 from companies linked to Russia, and $600,000 to lobby for the Turkish government, even as he was advising Trump. And, as Politico reported this week, the man who paid Flynn to work for Turkey had business ties to Russia.
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The episode raised a slew of questions, not the least being what Vice President Mike Pence, whom we presume was vetting administration appointees, knew about Flynn’s activities. As for Trump, he believes in “extreme vetting” for immigrants, but apparently not for members of his administration. Unless, of course, he was fully aware of what Flynn was up to.
The Flynn story is obviously heating up again, but let’s pause to ponder how Trump’s genius at evasion, diversion and prevarication helped him to keep the Russia story at bay. It should disturb us more than it seems to that the 100th day of Trump’s presidency on April 29 will also mark the beginning of the ninth week since Trump sent out his March 4 tweet-to-end-all-tweets charging that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”
There was no evidence then for that accusation and none now because the evidence doesn’t exist. Thoughtful souls, conservatives as well as liberals, saw something terribly off about Trump swinging so wildly and with such indifference to verifiable fact. “This is what happens when the White House prioritizes winning the daily news cycle above all else,” wrote Jim Geraghty in National Review. “This is the natural result of an amazingly shortsighted approach to governing.”
I couldn’t agree more, but guess what? Trump’s gambit worked. First, Trump’s lieutenants got Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, involved in a Keystone Kops routine at the White House in which Nunes kind of, sort of suggested he had information giving support to Trump’s claim, which he didn’t. Nunes eventually had to recuse himself from the committee’s investigation of Russian interference, but the whole episode may have fatally wounded – and certainly delayed – its inquiry.
And there is this core Trump principle: A lie is as good as the truth as long as you can get your base to believe it. And sure enough, the new Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted last week found that by a margin of 52 percent to 32 percent, Republicans believe that “the Obama administration intentionally spied on Trump and members of his campaign during the 2016 election campaign.” This should keep Trump going for a while.
Fortunately, as John Adams taught us, facts are stubborn things, and the Russia story cannot be suppressed forever. Indeed, there was progress on Tuesday when – in a display of bipartisanship that is truly astounding at this moment – Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., of the House Oversight Committee jointly asserted that Flynn may have violated the law by not fully disclosing his Russian business dealings when seeking a security clearance.
At least as significant, both also expressed alarm at the White House’s refusal to turn over any documents on Flynn’s hiring and firing. There may be limits to Trump’s cagey sorcery.
But it’s still pretty impressive. Given the substantive emptiness of Trump’s presidency so far, his greatest achievement is that he is still standing there, making pronouncements as if he means them and moving noisily but without any clear plan from one thing to the next. Every day he can postpone his reckoning with Russia is a victory.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.