Commentary: Russia investigation teeters, but Trump’s strategy of stonewalling does not

Admit nothing. “You’re the puppet!” Deny everything. “Trump Russia story is a hoax!” Make counteraccusations. “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process.” That’s Donald Trump reacting to the Kremlin’s malevolent meddling in the 2016 election.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), accompanied by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), vice chairman of the committee, speaks at a news conference to discuss their probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

The net effect of these comments can be summarized by one word: stonewalling, the tactic of the Confederate Civil War General Stonewall Jackson, whose motto was “mystify, mislead, and surprise.” Jackson died after he was shot accidentally by his own troops – and Trump needs to watch his right flank in days to come.

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His allies in Congress have tried to defuse the explosive Russia affair, and to confuse the citizenry with wild charges. That tactic isn’t working. Some Republicans now want a hearing in the Senate. The congressional intelligence committees cannot stay silent. The Federal Bureau of Investigation will not retreat. The stone wall surrounding the White House may not stand.

Whether Americans conspired with Russian spies to disrupt democracy is one of the thorniest questions the FBI ever has confronted. Its investigation will hover over the White House for many months.

Two weeks before Trump was inaugurated, the leaders of every major U.S. intelligence service told him they had concluded that his election had been supported by the Kremlin. Russia worked to damage Hillary Clinton and help Trump – in part by purloining Democratic party emails and weaponizing them through WikiLeaks, a publisher of stolen secrets.

“I love WikiLeaks!” candidate Trump had proclaimed when his opponent was wounded. But WikiLeaks was a “hostile intelligence service” abetted by Russian spies, who used it “to release data of U.S. victims…obtained through cyber operations against the Democratic National Committee,” Trump’s CIA director, Mike Pompeo, said on April 13.

He added: “Russia’s primary propaganda outlet, RT, has actively collaborated with WikiLeaks.” Love WikiLeaks or hate it, Russia used it to great effect, injecting poison pills into the American mainstream.

Was Trump’s campaign allied in any way with this warfare? Trump himself egged on Russia’s hacking. He praised President Vladimir Putin while Putin was making war on the American political system.

His first campaign manager, Paul Manafort, lost his job for longstanding ties to Russian-aligned oligarchs; these included a political consultancy intended to "greatly benefit the Putin Government."  His first national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, served as a paid mouthpiece for RT, then was fired for lying to his superiors about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

The FBI is following a trail in cyberspace. It will seek evidence of ties – personal, political, financial – between members of Team Putin and Team Trump. Farther down that path, the FBI may reach a crossroads.

Will its counterintelligence case, the pursuit of spies, evolve into a criminal case, with charges presented for prosecution? Will Trump himself become a subject of the investigation? A sitting president cannot be indicted, but he can, as Richard M. Nixon was, be named as an unindicted co-conspirator by a federal grand jury.

He can also, in the Nixon tradition, cloud the political landscape with lies and inventions. “President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!” Trump proclaimed in an early-morning tweetstorm last month. “This is Nixon/Watergate.” It was, but only in the sense that the president was blowing smoke in the eyes of the American people.

This particular falsehood set the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes of California, careening down a blind alley. He cancelled scheduled committee hearings while setting off in futile search of evidence to support the president’s lie.

He made a dead-of-night trip to obtain secret documents from two National Security Council staffers (one his former aide, the other Flynn’s hand-picked intelligence officer). He proclaimed they showed that Team Trump was wrongly targeted by Obama’s spies – a charge as baseless as Trump’s tweet. This bizarre charade forced him to recuse himself from the investigation of the case. He is now under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for his conduct.

Nunes cancelled House Intelligence Committee hearings and knocked his committee out of business for five weeks. On May 2, it restarts – in a closed-door hearing – to learn more from FBI Director James Comey, who gave reticent but resonant testimony on camera in March, when he confirmed that the FBI was on the case.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has been seemingly somnolent since shortly after Trump’s inauguration. Behind closed doors, its unusually small staff is reviewing top-secret documents that led the American intelligence establishment to conclude that Russia was disrupting democracy. The American public knows next to nothing about these records.

The committee clearly intends to summon Flynn. But Flynn’s failure to disclose payments from RT has left him in legal jeopardy, and he wants immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. Whether the Senate committee can compel his appearance is dubious. So is its immediate future: it has issued no subpoenas, scheduled no public hearings, and set no scope for its inquiry.

But the secrecy of the intelligence committees soon will be pierced. News broke Tuesday that the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a public hearing – entitled “Russian Interference in the 2016 United States Election” – on May 8.

Two crucial figures will appear. Both were set to testify at the House hearings before Nunes went off the reservation. They are the former National Intelligence Director James Clapper – the top American spymaster under Obama – and the former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates.

Remember Sally Yates? She was running the Justice Department when Trump fired her in January. She had warned the Trump White House that Mike Flynn’s deceptions about his talks with Putin’s ambassador made him vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Her successor, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has recused himself from the Russia affair due to his own undisclosed chats with Moscow’s envoy.

Someone at the Justice Department has to oversee the FBI investigation – but exactly who is an open question. Someone in Congress has to carry out public hearings – but the will to do so has wavered in past weeks. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of the American people want someone to get to the bottom of this mess. Public trust in government being what it is, those same polls show a desire for a politically independent inquiry.

Expect a social-media groundswell to erupt next month: Sally Yates for special prosecutor. Stranger things have happened in this epic spy story.

About the Author

Tim Weiner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. His books include “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.”

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.