In 2016, Donald Trump engaged in perhaps the most scandalous conduct of any presidential candidate in modern US history. He lied to conceal his secret effort to negotiate a huge business deal in Russia while he was running for the highest office in the land—in what was a gargantuan and unprecedented conflict of interest. Trump and his campaign also lied about Moscow’s covert attack on the election, falsely insisting it was not happening (thus echoing and amplifying Russia’s we-didn’t-do-it disinformation). And while this attack was transpiring, Trump’s campaign privately interacted with Russian cut-outs and operatives. These contacts and the false statements sent an encouraging signal to the Kremlin: Trump and his crew did not mind Vladimir Putin’s assault on American democracy (which aimed to help Trump win). Trump committed acts that could be considered treachery. Yet the Trump-Russia controversy continues to be a shuttlecock in the partisan bickering of Washington, never fully registering within the national discourse as the momentous scandal it is. And that prompts the question: Have the Democrats blown it?
Sure, Trump and the Republicans have mounted a ceaseless and vigorous crusade of lies and spin to distract from the heart of the scandal: Trump aiding and abetting Putin’s assault on the United States. They have denied established facts, and they have cooked up diversions and Deep State conspiracy theories to draw attention from what Trump did during the 2016 campaign. Trump and his enablers have hid behind the misleading claim that the only legitimate issue was whether Trump directly colluded with Russia’s hack-and-dump operation. (And he did not! they proclaim. So case closed.) The Trumpers assert that the origin of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation—a “witch hunt” and a “hoax”—is the real scandal. Taking full advantage of his bully pulpit and his Twitter account, Trump has succeeded in clouding the picture and obscuring the main elements of the scandal: the Russian attack and he helped Moscow.
Still, the congressional Democrats have made it easier for Trump and his henchmen to get away with this. The messy fight now underway centers largely on process matters: Will the Justice Department make an unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report available to Congress and the public? Will Attorney General Bill Barr testify before the House? Is he protecting Trump and obstructing Congress? Will Mueller testify? Will Don McGahn, the former White House counsel? Will Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director? Will the White House and others respond to subpoenas and testimony requests? And so on. These are all significant battles—pieces of the larger clash over Trump’s above-the-law refusal to accept the legitimacy of congressional oversight. But these skirmishes, which occur alongside the phony disputes hatched by Fox News and GOPers trying to protect Trump, do prevent much of the public from concentrating on the thing itself: what went on in 2016. And Trump certainly would rather tussle over obstruction than betrayal. To many Americans, all this probably comes across as a giant political dust storm. It’s a mess. Each week—every day—the focus shifts. There is no story to hold on to. This chaos is good for Trump; the chaos is the cover-up.
Democrats have not found a straight path through this tumult. And their difficulties in this regard began after the election. Following Trump’s shocking victory, the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill was slow to call for investigations of Russia’s not-so-covert intervention and Trump’s and his campaign’s dealings with Russians. Discouraged and in disbelief, top Democrats missed the opportunity to define the election as a contest tainted by Moscow’s clandestine operation. It took months for them to issue forceful calls for investigation.
It’s a cliché to talk about political narratives. But the Dems, for the most part, did lose control of the narrative. Trump used his tweet-megaphone to drown out serious consideration of what occurred in 2016—and to cast nonsensical but competing storylines—while House Republicans turned their Trump-Russia investigation into a clown show. (On the Senate side, a parallel GOP-led probe proceeded behind closed doors, far from public notice.) And the journalistic exposés that did occasionally ensue were often overwhelmed by the cacophony of the news cycle—and appeared in a nonchronological manner that made it hard for the facts to be readily absorbed by the public and form a coherent account of a wide-ranging scandal.
Noise and manufactured controversy have swamped the fundamental tale of the Trump-Russia affair. And since gaining control of the House, Democrats have not remedied this. They have been vigorous in demanding information. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chair of the Judiciary Committee, has pushed for access to the complete Mueller report. His committee held Barr in contempt and staged a hearing with an empty chair for the no-show McGahn, who acceded to a Trump request and refused to appear. And in early February, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, announced what the Associated Press called “a broad new investigation looking at Russian interference in the 2016 election and President Donald Trump’s foreign financial interests.” (Other House committees have issued demands or subpoenas for Trump’s tax returns, additional Trump financial material, and information related to the issuance of security clearances in the White House.) But in all this scuffling, the main story has gotten lost. The reason for the wrangling has been subsumed by the wrangling itself. And much of this has increasingly been overshadowed by the debate weighing down Democrats: Should Trump be impeached?
