President Trump addressed Congress on Tuesday night. Or was it the state Duma? And how can you tell the difference?
Trump uttered some 5,000 words and spoke for 60 minutes, but not one of those words was “Russia,” and not one of those minutes was devoted to the so-far successful effort by our geopolitical adversary to undermine American democracy.
The FBI and intelligence community have unanimously charged that Vladimir Putin’s government interfered in the U.S. elections in its successful attempt to get Trump elected. Ties between Trump and his team and Russia have been well established, right up through contacts with the Russian ambassador during the transition that led to the resignation of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn – all while Trump has promised a friendly new approach to Russia.
It was hard to ignore this elephant, even in a room as large as the House chamber. And yet Trump excised it, like Trotsky from Soviet photos. Putin could not have done better – nor could he have appointed better men to investigate Russia’s interference in the U.S. election than those now charged with doing it.
Consider Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and head of the House investigation into Russia.
On Friday, the Washington Post reported that Nunes participated in a White House-led effort to knock down a New York Times story asserting the Trump campaign had contacts with Russian intelligence. On Saturday, Nunes said at a forum in California that Flynn, who was pushed out over the Russia controversy, “is an American hero, and he was doing his job.” On Monday, Nunes, the man responsible for overseeing the House’s probe into the Russia matter, assembled reporters and declared: “The way it sounds to me is it’s been looked into and there’s no evidence of anything.” Of contacts between Russia and Trump lieutenants, he said, “What I’ve been told … by many folks is that there’s nothing there.”
Nunes even offered Trump and Flynn an alibi, saying “they were so busy” that Trump couldn’t have possibly directed Flynn to call the Russian ambassador to talk about sanctions. And Nunes said a special prosecutor should be called in only if “serious crimes have been committed. … But at this point, we don’t have that.”
It was a trip through the looking glass: The very purpose of an investigation is to determine whether crimes have been committed; if you have proof, you don’t need an investigation.
Nunes, who served on Trump’s transition committee, has already said executive privilege prevents him from examining discussions between Trump and Flynn. And Nunes echoed Trump’s claim that the real scandal isn’t about contacts with Russia but about the unauthorized leaks about such contacts. And this man is supposed to lead an impartial investigation? You might as well ask the Kremlin to conduct one.
You don’t need to be a partisan Democrat to know that, as former president George W. Bush told NBC, “we all need answers” on Trump’s Russia ties. But the congressional Republicans leading the investigation have already declared their partiality. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also participated in the White House campaign to debunk the Times report.
During the previous administration, seven congressional committees issued eight reports on the Benghazi affair – and that was before the two-year Select Committee investigation concluded. Now we have the White House pressuring the FBI and senior intelligence officials to debunk allegations against Trump.
So where are these crack investigators now?
Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has offered a bevy of excuses: He doesn’t need to probe the Flynn affair because “it’s taking care of itself”; other panels could better protect “sources and methods”; he didn’t want to pry into the “private systems of a political party”; and he won’t “personally target the president.”
The pressure not to probe must be considerable. On Friday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told HBO’s Bill Maher that “you’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office” to probe the Russia-Trump matter. But on Monday, Issa retreated, saying he would support an “independent review” but not a special prosecutor because there’s no “individual under suspicion.”
Nunes, serving as judge and jury, told reporters Monday that it was “ridiculous” to suggest Flynn’s transition talks with the Russian ambassador violated the law prohibiting private citizens from conducting foreign policy. “We should be thanking him,” Nunes declared, “not going after him.”
Good idea. And after they thank Flynn, the Duma investigators should send chocolates to Putin.
( Editor’s note: On Wednesday, Nunes said “The House Intelligence Committee must conduct a bipartisan investigation into Russia’s interference in our election,” after the committee announced it would look at what Russian activities were directed against the U.S. during the election and whether anyone connected to the campaigns was involved, according to the Bloomberg News.)
Dana Milbank is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.