Posted on March 30, 2017
Members of Congress pushing the investigation of Russia’s interference with the 2016 election are leaving the highly unfortunate impression that Russiagate hinges on finding a smoking-gun quid-pro-quo such that Trump traded promises of a favorable Russian policy after the election in turn for Russian help during the election. If true, I grant that would be the worst Presidential crime against democracy in American history. It would be worse than Nixon bolloxing LBJ’s Viet Nam negotiations. It would be worse than Reagan bolloxing Carter’s Iran hostage negotiations. What makes it worse is the fact that Russia did in fact interfere directly in US elections. (Granted that evidence as to the extent of interference still needs some independent vetting, but the general Russian intent seems clearly documented.)
However I think the smoking gun more likely than not will never turn up. One reason is that there may not be any available evidence. Trump might have spoken directly with an ambassador only with no witnesses or tape recordings. Or the witnesses might hang tough. Or it was all done through intermediaries with vague instructions and plausible deniability.
Much more importantly, neither side needed an explicit agreement. They had an alignment of common interests. Both sides desperately wanted Trump to win. Also Trump has such a dense network of Russian business ties that both sides had every reason to support pro-Russian policies after Trump’s election. Also both sides were well aware of their community of interests and were perfectly capable of acting on it independently. (In addition to which, Trump openly called for more Russia leaks.)
Therefore the real issue of Russiagate should be, and is, the Trump-Russian commercial network, which makes it impossible for Trump to avoid acting out of extreme conflicts of interest every time he acts with respect to Russia. Moreover, every time Russia or its minions grant Trump’s commercial interests a concession, Trump is in violation of the Emoluments Clause.
It is also relevant that the Russian commerce is by its nature carried on with criminal oligarchs who have an unsavory style of doing business. Therefore Trump is almost inevitably engaging in what are more-or-less criminal conspiracies.
It follows that an honest investigation of Russiagate cannot proceed without examining Trump’s tax returns-and also the equivalent of the disclosure statement that Trump should have made, but did not make.
Needless to say, that will not happen without an independent commission or a special prosecutor. We also need an independent authority to examine the intelligence data and render an opinion as to whether there was or was not an agency conspiracy. Under the circumstances, the FBI investigation cannot stand alone because (even if we grant its credibility) it is focused far too narrowly on types of criminal action that can be proven in a court of law. It is not an emoluments study or an impeachment study. And besides, the FBI itself is allegedly part of the intelligence agency conspiracy.
We may be headed toward a terrible outcome in which the smoking gun never turns up and the Trumpites claim to be vindicated. I hope but do not expect that leaders in Congress (and Rachel Maddow), will change their tune. They should drop the hidden quid-pro-quo rhetoric and focus on the obvious corruption.
Not that a smoking gun wouldn’t be the media’s political scandal of the century. But don’t count on it.