Democracy & Government

‘There’s a Smell of Treason in the Air’

FBI and NSA chiefs verify a Russia probe and refute the president's claims as Republicans scramble to pretend the "drip, drip, drip" hasn't started.

'There’s a Smell of Treason in the Air'

FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers appear in front of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence at the Longworth House Office Building on Monday, March 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Monday’s hearing of the House Intelligence Committee was proof positive of the absolute need for both a special prosecutor and an independent, bipartisan commission with subpoena power to conduct a full investigation of the Trump campaign’s connections with Russian intelligence — as well as Russia’s multipronged attack on our elections and Trump’s business connections with that country’s oligarchs.

And it’s proof more than ever that even if we get that prosecutor and inquiry, a free and independent press may be the only real way to ever get to the bottom of what ranking committee member Adam Schiff said may represent “one of the most shocking betrayals of our democracy in history.”

Just as FBI Director James Comey officially revealed for the very first time (finally!) that indeed since late July the FBI has been investigating whether members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia’s interference with our elections, Republicans, led by committee chair and Trump enabler Devin Nunes did their best to blow smoke aimed at deflecting attention from what Trump and his team may or not have done. Instead, they asked question after question about the illegality of leaks of confidential material to the media — in particular, leaks about former Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

(Note that there was agreement that leaks are illegal but no one mentioned that it’s the media’s complete and constitutionally guaranteed right to report on them. Nor was anyone asked how many times GOP members of the committee have done their own leaking.)

Trump did what he could to distract as well, firing a volley of five heated early-morning tweets just before testimony began, reiterating claims that disgruntled Democrats manufactured charges about Russia’s involvement in the election and contact with Trump aides. There were more during the hearing itself — from Trump or someone at the White House tweeting in his name — twisting the day’s testimony by Comey and National Security Agency chief Mike Rogers. Bizarrely, the two men then were placed in the position of having to rebut Trump’s allegations while they still were in the witness seats, correcting and putting the president in his place — virtually in real time.

Not only did Comey verify that the FBI was actively investigating Trump and his associates, he also flatly denied on behalf of his agency and the Justice Department that prior to January’s inauguration now-former President Obama had ordered eavesdropping on Trump Tower. Under normal circumstances this would seem to neutralize yet another of Trump’s wacky tweet storms, this one from two weeks ago, but as we’ve learned so well, the truth has never been a barrier to the social media madness of King Donald I.

And yet, as presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told The Washington Post, “There’s a smell of treason in the air. Imagine if J. Edgar Hoover or any other FBI director would have testified against a sitting president? It would have been a mindboggling event.”

But here we are, adrift in a Cloud Cuckoo Land of prevarication and incompetence in which little seems capable of boggling or driving our minds agog these days and where the truth shall not set you free but subject you to ridicule from the rabid trolls of the right.

And still there is hope. Even though neither Comey nor Rogers would reveal much of what they are discovering — continually citing the confidentiality they said was necessary to an ongoing investigation — the questions asked, despite the “no comment” answers, suggested ongoing areas of inquiry not only for investigating committees but also for the press.

For it is the free and independent media that continue to provide our clearest window into the extent of the investigation and the possible interface among the Trump campaign, Russia and the right. Late Monday, for example, McClatchy News reported:

“Federal investigators are examining whether far-right news sites played any role last year in a Russian cyber operation that dramatically widened the reach of news stories — some fictional — that favored Donald Trump’s presidential bid, two people familiar with the inquiry say.

“Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as ‘bots,’ to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, these sources said.”

McClatchy reports that most of the stories were linked from social media posts and many of them connected to stories at Breitbart and Alex Jones’ InfoWars, as well as Russia Today and Sputnik News:

“Investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives. Their participation, however, wasn’t necessary for the bots to amplify their news through Twitter and Facebook.”

The spin machines are twirling at cyclonic speeds as the White House and the Republican Party counterattack or try to act as if none of this is happening. Like the refugee couple in Casablanca, they pretend to hear very little and understand even less. At the end of Monday’s testimony, intelligence committee chair Nunes actually told David Corn of Mother Jones that he had never heard of Roger Stone or Carter Page, two of the Trump/Russia story’s most prominent and tawdry players. Ingenuous or ignorant? You be the judge.

“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence?” Adam Schiff asked at Monday’s hearing.

“Yes, it is possible. But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated, and that the Russians use the same techniques to corrupt US persons that they employed in Europe and elsewhere. We simply don’t know. Not yet. And we owe it to the country to find out.”

During Schiff’s questioning on Monday, Comey seemed to nod toward agreeing that Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee was not unlike the 1972 physical break-in at the DNC. You know, the one that precipitated the revelations, resignations and prison convictions of Watergate. Drip, drip, drip…

Michael Winship

Senior Writer

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.