WASHINGTON ― Let’s step back for a minute and consider again what we saw Monday in a hearing room of the U.S. House.
The director of the FBI, with the director of the National Security Agency agreeing at his side, in effect called the president of the United States a liar ― and, oh, by the way, the president’s 2016 campaign indeed is under investigation for allegedly having secretly teamed up with Russia to win the election.
After two months of Donald J. Trump’s presidency and more than a year of his campaign, our political senses are so dulled by tumult that we can barely recognize history when we see it. Make no mistake. Monday’s hearing was all but unprecedented.
Not since a White House aide named Alexander Butterfield told the Watergate committee in 1973 that President Richard Nixon had bugged his own Oval Office has an investigative hearing made it so clear that a presidency was in serious legal jeopardy.
Now we know for sure that, while no one “tapped” Trump’s phones, his campaign circle is in the gunsights of the FBI. The issue is whether Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose interference in the 2016 election is now an accepted fact, tried to rig the outcome with the knowledge or collusion of Team Trump.
Foreign countries have meddled in U.S. politics from the founding of the republic. At the dawn of the 19th century, France and Britain fought what amounted to a proxy war between U.S. allies of the two countries. France and Britain aided opposite sides in the Civil War. German interests spread propaganda here to try to keep America from fighting in World War I and World War II. And of course, the Soviet Union infested the State Department and other portions of the U.S. government during the Cold War.
But it is highly unlikely that a foreign government ever has been under investigation for direct ties to and direct ― and successful ― efforts to aid a presidential candidate, especially one now serving as president, and who has expressed such interest in better relations with the government under investigation.
While Democrats probed FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Michael Rogers for evidence of links between Trump and Russia, Republicans sought to change the conversation by asking about leaks pertaining to Trump and Russia. Comey insisted he was concerned about the leaks, but seemed more eager to ominously deny comment on where the unauthorized disclosures were coming from.
If Team Trump is found to be complicit in any way, leading figures in the campaign and in the White House would indeed become targets of law enforcement. The White House and its minions will howl about “FAKE NEWS” ― the president did so via Twitter Monday morning ― but even Fox was covering the House hearing.
Which, in turn, means this story is just beginning. Here’s why:
“The Community.” That’s the reverent term of art that Rogers and Comey used Monday to describe the alphabet soup of agencies that handle national security and investigations of breaches. As Rogers and Comey described it, the entire “community” regards Russia as perhaps the leading global “adversary” of the U.S. What the two men did not say ― but clearly believe ― is that the allegations about the campaign could lead to deeper questions about Trump’s global game plan ― and whether that plan, presuming he has one, is itself a threat to national security. “The Community” is not going to give in or give up.
Wikileaks. The Community seethes at the mention of WikiLeaks, which Rogers and Comey said Russian hackers had used as a conduit for making compromising Democratic emails public. The Community wants to nail WikiLeaks, or a least make an example of forces who use it in this fashion.
Ukraine. Putin’s invasion of Crimea, and his longtime strong-arming of Ukraine politics, is now coming with a price as what’s left of Ukrainian nationalism fights a rear-guard action ― not in Kiev so much as in Washington. It is more than possible that Putin has been too cute by half, because independent Ukrainian investigators have dug into the record of Trump associates such as former campaign manager Paul Manafort, and are feeding the results to the American media and American agencies. Can Putin shut them down altogether? The more attention this gets in the U.S., the harder that will be.
FARA. It’s the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and judging from the opaque denials from Comey, it seems clear that the FBI is investigating violations of it by Manafort and by Michael Flynn, Trump’s former campaign adviser and, briefly, until he was ousted for lying about his Russia ties, national security adviser. Manafort worked with pro-Putin Ukrainians; Flynn took money from Russian television, effectively an arm of the Putin regime. White House spokesman Sean Spicer claimed Monday that Manafort had played a “limited” role in the campaign. That is a flat-out lie. Manafort ran the campaign from the spring of 2016 ― to the extent anyone could actually run it ― until after the GOP convention.
The Squeeze. If and when FBI agents get Manafort or Flynn in their vise, they will climb up the chain by turning targets into witnesses. What do Manafort and Flynn know about, say, Trump and his dealings with Russia? Probably a lot. And that is where things could go next, depending on what the FBI really has.
GOP. Republican leaders hate the Russia story, and they are not eager to push the line that it is a good thing to be in bed with Putin. You haven’t ― and won’t ― see Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) getting in the way of the FBI freight train. They tend to agree that Russia is an enemy.
Comey. In the 2016 election, Comey may well have helped Trump by announcing that he had revived an investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private emails. Having zigged in one direction, he is now zagging in the other, after the fact. He has more than six years left in his term, and is not likely to go anywhere anytime soon. He may be an umpire following one bad call with another, but he is not about to leave the field of play. And Comey made it clear Monday that he was speaking out with the approval of the Department of Justice – without objection from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from the case. History buffs will hear the echoes of Watergate. Nixon sealed his own doom by demanding that Justice fire the man investigating him.