For many months, leading Republicans have practically pleaded with President Donald Trump in public to avail himself of a simple escape hatch on the Russia scandal: If you just acknowledge that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and take seriously the prospect that Russia will do it again next time, there won't be a scandal anymore. You have an easy way out, Mr. President. Why not just take it?
But the latest explosive revelations from the New York Times will make that posture much tougher to sustain. Or, at least, that's what should happen. Instead, it's perfectly plausible that Republicans will continue to throw Trump that lifeline for as long as possible, which in practice means abdicating on the use of congressional authority to force the full truth about this saga out into the open, even as learning the truth grows ever more urgent.
The Times reports that in January 2017, two weeks before his inauguration, senior intelligence officials privately presented Trump with extensive evidence that Vladimir Putin had personally ordered the campaign of cyber-subterfuge and information warfare that worked to tilt the 2016 election to Trump. If true, as many were quick to point out, then all of Trump's subsequent dismissals of the Russian sabotage effort amounted to a much more active coverup on behalf of Putin than we knew.
This week, after special counsel Robert Mueller rolled out an July 13 indictment that tied the Kremlin directly to an effort to sabotage American democracy that demonstrated extraordinary scope and reach — including a massive cybertheft crime directed at one of the two major American political parties — Trump stood next to Putin and sided with him as he denied the Russian attack. In response, leading Republicans called on Trump to accept the intelligence community’s consensus view to the contrary, to denounce Putin’s interference and to take seriously the prospect of more to come.
The Republican approach has been to set the threshold for an acceptable Trump response at the point of acknowledgment that the Russian interference effort did take place. In this arrangement, as long as Trump takes that minimal step, there is no need to talk much about why Russia interfered (to elect Trump), or about the fact that the Trump campaign eagerly sought to benefit from that Russian interference, or about why Trump lied to cover that up. There is no need for Republicans to play a more active role in trying to ensure that the fuller truth comes out (by passing a bill protecting the Mueller probe) or in trying to get to that fuller truth themselves (by forcing transparency on Trump's tax returns, to learn whether he is beholden to Russians in some way).
In this arrangement, as long as Trump is admitting that Russia did interfere, and publicly pretending to take that seriously, House GOP leaders can also continue to lend tacit support to Trump loyalists in the House who are working to delegitimize Mueller's efforts to flesh out the bigger story. You saw this double game afoot in House Speaker Paul Ryan's response to Trump's news conference with Putin. Ryan urged Trump to accept the intel community's findings, while trying to create the impression that House Republicans are on the same page with the intelligence services on what really happened (which is complicated by the fact that the House Intelligence Committee probe did not even acknowledge that Russia interfered to help Trump).
In so doing, Ryan was simply trying to nudge Trump on to the safe ground for all of them, the place where everyone agrees Russia interfered, and everyone agrees that attacking intelligence professionals is bad (while winking at ongoing efforts to undermine them), without asking any of the follow-up questions that all of this raises. In effect, this is the escape hatch Republicans have offered him.
But the new revelations from the Times fundamentally change the situation. The question is no longer: Why won't Trump accept the intelligence services' verdict on what happened, and act accordingly? That question can be easily answered, by, say, the idea that Trump's ego won't let him publicly admit to anything that diminishes the greatness of his victory. But the question now is a lot harder: Why did Trump continue actively trying to deceive America into believing that Russian sabotage didn't happen at all, after having been comprehensively briefed to a previously unknown extent on Putin's direct involvement in that sabotage effort?
This should only increase the urgency of answering all of those follow-up questions, not to mention the imperative that congressional Republicans use their authority to the fullest extent possible to answer them. Yet, in an interview with CBS News that ran this week, Trump claimed he does acknowledge Russian meddling and even said he warned Putin against doing it again. And now he's tweeting that this has been his position all along.
So it's perfectly possible that Republicans will now profess great relief that Trump is now admitting Russian sabotage did happen, as if this settles the issue. But can they really get away with avoiding the questions raised by the new revelation that Trump has had detailed knowledge of Putin's direct involvement for 18 months now?
* OFFICIALS DON'T KNOW WHAT TRUMP PROMISED PUTIN: The Post reports that senior military officials are scrambling to determine what Trump promised Vladimir Putin in their private meeting:
“Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ... has not appeared in public this week or commented on the summit. ... Adding to the delay ... is the fact that the president’s longest encounter with Putin, a two hour-plus session, included no other officials or note-takers, just interpreters.”
Congressional Democrats want to bring in Trump’s interpreter for questioning, but shockingly, Republicans aren’t too eager to do that.