MARCH 20, 2017, was a tipping point for Trump/Russia. To understand why requires some context:
While there was plenty of solid investigative journalism prior to that date, most of it was submitted by relatively small publications (e.g., Mother Jones, Slate) or “citizen journalists” like Seth Abramson and Adam Khan, who broadcast their findings on Twitter. The Russia Story was largely ignored by the mainstream media—or outright refuted. The Steele dossier, a key source for independent investigations, was written off as “unverifiable,” and Buzzfeed derided for publishing it. Furthermore, the cornerstone of “Russia Gate” was an exclusive report filed by Louise Mensch for the obscure Heat St. blog on November 7, 2016, claiming that “the FBI sought, and was granted, a FISA court warrant in October, giving counter-intelligence permission to examine the activities of ‘U.S. persons’ in Donald Trump’s campaign with ties to Russia.”
If there really was an active CI investigation going on at the Bureau—if Louise Mensch was right—the Russia Story was legit. If not….eh. And Mensch had an unfortunate reputation as a “conspiracy queen,” her story directly contradicted an earlier report by the august New York Times, and, most ominously, none of the major media players had managed to confirm her scoop. Indeed, when Mensch wrote an op-ed in advance of the “Comey hearing” for the same New York Times on March 17, her credibility was attacked on Twitter by Susan Hennessey, editor of Lawfare and a Brookings Fellow, who concluded: “Either a previously unknown person has reliable sources no one else knows. Or someone heard rumors and published what other’s wouldn’t.” Hennessey echoed what mainstream editors everywhere were likely thinking when she tweeted: “If major claim is made, it needs secondary confirmation within a few days. And if the best in the biz have been working their sources for months with nothing and unable to confirm, presumptively unreliable.” Meanwhile, the mendacious likes of Glenn Greenwald offered lazy condemnations of the whole Russia Story, parroting Moscow/Trump talking points. Perhaps New Republic‘s Jeet Heer put it best:
Part of the reason I (and others, I think) resisted the Russian theory is it seemed too stupid to be real. But sometimes life is stupid.
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) February 14, 2017
In short, Trump/Russia had all the markings of a full-blown, Grassy Knoll/second gunman -style conspiracy theory.
So: it’s no exaggeration to say that, as the sun rose on March 20, the future of Trump/Russia hung in the balance. On the “there’s something there” side, you had the Conspiracy Queen, a poetry blogger, and a disgraced former NSA agent with a penchant for sending dick pics; on the other, pretty much everyone else. [1. Yeah, I know, Rachel reported on this before the rest of the cable news people, but she too was late compared to the three journalistic heroes I mentioned.]Swayed by Mensch’s logic after reading her “Chess” piece in January, I held with the former, and had written extensively about Russia for weeks. But my journalistic bona fides were not exactly pristine. I confess to being worried the night before the hearing, that Jim Comey would continue to “GLOMAR” the FBI investigation—or, worse, announce that it was kaput and no charges would be filed. I’d put all my proverbial eggs in the Comey basket (which basket, this time, was refreshingly free of deplorables). But…what if Mensch had been misinformed?
So when Comey stated, in his opening remarks, that “the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” and, moreover, that “[a]s with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed,” Team Louise was vindicated—bigly.
More than that, the Comey statement was enough to awaken the sleeping giant that is the mainstream media, which thereafter went after the story with gusto. (Better late than never, guys!) Since then, there’s been a new mainstream media-driven revelation almost every day: the Paul Manafort/Ukraine $10 million money laundering bombshell; the Devin Nunes imbroglio; Mike Flynn’s shady relationship with Turkey and his astonishing offer of immunity; and the opening of the Senate Intelligence Committee testimony, in which expert Clint Watts of George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security testified that, “Part of the reason active measures have worked in this US election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at time [sic] against his opponents.” Too, Democrats on Capitol Hill, chief among them Adam Schiff and Maxine Waters, have been given the green light to hit Trump on the Russia Story, and hit him hard. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) has more about Russia on his .gov site than we do on these pages. The pace has only accelerated in the last two weeks.
In short, intrepid reporters like Louise Mensch, John Schindler, Seth Abramson, Adam Khan, and others had been pushing the Trump-Russia boulder up the hill for months. On March 20, said boulder achieved the summit. As the saying goes, it’s all downhill from here.
What will happen next, of course, is anyone’s guess. On the one hand, the buck might stop with Flynn and Manafort, with Trump pleading ignorance (Trump as ignoramus is not a hard sell), and the president will have to govern with the taint of illegitimacy and criminal conspiracy until he is voted out in 2020. That’s his best case scenario.
On the other (short-fingered) hand…assuming Trump is as guilty as he seems, and as all available evidence suggests, he will almost certainly resign, to avoid the stigma of impeachment, and also to ensure a pardon from his White House successor. Claude Taylor, a former Clinton White House staffer, goes so far as to suggest that the president is reportedly mulling just that option. Former RNC chairman Michael Steele reportedly told clients this week that Trump would not finish his term.
For sure, Manafort, Flynn, Roger Stone, Carter Page, and even Rudy Giuliani appear to be in serious hot water, as do Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner. Ivanka and her two brothers may also want to secure legal representation. There’s even a chance the Russia stink extends to Steve Bannon, Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Jason Chaffetz, Devin Nunes, and beyond. If anything, recent developments concerning the FBI investigation into the spread of “fake news” via social media suggest a wider, not a smaller, net. As March turns to April, Trump/Russia looks more and more like the biggest political scandal in U.S. history, towering over Teapot Dome and Watergate like that butt-plug-shaped hotel Ivanka designed in Azerbaijan towers above its Baku neighborhood.
What would happen if Trump, Pence, and Ryan were all implicated? Once the writing was on the wall, Trump pardons Pence and resigns; Pence pardons Trump and Ryan and resigns; Ryan resigns; the House elects a new Speaker—who does not have to be a member of the House—and we find ourselves with President Kasich. He ain’t Hillary, but I think we could all live happily with that outcome.
In any event, if Election Day ushered us from the opening act to the second of this strange and terrifying drama, March 20—appropriately, the first day of spring—is when Act Three began. Let’s hope the play is almost over, and its ending comic, not tragic.