Thursday morning, “Fox and Friends” aired an interview with President Donald Trump, in which he hailed the National Football League’s decision to herd African-American players prone to kneeling during the national anthem into locker rooms, sparing NFL audiences the uncomfortable spectacle of accomplished black athletes protesting systemic racism and police brutality.
Trump said: “I don’t think people should be staying in locker rooms. But still, it’s good. You have to stand, proudly, for the National Anthem. Or you shouldn’t be playing. You shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”
Only hours earlier, PBS aired the perfect complement to Trump’s command for unthinking nationalistic fervor — and let’s not confuse this with patriotism, which, as George Orwell told us, is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life” that the true patriot has “no wish to force on other people” — in the form of an interview with former director of national intelligence James Clapper Jr.
In that interview, Clapper expanded on the claim made in his book that, in his judgment, Russia’s subversion of our election did, in fact, prove decisive in tipping it to Trump:
“As a private citizen, it’s what I would call my informed opinion that, given the massive effort the Russians made, and the number of citizens that they touched, and the variety and multi-dimensional aspects of what they did to influence opinion ... and given the fact that it turned on less than 80,000 votes in three states, to me it exceeds logic and credulity that they didn’t affect the election. And it’s my belief they actually turned it.”
Clapper noted that the intelligence community’s formal 2017 assessment of Russian interference was not charged with assessing its impact. But this is exactly the point. It wasn’t the place of the intel community to place its imprimatur on this debate one way or the other. But now that Clapper is free to offer his own view, he believes Russia did swing the election — and he knows a lot more about the specifics of what Russia did than we do.
Wednesday night, Rachel Maddow called on us to treat this as a “bombshell.” As Maddow put it, “the director of national intelligence for the last seven years” has concluded “that the current president of the United States was only installed in office because of a successful Russian intelligence operation,” raising obvious questions about his legitimacy.
We probably will never know whether Russia’s interference — whose tip we only glimpsed in special counsel Robert Mueller III’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals for their sabotage plot — was sufficient to swing the election. The result had many causes. But allow me to point out that journalists regularly suggest, on an even flimsier basis, that this or that Hillary Clinton failing caused the outcome. Yet even asking whether Russian interference — or, say, James Comey’s 11th-hour intervention — might have been sufficient to swing a relative handful of votes is regularly greeted with knee-slapping ridicule, even though, as Brian Beutler has noted, every journalist knows that it is absolutely plausible.
But this Clapper claim has relevance well beyond whether Russian interference was decisive. It places the ongoing efforts by Trump and his allies to frustrate an accounting of what happened in a whole new light.
The key point is this. Even if you put aside whatever the Trump campaign did or didn’t do to conspire with Russian sabotage, what’s left is this obvious fact: Trump and his GOP allies don’t want to know the full story of what Russia’s operation entailed in and of itself, because it doesn’t concern them in the least, and indeed they are engaged in an active effort to keep that story suppressed.
It keeps getting lost in the discussion, but one of the charges of both Mueller’s investigation and the probes run out of Congress has been to determine the full truth about the Russian effort separate and irrespective of whether there was any Trump campaign collusion with it. Trump himself has regularly dismissed the whole thing as a hoax. The GOP-run House Intelligence Committee probe laughably airbrushed Russia’s goal of helping Trump win out of its final conclusion, putting it at odds with both the intelligence community and Senate Intelligence Committee Republicans.
And this isn’t the only way in which Trump’s Republican allies are actively working to prevent the full truth from coming out. Their push for the release of highly sensitive Justice Department documents on the FBI informant that Trump and his allies have railed about — who contacted Trump campaign officials after the FBI established questionable contacts involving Russian hopes of corrupting the election — represents direct collaboration between Trump and Republicans to subvert Mueller’s investigation. This pressure resulted in an extraordinary capitulation by DOJ, in which officials agreed to make info they believe to be compromising available only to Republicans (though now Democrats will get a briefing as well).
In this context, note this additional comment from Clapper to PBS. He referenced the importance of what he called “enlightened” congressional oversight of the intelligence community. The members of oversight committees, Clapper said, “have a special burden,” because in conducting this oversight with special access to secret information, “the members of those committees have to represent our citizens, to make sure what the intelligence community is doing is legal, ethical, and moral.”
Whatever you think of Clapper, he is pinpointing the core difficulty here. We want congressional oversight of our intelligence services, so the public can have confidence that their awesome powers are not being abused. But there comes a point at which legitimate oversight gets weaponized and perverted into its opposite — a bad-faith political effort to subvert legitimate law enforcement activity and prevent accountability and justice. In this case, what’s being subverted is an effort to determine the full extent of outside sabotage of an American presidential election, something that may have altered its outcome.
Whether Clapper is right in claiming that the outcome was indeed altered will probably forever remain an open question. But his assertion does highlight the fact that Trump and his GOP allies are actively trying to prevent that full story from coming out — and aren’t troubled in the least by the possibility that he might be right.
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant — what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.