The release this weekend of Rep. Adam Schiff’s rebuttal to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes’ memo on the Trump-Russia investigation prompted a predictable tweet barrage from the man at the center of it all. President Donald Trump declared Mr. Schiff’s work “a total political and legal BUST” that further proves that the various investigations into possible collusion between his campaign and the Russian election meddling machine is a “Witch Hunt” and an “illegal disgrace.”
We will go so far in agreeing with the president to stipulate this: The Schiff memo doesn’t really change much. That’s because it is a sideshow to the sideshow that was Rep. Nunes’ memo. It provides some interesting details, like that the FBI and Department of Justice did inform the Foreign Intelligence Surveilance Act Court judges (all Republican appointees, by the way) that a dossier cited in a wiretap application was believed to be funded by people with a political motivation to hurt Mr. Trump’s campaign. But even a cursory reading of the Nunes memo revealed it to be full of holes in its argument that the FBI and DOJ misled the FISA court in is applications for wiretap warrants on former Trump adviser Carter Page, and even if not, the question was largely irrelevant anyway, since Mr. Mueller has secured assorted guilty pleas and indictments that have nothing to do with him. About all Mr. Schiff has proven is that Mr. Nunes is a stooge for President Trump, and we weren’t really in doubt about that to begin with.
Whether Mr. Mueller will find any evidence that members of the Trump campaign cooperated with the Russian effort to tip the election in his direction, we have no idea. But even the best case scenario for President Trump at this point doesn’t look good. We now have clear evidence that Mr. Trump’s campaign, transition and administration have been staffed with people who are compromised on Russia.
In the spring of 2016, Mr. Trump hired as his campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who now faces indictment on dozens of charges related to tax fraud, money laundering, conspiracy, false statements and more. He brought with him his business partner, Rick Gates, who last week pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and making false statements. It’s certainly conceivable that Mr. Trump was unaware of any of the illegal acts the two have been accused of committing. But it was no secret that Messrs. Manafort and Gates had worked for years on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s man in Ukraine, former President Viktor Yanukovych.
The campaign brought on board as a foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, a 28-year-old with few credentials who had been approached by people purporting to be able to provide information about emails Russia had obtained that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. How much of that he shared with other campaign staffers, we don’t know, but there is no dispute that he repeatedly tried to persuade others, up to and including then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, to set up a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin.
In his confirmation hearing for the post of attorney general, Mr. Sessions testified falsely that he had not had any contacts with Russian officials during the campaign. He also claimed to have no knowledge of any contacts between campaign staffers and Russian officials before later “remembering” that Mr. Papadopoulos had mentioned his contacts and ability to set up meetings with Russians, and he did not dispute Mr. Page’s assertion that he told the future AG that he planned during the middle of the campaign to travel to Moscow.
In December of 2016, Michael Flynn, who would go on to serve as national security adviser, spoke with an official on the Trump transition team and then with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, urging the latter to persuade the Putin government not to react severely to sanctions imposed by the Obama administration and promising a friendlier relationship under the yet-to-be-inaugurated President Trump. Perhaps Mr. Flynn was not acting on orders, and the Trump team had no idea what he was up to, but it would still take more than two weeks after the DOJ warned the White House counsel that the Russian government could have blackmail material against Mr. Flynn before Mr. Trump fired him.
Is there a pattern to the Trump team’s blindness to its own members’ Russia conflicts? Time and the Mueller inquiry will tell. But there’s definitely a pattern of sloppy vetting and questionable hires. A nominee for a federal judgeship withdrew after failing to answer questions a first-year law student would have aced. A proposed “Drug Czar” dropped out after reports that he took $100,000 from the pharmaceutical industry while pushing legislation in Congress that could have worsened the opioid crisis. The president’s first nominee to lead the Commerce Department dropped out amid allegations of spousal abuse and employing an undocumented immigrant. The White House staff secretary stayed on for months after officials learned of credible accusations against him of domestic abuse, even as his security clearance was held up because of it. Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner remains at the heart of the West Wing despite his inability so far to receive permanent security clearance. And now Mr. Trump is floating the idea of making his personal pilot the head of the FAA. Yes, the best case scenario here is that we’re looking not at collusion but incompetence.
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