So now we know: the FBI has for months been investigating not only Russian interference in the US presidential election, but also Russian contacts with members of the Trump campaign team. Its scope includes the possibility of criminal collusion.
If this doesn’t seem altogether shocking, that’s because leaks from inside government had already indicated counterintelligence and law enforcement were investigating the activities of Trump’s associates. But there’s “knowing”, and there’s knowing. FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee has made all the above a matter of public record, even as the president tried to muddy the water with one of his now-familiar bursts of factually dubious tweets.
We also now know that no one of substance is prepared to stand behind Trump’s claim that President Obama ordered a wiretap on his campaign office. Comey, on behalf of both the FBI and Justice Department, told Congress he could find no evidence to support the allegation. NSA Director Mike Rogers, appearing alongside him, was similarly unequivocal, and also endorsed GCHQ’s use of the words “nonsense” and “ridiculous” to characterise the White House’s claim that British intelligence had carried out the surveillance and fed information back to Obama.
Republican members of the committee made their lawyerly efforts to try and redirect the hearing’s discussion towards less politically damaging ground, but not one was prepared to defend the actual substance of Trump’s wiretap claim itself.
Rooted in the most thinly-sourced chatter among the far-right media, this allegation enjoyed a short life as a tactical distraction, and is now being treated as an embarrassing liability even by those disposed to try and help Trump’s cause. The president seems characteristically disinclined to back down, but even the Republican party’s most partisan water-carriers have signalled that if he perseveres with this particular battle, he’ll be on his own.
In another sign of things to come, the Comey/Rogers hearing quickly devolved into a face-off between the two political parties. Democrats used it to restate the facts of Russia’s hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaign, its strategic use of Wikileaks to feed damaging coverage of Clinton and boost Trump’s chances of victory, and the substantial circumstantial evidence of contacts between Russian agents and Trump campaign figures.
The committee’s Republicans, meanwhile, worked hard to focus the hearing on the question of who leaked information from the FBI investigation to the press, demanding that they be hunted down and punished.
Hypocrisy notwithstanding, it may be politically astute of Republicans to take this line. In February, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn was forced to resign just three weeks into his job in the Trump administration, after being caught in a lie over the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador during the transition.
Even if his departure was the right outcome, its manner raises legitimate questions regarding the role of the intelligence services, surveillance, and leaks of damaging information about antagonistic officials, that, if asked in good faith, any healthy democracy should grapple with in earnest.
Unfortunately for the president, while such efforts at distraction may well find a favourable audience among his supporters, and perhaps even with much of the general public, they will do nothing to deflect the focus of what we now know to be the most serious threat to his administration: the FBI investigation itself.
A full-scale counterintelligence investigation with this level of priority enjoys practically limitless resources. It has jurisdiction to look under every rock, including any and every aspect of the Trump campaign’s activities that might be relevant to the Russia connection. That includes anything done by anyone flying under Trump’s flag. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort already faces specific public allegations of having been compromised, as does Flynn. Sometime advisers such as Carter Page, Roger Stone, and J.D. Gordon will also be under investigators’ microscopes, and the Trump administration seems none too keen today to vouch for the propriety of their conduct during 2016.
Given what’s already in the public domain, it’s sobering to contemplate what an access-all-areas investigation into every corner of the activities of individuals such as these may turn up. And if they should end up caught in a legal vice, who knows what information such figures might potentially give up, either about matters currently under investigation or as yet below the public radar? At the very least, we can be assured this is an investigation with the fuel to run some distance yet, and by its end much will likely be known that currently is not.
Ominously for those inside, the protective walls around the administration have already started to crumble. The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was himself revealed to have falsely denied meeting with the Russian ambassador during the campaign, and has been forced to recuse himself from any handling of matters related to Russia. His recusal deprives the White House of a potentially valuable firewall between the FBI’s ultimate findings and any potential prosecution.
During the campaign, Trump made it clear that he didn’t care if leaks helpful to his campaign came from illegal email hacking. What mattered, he said, was the substance of what the leaks revealed: the facts should be laid out for the public to judge Clinton’s character.
Politically speaking, it worked: while Clinton turned out to have done little if anything wrong legally, her image was ultimately damaged too severely for that truth to matter much. (She has herself blamed the damaging optics of the FBI probe into her email use for her electoral defeat.)
Now Trump seems set to receive a bitter dose of the same medicine, as he faces an unfettered investigation beyond his power to stymie or curtail. Even if he is certain there is no wrongdoing to uncover, this is bad for him politically. If he cannot be so confident, there is no limit to how much worse things could yet get for the administration. The trail of Russian breadcrumbs has already led investigators uncomfortably close to Trump Tower. On Monday, Comey sent a clear if understated signal that for those with something to conceal in this matter, a reckoning may be coming.
Adam Quinn has received funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.