We should all breathe a collective sigh of relief that Vladimir Putin will not be coming to Washington this year, despite President Donald Trump's invitation issued just last week. Why the about face? According to the president's national security adviser, John Bolton: "The president believes that the next bilateral meeting with President Putin should take place after the Russia witch hunt is over, so we've agreed that it will be after the first of the year." The statement is ludicrous — and wrong on several counts.
There is no "Russia witch hunt," despite President Trump's and his minions' repeated efforts to convince Americans otherwise. What there is is incontrovertible evidence that Russia intervened in the 2016 election by using fake social media accounts to spread disinformation and hacking the Democratic National Committee's servers and the personal email account of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta. We don't yet know the full extent of Russia's activities or whether anyone in the Trump campaign wittingly or unwittingly assisted in those activities — which is what the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller is intended to uncover. Nor do we know how extensive Russia's current activity is in the upcoming congressional election. President Trump urged us to believe that any Russian interference is intended to help Democrats. "They will be pushing very hard for the Democrats," he said this week.
The Mueller investigation may or may not be over this year. Certainly, it will bear fruits into next year, based on the trials that will take place on indictments already handed down. Trump's team has been hoping to shutter the Mueller investigation from the beginning, and recently it's been aided in its efforts by certain members of Congress who urge the impeachment of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the man who appointed Mueller and who has the authority to fire him. This seems strange behavior given that Mueller has handed down 191 criminal counts against 35 defendants, including a dozen Russian agents working for the GRU, and has already secured guilty pleas from five of the accused. At the very least, trying to shut down the investigation signals total disregard for Russia's nefarious activities to undermine American democracy.
Some members of Trump's administration clearly do not share the president's views on Russia or the Mueller investigation. U.N. representative Nikki Haley made it clear in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network: "We don't trust Russia. We don't trust Putin. We never will." And all of Trump's intelligence appointees, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he was head of the CIA, have voiced their agreement with the findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Trump's own director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, reiterated last week, "We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy."
In testimony this week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo essentially told members to believe what the administration does, not what the president says. "You somehow disconnect the administration's activities from the president's actions. They're one and the same," he said, pointing to the administration's enforcement of sanctions against Russia and Russian oligarchs, new defensive weapons approved for Ukraine, and the ouster of dozens of Russian diplomats from the U.S. after a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned in the United Kingdom earlier this year.
But words matter — most importantly the president's but also his advisers'. When John Bolton refers to the investigation into Russia's meddling as a "witch hunt," he's speaking in his official capacity. And that's a problem. Just as it is when the official White House transcript of the press conference after the Helsinki summit failed for some 10 days to include the question, "President Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election?" or Putin's answer: "Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal."
We may never learn what went on behind closed doors in Helsinki. But we can be sure that the president and his team in the White House can't wait to change the subject, which is as good a reason as any to keep Putin away from the White House for the time being. Stay tuned.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.