Maybe some in the White House thought making former general Michael Flynn walk the plank would end speculation about possible collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russians. But two weeks after Flynn was forced out of his post as National Security Adviser, the debate isn’t so much about whether an investigation will take place, but about how far they will go and whether a special prosecutor will eventually be named.
The latest claims about Attorney General Jeff Sessions meeting with the Russian ambassador have given new life to the story, prompting another round of reasonable questions about his comments and possible recusal from any investigation as well as more unsubstantiated speculation about a conspiracy.
With even Republicans covering themselves with statements about wanting to get to the bottom of the case, Democrats are confident of support for Congressional probes. They are even sending the FBI not-so-subtle warnings that their work will be scrutinized if they are perceived as going soft on Trump.
But as eager as they may be to take a deep dive into alleged ties between the GOP campaign and the Putin regime, they also need to worry about whether this could become their own Benghazi obsession: an issue that plays to their base, but will lead to neither prosecutions nor political profit.
Is There Evidence Trump Colluded With The Russians?
The Russian connection could be a gift that will keep on giving to the Democrats. That’s why figures like House Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff are not holding back as they seek to discover whether the Trump campaign was in bed with the Russians, or helping Vladimir Putin influence or even steal the presidential election from Hillary Clinton. Schiff felt himself on firm ground yesterday as he made it clear in a press conference that until he is presented with evidence to the contrary, he saw no reason not to assume the worst.
His remarks were a striking contrast to those of Republican committee chair Rep. Devin Nunes, who said his briefings by the intelligence community had made it clear there was no evidence of communication between the Trump campaign and Moscow. In the absence of any proof of wrongdoing, Nunes worried about creating a spectacle in which people would be hauled into a hearing room and asked to deny that they were part of a Russian conspiracy. He felt his committee was being sucked into a black hole of innuendo that—despite the appearance of impropriety, if not illegal conduct, that Flynn’s communications with the Russian ambassador seemed to create—was unlikely to lead to anything of substance.
Liberals may think Nunes is a cornered Republican, blowing smoke as he tries to avoid antagonizing the White House and the GOP base. But just as many conservatives believed the events of September 11, 2012 in Libya were the product of willful malfeasance on the part of the Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, liberal conviction that they are on the trail of treason and proof that the election was really stolen is likely to be equally misplaced.
Democrats Could Repeat Republicans’ Mistakes
There are clear differences between the Russian investigation and Benghazi. One is that while Republicans are not taking a hard line opposing an investigation, Democrats always treated the Benghazi investigation as nothing but a political witch-hunt. That stark partisan divide defined public discourse throughout the investigation, and ensured there could never be any consensus no matter what was discovered.
But there are also similarities. Democrats point to Flynn’s discussions with the Russian ambassador and other alleged contacts within the Trump campaign as prima facie proof that something untoward was afoot. Flynn’s lies to Vice President Pence about those conversations make them seem suspicious—in much the same way Susan Rice’s lies to the media about Benghazi convinced the GOP there was more to the scandal than met the eye. But the mere fact that an incoming national security adviser would talk to the Russians isn’t a big deal. Nor is it illegal, let alone treason.
The same can be said of any of the other alleged contacts that the New York Times reported earlier this month. Moreover, Republicans know that the key sentence in that lengthy and much discussed piece was the one which revealed the intelligence community that leaked the story had not found any reason to believe there was collusion between the Trump camp and the Russians. Nor has Nunes heard anything that contradicts that conclusion.
Democrats Want To Keep Alive The ‘Fixed Election’ Story
By contrast, Schiff—like the Republicans who were sure there was something illegal behind Susan Rice’s lies—thinks they’ll find something Trump and company did wrong if only they look hard enough. His indignant claim that Nunes was wrong about the evidence seemed to rest on the assumption that Trump is guilty until proved innocent.
Democratic fantasies about smoking guns might come true. But if there were such proof, then surely the content of the Russian surveillance tapes would have provided the leakers with more than they gave the Times.
At the heart of the Russian connection is a policy disagreement between the intelligence community, and Flynn and others in the Trump camp who believe in changing U.S. policy toward Russia. Most Congressional Republicans probably agree that Flynn and Trump are wrong about Putin. But they also know that Democrats aren’t so much worried about finding the truth as they are in hobbling the administration and keeping alive the notion—repeated by new Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez this past weekend—that the election was fixed.
Fixating On Russia Won’t Get Democrats Anywhere
Schiff and others on the left may think Flynn’s behavior was fishy enough to justify a major investment in proving Trump to be a Russian pawn (a thesis that, as Walter Russell Meade points out in The American Interest, has been disproved by the policies he is pursuing). But unless they miraculously discover something that has thus far eluded those spying on Flynn and the Russians, they are making a mistake.
Democrats may think the leaks about Sessions story is one more reason to believe the Russian connection is the key to toppling the president even though there is still no proof that these meetings have anything to do with their underlying charge of a conspiracy to steal the election. Yet they would do well to recall the way the memory of Benghazi and the politically inspired lies told about it never ceased to outrage Republicans. That belief proved to be a major distraction for them as they spent Obama’s second term focusing on an issue that was never going to yield anything that could derail either Obama or Clinton. If Democrats spend the next four years making the same mistake about Trump and Russia, they will regret a decision that may divert the public from Trump’s shortcomings and do their own cause little good.
This article has been updated to reflect the Sessions developments.