Not four months into 2017, and the director of America’s domestic intelligence agency let it be known that he is overseeing an investigation into whether the sitting U.S. president or his surrogates may have “coordinated” with the Russian government for the purpose of swaying an American election.
“As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed,” James Comey said, revealing that he is taking seriously the possibility that Donald Trump, his political advisers, or both have aided and abetted a hostile foreign power.
This doesn’t mean a brief encounter or 12 with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. It doesn’t mean a trip to Moscow to slam U.S. foreign policy and anti-Russia sanctions. And it doesn’t even mean working on behalf of pro-Putin political leaders in Europe. It means knowingly colluding with agents of the Russian government in order to spy on their behalf, to help them steal the correspondence of other Americans, or to feed them classified U.S. secrets. Former MI6 operative Christopher Steele suggested that all of the above were distinct possibilities in his dossier, which Comey believed was worth including in classified briefings of President Obama and then-President-elect Donald Trump.
We also learned that Comey began taking these allegations seriously in late July 2016. That was around the time WikiLeaks started publishing Democratic National Committee emails hacked by Russian cyberoperatives and Trump formally became the nominee of a Republican Party, which purposefully watered down its security commitments to Ukraine, almost certainly on orders from then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
I’m old enough to remember when the GOP thought putting any faith in Vladimir Putin was the height of geopolitical naivete. Now the GOP seems to have decided to represent Putin pro bono, while expressing more frustration with The New York Times’ sourcing than with the single most successful Russian infiltration of the U.S. political system since before, during, or after the Cold War.
Life under a Trump administration is a constant exercise in the lowering of IQ and expectation. So I suppose it was fairly anti-climactic to see the president tweeting in real time that his top law enforcer and his top signals intelligence and cyberofficer, NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers, had exonerated the Kremlin of the now well-attested charge of influencing a democratic contest. They upheld that finding, in fact.
In years past, it would also be alarming to hear a senior read-in spook state, on the record, that his boss, the commander in chief, was completely and utterly full of shit and spouting lunatic conspiracy theories. But there Comey was, saying neither he nor the FBI nor the Justice Department had any “information” to substantiate Trump’s tweeted allegation that Obama ordered the U.S. government to surveil then-candidate Trump; and that that was something “no president could” do, anyway.
I think I can also pinpoint the exact moment at which Rogers began wishing he’d gotten into animal husbandry as a career. It was when asked about Trump’s secondary allegation, that Obama got GCHQ, Britain’s version of the NSA, to wiretap him. Rogers answered that not only would asking the British government to spy on a New Yorker be “expressly against the construct of the Five Eyes agreement that’s been in place for decades,” but also that London’s classification of Trump’s accusation was indeed “nonsense and utterly ridiculous,” as Rep. Adam Schiff, the standout star of the day’s proceedings, phrased it. A man whose job it is to listen in on al Qaeda and ISIS phone calls was thus forced to engage in the sort of reparative bilateral diplomacy—which the current secretary of State isn’t terribly fond of—by way of congressional grilling. Only a few months ago this, too, would have seemed unusual for the United States.
There was a distinct bright spot to this surreal nightmare, however. For weeks now, it has been increasingly difficult to defend against accusations that we’ve become something of an unripened banana republic. Our president gets his news from a 9/11 truther website run by a human gumdrop whose natural shade of color is thrombotic red. He is misinformed about covert measures allegedly undertaken by his predecessor by a legal analyst on Fox News. He thinks NATO has an Accounts Receivable department. He makes a matronly German woman visibly uncomfortable in his presence. None of this inspires confidence.
But then there have been the mutterings on the ideological fringes that any attempt to ventilate Trump’s ties to Moscow is the work of a “deep state” trying to wage a Turkish-style coup against him. (If former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes, a man who once told a journalist that he intentionally lies to journalists, is the leader of this sinister junta, the democracy will surely endure.)
Well, so much for the deep state. Here were two guardians of U.S. national security being grilled about their methodology, their conclusions, and what they knew and when they knew it. On what they could not say with confidence, or what was above their pay grade, they did not offer their opinions. In even soft authoritarian states, cops trying to ferret out the crimes and corruption of their own governments wind up dead or in prison. In America, they wind up on television.