From his first tweeted accusation of "wiretapping," Donald Trump has thrown up a screen of chaff to obscure what he and his cronies seem to fear most: a thorough, transparent investigation of the multiple connections between the Kremlin and his presidential campaign. Self-destructive as his ploy was, he succeeded in distracting attention from the deeply troubling questions that surround his election.
But at yesterday's House Intelligence Committee hearing, FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers finally disposed of that phony "tapp" claim, in all its permutations (including the British variation he heard on Fox News). That topic merits no further discussion except whether and how the president should be sanctioned for this offensive prevarication.
While Republicans on the committee didn't endorse Trump's wiretapping fantasy, they attempted to spin up a slightly different sideshow, demanding prosecution of the leaks that exposed Michael Flynn's contacts with the Russian ambassador. Of course those same leaks eventually revealed that as national security adviser, Flynn lied about his Russian contacts, leading to his dismissal.
Now we know that Flynn was also acting as the paid agent of another foreign government while he advised Trump. Yet for reasons only they can explain, "conservatives" like Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., seem more disturbed by the leaks than what those leaks disclosed about the former national security adviser. Of course, Gowdy's Benghazi committee leaked profusely and lawlessly whenever that served his party's political aims, without protest from a single Republican. So their current indignation about leaking is bogus and deserves no response except laughter. The same can be said for White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, whose effort to shift attention away from the Trump investigation to "wiretaps" and then to "leaks" at his press briefing was so obvious, so clumsy — and so instructive.
When all the chaff is blown away, what remains is a simple fact that should arouse this endangered republic. Since last summer, the president of the United States and several of his disreputable associates have been embroiled in an ongoing investigation of crimes against the American political system by a foreign adversary. During the hearing, Comey deflected almost every specific question about the case, but what he confirmed was stunning. It was not "fake news," but an announcement by the nation's top law enforcement official that Trump's presidency, only eight weeks old, is in deep peril.
Much as the White House continues to insist there is "no evidence" of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, the circumstantial evidence has been piling up for months: the abruptly dismissed, Kremlin-linked campaign manager Paul Manafort (whose role Spicer comically attempted to minimize); the contacts between Trump dirty trickster Roger Stone, WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0; the "cutouts" used by the Russians to veil their attacks on the Democrats; the various contacts between the Russians and Trump advisers, including Flynn, Carter Page and Jeff Sessions, which they attempted to conceal; and the curious shaping of the Republican platform on Ukraine to mollify Vladimir Putin.
After reciting some of the troubling facts, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the committee's ranking Democrat, observed that the likelihood of all these connections being merely coincidental is extremely small. Former White House counsel John Dean, whose 1973 testimony helped to break Nixon's Watergate defense, went further, saying that he sees the Trump White House in a familiar "cover-up mode."
Unfortunately, the conduct of the Republicans at Monday's hearing inspired no confidence in their ability to complete the Trump investigation. Not only do most of them lack the necessary integrity and courage, but also their leader doesn't seem sufficiently engaged to master the material. Devin Nunes, the California Republican who chairs the committee, told David Corn of Mother Jones that he has no idea who Roger Stone and Carter Page are, even at this late date. He has been too busy blathering about leaks to learn the basic facts about the probe he is supposed to oversee.
That leaves America's fate in the hands of Comey, whose stumbling and biased performance during the election was underlined by his own testimony — and the bureau he leads, which remains disgraced by a partisan clique that misused law enforcement for political purposes last year. We must hope that the FBI director has realized he made a terrible mistake and that he can muster honest agents to complete this historic investigation. It is the only way he can redeem himself, his agency and his country.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.