Granted, it’s tough to escape the gravitational pull of Washington brawling and talk of impeachment. But it’s not impossible. Congress has a powerful tool for conveying to the public a story of wrongdoing: congressional hearings. But Congress has not convened hearings that have zeroed in on Putin’s 2016 attack—”sweeping and systematic,” Mueller called it in his report—and showcased the Trump interactions with Russia within this period. (A few congressional hearings have looked at how Russian trolls used American social media platforms to influence the 2016 campaign.) When Republicans controlled the House, they had no interest in presenting a full and comprehensible telling of Russiagate. The House Intelligence Committee, led by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), sought to neutralize the scandal, not explain it. Nunes and his comrades did not mount comprehensive hearings detailing the affair. Serving Trump was their priority.
For five months now, the Democrats have held power within the House. While passing legislation to address voters’ needs and while battling to enforce subpoenas, they could also be telling the story—with hearings featuring witnesses who could present compelling accounts that have a chance of grabbing the nation’s attention for at least a few minutes.
Three percent of Americans say they have read the Mueller report. That number is probably high. Yes, many have seen the headlines and the news accounts summarizing the report’s findings and allegations. But there is something visceral about a well-run hearing. It is a different way of presenting information to the citizenry. (John Dean’s testimony during the Watergate hearings continued for days and captivated the nation.) Congressional hearings could be used to convey the basics of the Trump-Russia scandal that have disappeared in the ceaseless shuffle—and been shoved aside by the debates over collusion and obstruction.
Imagine bringing forward in high-profile, televised hearings a series of witnesses who have firsthand accounts to share. Felix Sater, the former felon and onetime Trump business associate, could testify about the deal he was negotiating on behalf of Trump for a Moscow tower project—while Trump was running for president, expressing positive views about Russia and Putin, and denying he had any business interests in Russia. Richard Gates, Trump’s deputy campaign chair, who has been a cooperating witness for Mueller, could talk about the campaign’s attempts to acquire inside information on WikiLeaks’ plans for releasing Democratic emails swiped by Russian hackers—and about the curious interactions Paul Manafort, the campaign chair, had during the campaign with a Russian oligarch and a business associate who allegedly had ties to Russian intelligence. Manafort could perhaps be hauled in from prison to be questioned. Donald Trump Jr. could be subpoenaed to talk before the public about that infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, where he, Manafort, and Jared Kushner met with a Russian emissary whom they believed would bring them dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of a secret Kremlin operation to help Trump win the presidency. Trump Jr. might well decline to appear, or take the Fifth; then Democrats could hold another hearing with an empty chair—and with graphics showing how Trump Jr. made false statements about the aim of the Trump Tower meeting once it became public months after the election. (Trump Jr. has given private testimony to congressional committees and been subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee for a return engagement; none of these sessions have been held in public.)
A hearing could cover how Trump and his campaign aides in 2016 repeatedly denied Russia was attacking the United States—even after Trump had been briefed by the US intelligence community that such an assault was occurring. Call former Rep. Paul Ryan to the witness table to explain how he and Republican Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, following Trump’s lead, refused during the campaign to blame Russia for targeting the election. Put Michael Flynn, Trump’s top national security adviser during the campaign, in the chair. Ask Ivanka Trump about the Moscow project.
Holding such hearings won’t be easy. Republicans would resort to their usual tricks and strive to raise diversionary topics. The Trump White House would try to block the appearance of witnesses. And some witnesses would try to avoid cooperating. But the endeavor itself would convey the notion that there is a serious story to be told beyond the serious matter of obstruction. (One suggestion: Let committee lawyers, not members, grill the witnesses for extended lengths of time. That way, the hearings won’t be dominated by grandstanding politicians or diluted into small blocks of questioning that bounce back and forth between Rs and Ds.)
A foreign adversary attacked an American election. The candidate who benefitted played ball with that foe and provided cover for the attack. (And it is arguable that Putin’s information warfare operation was one of several factors that determined the outcome of this close contest.) This is a far more consequential scandal than the Teapot Dome, Watergate, Iran-Contra, or the Lewinsky affair. Yet the fundamentals have too often been drowned out by Trump and the Republicans, with the Democrats failing to keep the essentials at center stage. Unless the Democrats make a concerted effort to tell The Trump-Russia tale—simply and powerfully—the side with the fake stories and the loud denials could win or, at least, skate past this profound wrongdoing.
On Monday evening, Trump held a campaign rally in Pennsylvania at which he ranted that his campaign had been spied on and that the federal investigators who had probed Russiagate had committed “treason.” In response, the crowd chanted, “Lock them up!” This was both absurd and dangerous. Yet it showed once again that Trump has a simple, if false, story to peddle: He’s the victim of a wide-ranging fraud orchestrated by a cabal of nefarious connivers who despise him and the country. Those who give a damn about protecting democracy, though, also have a simple story: Putin attacked an election to help Trump, and Trump actively went along with it—and lied to cover up the attack. Yet Trump’s political opposition—up against a bombardment of spin and deception—has not continuously presented this case clearly. It’s not too late to do so. They need to fight false spin with truthful drama—and, whatever happens on the obstruction and impeachment fronts, they ought to do it soon.