Donald Trump’s administration has admitted this week that several top White House officials did in fact have contact with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign. Last month, Retired Gen. Michael Flynn lost his job as Trump’s national security adviser after only 25 days because he had had several conversations with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, in December before Trump had taken office and then allegedly lied about it to Vice President Mike Pence.
In fact, the Trump team has issued at least 20 denials of contacts with Russia since July 2016.
On Thursday, Trump’s number one cabinet pick, newly appointed attorney general Jeff Sessions, was forced to recuse himself from any investigations into Russian cyberattacks and ties to the Trump campaign after the Washington Post revealed on Wednesday that he, too, had spoken to Ambassador Kislyak at least twice last year — once after an event during the Republican National Convention and again on September 8 around the time the Obama White House was quietly sharing its strong concerns about Russian interference with top Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate.
“It never happened,” Hope Hicks told the Associated Press two days after the election. “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”
Sessions is still insisting, as is the White House, that he was only acting as a U.S. senator when he met with Kislyak at the Republican National Convention; however, The Wall Street Journal is now reporting that Sessions did speak about Trump’s campaign at the event and actually paid for related expenses with political funds.
On Thursday, just before Sessions’ press conference, the White House finally acknowledged that two other Trump aides, Carter Page and J.D. Gordon, also met with Ambassador Kislyak last July, during the GOP convention in Cleveland. In addition, the White House also confirmed to that Flynn had joined Trump’s senior aide and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in a meeting with Kislyak at Trump Tower in December—only after the New Yorker broke the news earlier in the week in a 13,000-word tour de force entitled, “Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War.”
Sessions’ recusal means he can no longer protect President Trump from the results of any investigations. But don’t count him out completely. Just hours after his press conference, Sessions was on FoxNews telling Tucker Carlson that he did not know whether Russian President Vladimir Putin had favored Donald Trump during the presidential campaign or whether he wanted him to win. This view, of course, is in direct opposition to the consensus view of all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, including the FBI and CIA, made clear in their joint intelligence report on January 5:
“Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary [Hillary] Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
Despite Sessions’ recusal and despite the White House’s belated confirmations this week, critical questions remain unanswered. Why did the White House consistently deny contacts with Russian officials? And why, if the meetings that took place were innocuous, as they are now saying, didn’t they acknowledge them sooner?
Even now, as more and more close Trump aides concede—after lying about it first—that they did meet with Russian officials during the campaign, Republicans in Congress are still disinclined to join Democrats in authorizing an independent commission. Why? And why did all 229 Republicans in the House just vote unanimously this week to keep Trump’s tax returns secret?
“Even the real possibility that we’re facing subversion by agents of a foreign power, and that top officials are part of the story, doesn’t seem to faze [Republicans in Congress] as long as they can get tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poor,” says Paul Krugman in The Times.
While Krugman neatly sums up Republican party orthodoxy of the past 40 years, this Congress’ aversion to investigating a clear threat to national security really makes me wonder how far the investigation might go. After all, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan were certainly aware of the Russian cyberattacks and the ongoing threats to the American electoral system two months prior to the November election but did nothing to alert state officials or the public. In fact, Sen. McConnell aggressively opposed a bipartisan statement, suggested by the Obama White House, that would have urged “state and local officials to accept federal help in protecting their voting-registration and balloting machines from Russian cyber-intrusions.” Again, the question is: why?
Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, handpicked by the White House to replace Sally Yates as acting attorney general, is now responsible for overseeing any FBI and DOJ investigations into Trump-Russia ties and the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia in undermining Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the foundation of American democracy — our electoral system.
Ever since 1999, the attorney general has had the sole power to appoint an outside “independent counsel.” To do so, reports the New York Daily News, Boente must find that: a “criminal investigation of a person or matter is warranted;” that an investigation by the current Justice Department “would present a conflict of interest for the department;” and that “it would be in the public interest to appoint an outside special counsel to assume responsibility for the matter.”
Forgive me if I choose to remain skeptical about Boente’s or the FBI’s impartiality at this stage of the game. Top Democrats, and even some prominent Republicans, are now insisting that we need an independent commission or a special prosecutor to investigate the Trump’s ties to Russia, during the campaign and now.
In fact, there are more than a few scandals that need investigating here. As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp first pointed out March, three connected yet separate scandals need investigating: one which has to do with Russia’s interference in the election, another which has to do with Michael Flynn’s improper contact with the Russian ambassador after (and possibly before) the election, and a third which involves compromising material that Russian intelligence may or may not have on President Trump. Add to that two newer potential scandals involving Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who forged close ties with Russia during his more than four decades at ExxonMobil, and Trump’s Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor who has served as vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, a bank partly owned by a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
This is not going to end well for Republican leaders or their party but they somehow talked themselves into believing they could ride the dragon and then be rid of him whenever they wished. Still, Republicans should join Democrats immediately to authorize a full, bipartisan investigation—independent of Congress and the White House—if they wish to salvage any remnants of personal and political integrity. House Democrats have a bill to impanel an independent, 9/11-style commission ready. It’s called the Protecting Our Democracy Act.
Massive cover-ups never end well. The modern Republican Party should know this best of all.
– Danielle Bizzarro