On Friday, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee released a report based on their cursory investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Full of shoddy rationalizations and evasions, it purported to show that America’s intelligence community failed to use “proper analytic tradecraft” in concluding that Russia wanted to help elect Donald Trump, and that there is no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Its real message was that, for Republicans in Congress determined to protect this president, evidence is irrelevant.
Consider just one bit of spin about the Trump campaign’s clandestine Russia connections. During the presidential transition, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Michael Flynn, who had been named national security adviser, tried to set up a back channel to the Kremlin through the Russian Embassy, in an apparent attempt to evade U.S. intelligence monitoring. The majority report treats this, amazingly, as exculpatory: “Possible Russian efforts to set up a ‘back channel’ with Trump associates after the election suggest the absence of collusion during the campaign, since the communication associated with collusion would have rendered such a ‘back channel’ unnecessary.”
This makes no sense – new developments would require new communications. But making sense isn’t the point; the report’s function is to obscure reality, not illuminate it.
In reality, as the meticulous Democratic response to the Republican report makes clear, there’s already overwhelming evidence of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia. But as details of Trump’s Russia connections have dribbled out over the last year and a half, each revelation has led to a familiar, numbing cycle of shock, impotent anger and, finally, resignation.
Try to remember, if you can, how astonishing it was on Jan. 6, 2017, when America’s intelligence community made public its finding that Russia had intervened in our election to help Trump. Imagine if we’d known then just a fraction of what we know now, like the November 2015 email exchange between Felix Sater, a Trump associate and convicted felon with ties to Russian organized crime, and Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, recently the subject of an FBI raid. Sater boasted, “Buddy, our boy can become president of the U.S.A. and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this.” We still don’t know what Sater meant by this. Republicans have shown a staggering lack of interest in finding out.
Imagine if, as we were learning about Russian measures last January, we’d also found out about Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s offer to deliver briefings to a Russian oligarch to whom he was deeply in debt. And if we’d known that one Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had been in frequent communication with someone who claimed to be from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and that the FBI suspected another campaign adviser, Carter Page, of being a Russian agent.
What if we’d also known that Republican operative Paul Erickson wrote to a senior Trump campaign official about the “back channel” to the Kremlin he’d been cultivating through the National Rifle Association, and that Donald Trump Jr. met with Erickson’s Russian contact at the NRA’s 2016 convention? I can’t help thinking that it would be harder to explain away the Trump campaign’s treachery if we’d been forced to reckon with it all at once.
Since the election, there have been so many revelations about Trump’s Russia ties that it’s impossible to keep track. “I sometimes wish that we would have just found out about the June 9 meeting, and that would have been it,” Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told me. He was speaking, of course, about the Trump Tower meeting between a Russian delegation and leaders of the Trump campaign, ostensibly arranged so the Russians could deliver dirt on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” as an email to Trump Jr. put it.
“I do fear that when you stack evidence on top of evidence on top of evidence, somehow more becomes less,” Swalwell said. “In this case we find out more and more every day.”
Finding out more doesn’t matter because most elected Republicans have developed a paranoid loathing for the law enforcement and intelligence agencies they once revered. A toxic fog of denial has descended over much of the country. We’ve been bludgeoned, through a combination of Republican bullying and stultifying conventional wisdom, into treating Trump’s legitimacy as self-evident.
When intelligence agency veterans – including James Comey, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan – speak out with alarm about Trump, the media debates their propriety, while Republicans frame their contempt for the president as evidence of a deep-state conspiracy. When a brave comedian, Michelle Wolf, jeered at the administration’s indecency at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the Washington establishment had a fainting fit at the violation of its safe space.
Under Trump, the central battle in our culture is between truth and power. The truth hidden among the propaganda in the House Intelligence Committee’s majority report is that power is winning.