Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals earlier this month gave narrative shape and evidentiary heft to a conclusion senior leaders of the U.S. intelligence community reached before Donald Trump won the presidency—that affiliates of the Russian government intervened in the 2016 election to help his campaign and damage Hillary Clinton’s.
On Friday, with the implicit blessing of Trump’s Department of Justice, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee published a memorandum, written by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), partially detailing the intelligence community’s awareness of inappropriate contacts between Trump associates and Russian agents before the 2016 election.
Trump’s instinct, in response to both developments, has been to demonstrate utter contempt for everyone who watched the election unfold, and blame President Obama for not doing more to disrupt the Russian influence operation in which Trump and his advisers were active and gleeful participants.
“Russians had no compromising information on Donald Trump” @FoxNews Of course not, because there is none, and never was. This whole Witch Hunt is an illegal disgrace…and Obama did nothing about Russia!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2018
Question: If all of the Russian meddling took place during the Obama Administration, right up to January 20th, why aren’t they the subject of the investigation? Why didn’t Obama do something about the meddling? Why aren’t Dem crimes under investigation? Ask Jeff Sessions!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 21, 2018
For more than a year now, people who take things like criminal conspiracies to subvert American elections seriously actually have kicked around whether Obama should have done more before November 2016 to alert the public to the still-unfolding plot. There are fair arguments on both sides of the question, but each has to contend with the fact that Obama knew the Republican congressional leadership—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell most vociferously—would dispute his administration, call the intelligence into question, and accuse Obama of using the country’s vast spying powers to help select his own successor. Obama, rather than Vladimir Putin, would be the meddler in this telling, colluding with Hillary Clinton, against poor Donald Trump.
This naked subordination by the Republican leadership of every national interest—of fair elections, and protecting the country against the risk of a major party presidential candidate having a corrupt relationship with a hostile power—should have been the source of unending shame since it was first reported in December 2016. But the indictments and the Schiff memo fill out the context in which McConnell and the others intervened to let Russia’s illegal efforts on behalf of Trump continue, and it is even more horrible than we knew.
In late August 2016, then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid sent a letter to James Comey, asking the then-FBI director to investigate “disturbing reports” of Russian subversion, including meetings between Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page and sanctioned individuals in Russia.
Two months later, Reid sent Comey another letter, excoriating him for sitting on “explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government.”
Others have surmised that Reid drew in these letters from allegations laid out in the so-called Steele dossier, which, by the eve of the election, was circulating among lawmakers and reporters in Washington, D.C. It seems likelier, in light of what we now know, that Reid was referring to both news reports, and information he’d gleaned from leaders of the U.S. intelligence community, who briefed him as a matter of course along with the other top three congressional leaders.
Thanks to the Schiff memo, we know that by the time Reid began to press Comey, the FBI had already, unbeknownst to Reid, begun its counterintelligence investigation, because the U.S. government was in possession of incriminating information about multiple individuals linked to the Trump campaign.
Some of that information came from former CIA Director John Brennan, who, per his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee last May, alerted the FBI after he “encountered and [became] aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals and it raised questions in my mind, again, whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.”
But Brennan didn’t just alert the FBI. He also alerted congressional leaders, including Reid, whom he briefed on August 25, 2016, just two days before Reid wrote his first letter to Comey. “In the August briefing for Mr. Reid, the two former officials said, Mr. Brennan indicated that the C.I.A., focused on foreign intelligence, was limited in its legal ability to investigate possible connections to Mr. Trump,” the New York Times reported in April of last year.
By August of 2016, then, congressional leaders of both parties had at least the capacity to learn about Russian efforts to approach Trump campaign officials, who we now know included George Papadopoulos and Carter Page. Did Brennan provide the same exact information to McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan? We can’t say for sure, but given what Brennan has said since about the GOP leadership’s abdication of its responsibilities to the nation, it seems likely that he did, and they decided to brush him off anyhow.
“In those briefings of Congress, some of the individuals expressed concern that this was motivated by partisan interests on the part of the [Obama] administration,” Brennan has said. “I took offense to that. I told them that this is an intelligence assessment; that this is an intelligence matter.”
Thanks to Schiff, we can fairly surmise that McConnell and Ryan knew much of what the intelligence community knew—that Russian operatives were sabotaging Clinton with the knowledge and complicity of the Trump campaign, and the connivance of specific Trump aides. And yet when the Obama administration, in the weeks before the election, asked the leaders of both parties to join a united front against Russian efforts to tip the scales of a U.S. election, “at least two GOP lawmakers [were] reluctant to accede to the White House requests.” according to the Washington Post.
McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.
Everyone who’s watched Republicans in Congress wield their oversight powers to bolster Trump-inspired, conspiratorial fictions—like that Obama wiretapped him, or that Susan Rice abused “unmasking” authority, or that the FBI engaged in a conspiracy to hurt his campaign—now understand what McConnell was implicitly threatening to do.
We can’t know for certain whether Ryan was one of the other GOP lawmakers who joined McConnell in extorting the Obama administration this way. But we know he didn’t take a stand against McConnell; and we know he understood full well that Russia was engaged in an influence operation on Trump’s behalf long before the election.
In June of 2016, before Brennan and others would confirm these suspicions in classified briefings, Ryan and his leadership team privately surmised that Putin had leverage over Trump, and that the DNC email hack was undertaken by Russia to help him.
Ryan: Russia is trying to turn Ukraine against itself.
[Cathy McMorris-] Rodgers: Yes. And that’s…it’s sophisticated and it’s, uh…
Ryan: And guess…guess who’s the only one taking a strong stand up against it? We are.
Rodgers: We’re not…we’re not…but, we’re not…
[Kevin] McCarthy: [unintelligible]…I’ll GUARANTEE you that’s what it is.[Unintelligible]
McCarthy: The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp research that they had on Trump.
Ryan: The Russian’s hacked the DNC…
[Patrick] McHenry: …to get oppo…
Ryan: …on Trump and like delivered it to…to who?
Ryan swore his team to secrecy, but someone secretly recorded their conversation and leaked it to the Washington Post last year. It revealed that Ryan, no less than McConnell, knew pro-Trump Russian active measures were underway throughout the campaign. He and McConnell had been briefed as far back as 2015 on the fact that Russian hackers were targeting the Democratic Party; other GOP leaders understood the shape of things well before the intelligence community confirmed their suspicions; and yet they all made their peace with it rather than alert the public, hold hearings, or do anything significant to protect the country.
It has been pretty apparent all along what these GOP leaders were up to, but until now it was impossible to be certain that McConnell et al weren’t healthily skeptical of questionable intelligence. Now we can say with a high degree of confidence that they knew basically everything and still stood in the way of efforts to do anything about it. It’s the height of depravity for Trump to shrug off Russian efforts to help him win the election after basking in them on the campaign trail, then pillory Obama for not doing more to stop it all. But if that is his position—his excuse for leaving the country defenseless—then the fact that Ryan and McConnell were his witting accomplices, working to assure the Russian operation ran its course, has to be revisited, too.