Columnist Matt Taibbi’s effort to bring context to the Russia-messing-with-U.S. tensions story. One big problem? Making assumptions that might not be true.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appeared on Meet the Press this past weekend to discuss the Trump-Russia scandal. Chuck Todd asked: Were there improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials?
JAMES CLAPPER: We did not include any evidence in our report, and I say, “our,” that’s N.S.A., F.B.I. and C.I.A., with my office, the Director of National Intelligence, that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. There was no evidence of that…
CHUCK TODD: I understand that. But does it exist?
JAMES CLAPPER: Not to my knowledge.
Todd pressed him to elaborate.
CHUCK TODD: If [evidence of collusion] existed, it would have been in this report?
JAMES CLAPPER: This could have unfolded or become available in the time since I left the government.
This is the former Director of National Intelligence telling all of us that as of 12:01 a.m. on January 20th, when he left government, the intelligence agencies had no evidence of collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign and the government of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Virtually all of the explosive breaking news stories on the Trump-Russia front dating back months contain some version of this same disclaimer.
There is a lot of smoke in the Russia story. The most damning item is General Michael Flynn having improper discussions with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak prior to taking office. There is the much-discussed Republican platform change with regard to American assistance to Ukranian rebels, and the unreported contacts between officials like Jeff Sessions (and even Trump himself now) with Kislyak.
Moreover, the case that the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee now appears fairly solid. Even Donald Trump thinks so. This of course makes it harder to dismiss stories like the one in which former Trump adviser Roger Stone appeared to know that Wikileaks was about to release the hacked emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta.
But the manner in which these stories are being reported is becoming a story in its own right. Russia has become an obsession, cultural shorthand for a vast range of suspicions about Donald Trump.
The notion that the president is either an agent or a useful idiot of the Russian state is so freely accepted in some quarters that Beck Bennett’s shirtless representation of Putin palling with Alec Baldwin’s Trump is already a no-questions-asked yuks routine for the urban smart set.
And yet, this is an extraordinarily complex tale that derives much of its power from suppositions and assumptions.
If there’s any truth to the notion that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian state to disrupt the electoral process, then yes, what we’re seeing now are the early outlines of a Watergate-style scandal that could topple a presidency.
But it could also be true that both the Democratic Party and many leading media outlets are making a dangerous gamble, betting their professional and political capital on the promise of future disclosures that may not come.