Why, exactly, is anyone surprised? FBI Director James Comey did as Congress asked on Monday when testifying before the House Intelligence Committee. He confirmed that neither the FBI nor the Department of Justice have any information supporting Donald Trump’s tweets accusing Barack Obama of tapping his phones.
This cannot have come as a surprise to anyone. Since Trump first tweeted his accusation two weeks ago, defenders of the President have been scurrying to his defense. As President, they argued, Trump must have sources of information that the rest of us don’t know about. Yet it was apparent from the outset that it was just more of the same old, same old. Trump’s information source for the first tweet — accusing Barack Obama of bugging his phones — was a rant by right-wing talk show star Mark Levin that was written up in Breitbart. Levin did suggest that phones in Trump Tower may have been under surveillance, but all of the information he cited referenced legal investigations — a fact that Trump omitted from his comments on the matter. The second tweet was more egregious — accusing the British spy agency GCHQ of tapping his phones on Obama’s behalf — and Trump himself later acknowledged that his only source of information was comments made by Fox News “analyst” and Trump groupie Andrew Napolitano that Trump saw on TV.
This was vintage Donald Trump, full of bluff and bluster, and animated by conspiracy theories for as long as he has been in the public eye. This is the man who boasted that he got his military intelligence from the Sunday morning shows, who claimed to know more about ISIS than the Generals, and who eschewed the daily intelligence briefings. This is the man whose rivals in the Republican primaries warned that he was a con man, a pathological liar, and a cancer on the Republican Party. Yet any number of senior, respected Republican members of Congress still saw fit to place their own credibility on the line in his defense.
And, true to form, in the wake of Comey’s testimony giving the lie to the entire episode, the White House responded by confirming that Trump has no intention of withdrawing — much less apologizing for — his accusations. The only question that was left at the end of the day was how on earth could anyone be surprised?
For all the build up, we actually learned little new from this week’s testimony by James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers. They confirmed what had long been concluded by any reasonable observer: that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin led an information operation targeting our presidential election, and that the FBI was continuing to investigate Russia’s actions, as well as potential collusion in Russia’s operations by Trump campaign operatives. Comey described Putin’s strategy as having three distinct objectives: first, to seed chaos in our election and damage public confidence in U.S. democratic institutions; second, to undermine Hillary Clinton as a candidate and — presuming she was expected to win — her credibility and capacity as President; and, finally, to support Donald Trump’s campaign. In response to Republican pushback, Comey specifically emphasized that it was not just that Putin deeply detested Clinton and wanted her to lose, Putin wanted Trump to win.
Republicans have been dragged kicking and screaming to accept the fact of Russia’s efforts on Donald Trump’s behalf. It was not enough that Republicans won the presidency, they seemed determined to feel clean and righteous about how things transpired. Even as many Republicans ultimately came to acknowledge over the past few months that the Russian operation was real, they were always quick to caveat any discussion of Putin’s efforts with the disclaimer that, ‘of course, nothing Russia did impacted the results of the election.’ If nothing else, that codicil to the discussion of Russia’s efforts was debunked by the tenor of Monday’s testimony.
We will, of course, never know what the impact ultimately was of Russia’s operation on the outcome of the election. Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College by virtue of a combined 77,000 vote margin in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, representing a mere 0.06% of the 127 million votes cast across the country. It was an outcome that has been attributed by some to Clinton’s lack of an effective campaign message and evident disdain for the white working class voters who flocked to Trump, and by others to James Comey’s own interventions into the race. But given the closeness of the race — Republican disclaimers notwithstanding — one simply cannot dismiss the impact of Russian intervention as a factor that may have tipped the balance. Russia’s cyber and disinformation efforts — including the steady stream of WikiLeaks disclosures — had the effect of a months-long campaign of attack ads designed to drive up Clinton’s negatives.
Even as Comey and Rogers were testifying before the House committee, Trump tweeted out in his own inimitable fashion to try to spin their words as an affirmation that Russia’s operations had no impact on the outcome. Told of Trump’s tweet, Comey retorted in real time that Trump was misstating his and Rogers’ conclusions. Rogers had testified that there was no evidence that voting machines were tampered with, but, Comey stated to correct the record, neither he nor Rogers meant to suggest that the Russian efforts had no impact on the outcome. The target of the Russian campaign was not the voting machines, it was the voters. And in that regard, Comey suggested that it was likely that Russia will be back again in two or four years, seeking to wreck further havoc in our elections, for the simple reason that they will conclude that their efforts this time around were successful.
Last Sunday, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd suggested that, in the wake of the ongoing controversy surrounding the tweets, Donald Trump was struggling with a credibility gap that was threatening his ability to push the healthcare bill through the House. The healthcare vote, scheduled for tomorrow, looms to be a crucial test of how badly Trump has been weakened by his continuing conduct and his nationally televised rebuke at the hands of James Comey and Mike Rogers.
It was not surprising that just a day after their testimony, the stock market suffered its worst one day decline of the year — as traders began to question whether Trump would be able to deliver on the tax cuts he has promised — and conservatives in the House began to push back against Trump’s demands that they fall in line and support his healthcare bill.
Chuck Todd’s comments raised the question of how a conspiracy theorist and demagogue who long ago sacrificed any claims to credibility could suddenly have a credibility gap. The answer, of course, is that Republicans have been steadfast in their to determination to convince themselves that Donald Trump is someone other than who he really is. Just ten months ago, Marco Rubio warned that they were dealing with a con man, and Ted Cruz warned that Trump was a pathological liar.
That was the Donald Trump who loomed in the background as the House committee listened to testimony, the man who Rick Perry suggested early on was a cancer on conservatism, a toxic mix of demagoguery and mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party on the road to perdition. Republicans — who sat shaken and ashen-faced as Comey spoke — had to be asking themselves how far down that road they are prepared to go.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.