Wednesday was one of those scandal-detail-overload days. It’s one thing if there is a big blockbuster scoop that changes everything: We all run toward the light. But days like Wednesday are filled with various emerging details of different aspects of the Trump scandals that are potentially important — and in any other administration would cause bipartisan garment rending and calls for commissions, committee investigations and special counsels — but come out of left field and don’t really clarify anything.
Just to choose a couple of news nuggets yesterday, we learned from the New Yorker that the person who leaked Michael Cohen’s financial information was a law enforcement official, who did so out of concern that some important reports seemed to have been removed from the central FBI and Treasury Department databases. It’s possible that some data was walled off, perhaps by special counsel Robert Mueller’s office, without nefarious intent. But corruption is so rampant in this administration, and the congressional majority is so protective of President Trump, that government bureaucrats are concerned that documents are being destroyed.
Keep in mind that the woman who is about to be confirmed as CIA director destroyed videotapes of torture. We learned just this week that the EPA had buried a major study about contaminated drinking water throughout the US because it would be a “public relations nightmare.” It’s not really paranoid to wonder if there might be something hinky about Michael Cohen’s financial records being “redacted,” or deciding your best bet was to give the info to an outside lawyer.
Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani told the Washington Post that Mueller’s office had assured him it planned to follow Justice Department guidelines that a sitting president cannot be indicted, sparking bold “breaking news” headlines. It later turned out, however, that Giuliani had heard this second-hand from Jay Sekulow, Trump’s other lawyer and it wasn’t clear at all exactly what had been said:
— Robert Costa (@costareports) May 16, 2018
Then the New York Times posted a story late in the day about the early days of the Russia investigation, which shows that — contrary to the right-wing narrative — the FBI and the Justice Department went much easier on Trump than on Hillary Clinton with parallel investigations into their respective campaigns. The Times sort of copped to its own culpability in flogging a story late in the campaign that the feds had found no link between Trump and Russia, which was incomplete if not downright misleading. The full story of both the DOJ’s decisions and the Times’ editorial choices has yet to be written, but this was a start.
But the big story of the day was the release of 2,500 pages of transcripts of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s interviews regarding that infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 between Trump campaign staff and emissaries of the Russian government. We already knew much of what transpired, but there were a few little tidbits that hadn’t been widely known before. For instance, as Yahoo News reported, on the day after the meeting (which Trump ostensibly knew nothing about), Aras Agalarov, the Azeri-born oligarch who had been said to confer with Russian prosecutors about dirt on Hillary Clinton, sought to deliver a large birthday gift to Donald Trump, along with a personal note. That was sweet of him.
Donald Trump Jr.’s testimony to the committee was of particular interest, since he’s the one who agreed to meet these alleged Russian tipsters in the first place. He was not particularly forthcoming. Don Jr. claimed he never told his father about the meeting, which he admitted was set up to get “dirt” on Clinton. That’s a wildly improbable assertion, considering that Donald Trump said this in public, shortly after the meeting was set up:
I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week, and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting. I wonder if the press will want to attend. Who knows?
We are supposed to believe that announcement was unrelated to the anticipated meeting in which Donald Trump Jr. was to receive derogatory info on Clinton. That speech never happened but if the Russians were “dangling” (seeing whether someone would take the bait) or gathering Kompromat about Don Jr. that could be used against him later, it was still a success. If nothing else, the Russians made it known that their price for helping Trump in the election would be the lifting of sanctions, which we know the Trump transition team and administration set out to do almost immediately.
Don Jr. also said he could not recall if the blocked phone number he called immediately after the Trump Tower meeting was his father’s. Jumping forward to July 2017, when the New York Times first reported on the Trump Tower meeting, the younger Trump said he never spoke to the president aboard Air Force One while they were drafting the misleading White House response to that article. He noted that his father might have helped construct that response “through Hope Hicks.” Don Jr. also seemed to have serious memory problems for a relatively young man. He said he couldn’t recall what happened at least 54 times.
None of this, to be clear, changes our understanding of what happened (or didn’t happen) in that Trump Tower meeting. What is new and significant in all this is that Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee agreed to release these transcripts, along with a summary that endorsed the intelligence community’s findings that the Russian government had interfered in the election on behalf of Donald Trump. That appears to be in direct opposition to the House Intelligence Committee, which pretty much whitewashed the whole matter. (The House report stated that there were “significant intelligence tradecraft failings” in that assessment from the intelligence community.)
This is the first time any congressional Republicans have stated unequivocally that Russia sought to undermine American democratic processes to benefit Donald Trump. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and James Lankford, R-Okla., both said they thought the Intelligence Community’s assessment back in January 2017 was legitimate. Even Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, generally a White House loyalist, agreed that Russia “meddled” but said there was no collusion with the Trump campaign, which may be a preview of the final report, currently undergoing classification review. Hard-right Trumper Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., refused to comment, which suggests there may still be some dissension on the committee.
Maybe it seems strange that these baby steps toward bipartisan consensus look huge, considering everything we know. But Republicans have circled the wagons so tightly around their so-called leader that stating the obvious now looks like an act of patriotic courage. Perhaps this report is the first sign that those wagons are starting to come apart.