There are two very big lies that President Donald Trump and his sycophants have used, through aggressive, bombastic repetition, to shape the public debate about impeachment, and about Trump’s legitimacy more broadly.
The first big lie is that “the people” elected Trump and that the constitutional provision of impeachment would invalidate their choice. In fact, Trump is president only because a constitutional provision invalidated the choice of the American people. Trump lost the popular vote and might have lost the Electoral College without Russian interference and yet many Democrats and pundits have been bullied into accepting the fiction that he has democratic, and not just constitutional, legitimacy.
The second big lie is that Russia didn’t help elect Trump, and that the president has been absolved of collusion. It’s true that the report by Robert Mueller, the former special counsel, did not find enough evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russian state actors. But the Mueller report found abundant evidence that the campaign sought Russian help, benefited from that help and obstructed the FBI investigation into Russian actions. His investigation resulted in felony convictions for Trump’s former campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman, personal lawyer, first national security adviser and longtime political adviser, among others.
Had public life in America not been completely deformed by blizzards of official lies, right-wing propaganda and the immovable wall of Republican bad faith, the Mueller report would have ended Trump’s minoritarian presidency. Instead, something utterly perverse happened. Democrats, deflated by the Mueller report’s anticlimactic rollout, decided to move on rather than keep the focus on Trump’s world-historic treachery. Republicans, meanwhile, started screaming about a “Russia hoax” ostensibly perpetrated on their dear leader. Among them was the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, who in 2016 was surreptitiously recorded telling his congressional colleagues that he thinks President Vladimir Putin of Russia pays Trump. “Swear to God,” he said at the time.
This brings us to where we are now. Democrats understand that the Ukraine scandal is an outgrowth of the Russia scandal — as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last month, with Trump, “all roads seem to lead to Putin.” Yet they’ve made the political calculation that reopening the broader story of how Trump has been compromised by Russia is a political loser.
Rather, it’s Republicans, with their heroic capacity for shamelessness, who want to talk about Russia. They’ve set out to investigate the investigators, trying to make efforts to uncover the truth about Trump’s Russia connections, rather than the connections themselves, into a scandal. And now they’re trying to expand their big lie about Russia to cover Ukraine as well. The president, McCarthy said last month, “was trying to get to the bottom, just as every American would want to know, why did we have this Russia hoax that actually started within Ukraine.”
Because Republicans have been so successful in shrouding the origins of the Russia investigation in a miasma of misinformation, I hope some talented filmmaker makes a movie out of the new book by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, “Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump.” Simpson and Fritsch are co-founders of Fusion GPS, the research firm that investigated Trump during the 2016 campaign, first for the conservative Washington Free Beacon, and then for a lawyer for the Hillary Clinton campaign.
It was Fusion GPS that hired British ex-spy Christopher Steele to look into Trump’s Russia connections, and it sits at the center of countless pro-Trump conspiracy theories. When Republicans controlled the House, Fritsch told me Monday, “The only bank records that were subpoenaed by the House Intelligence Committee were ours.”
“Crime in Progress” is the best procedural yet written about the discovery of Trump’s Russia ties. It demolishes a number of right-wing talking points, including the claim that the Steele dossier formed the basis of the FBI’s counterintelligence inquiry into Trump. But it also makes plain what many Republicans knew before the 2016 election, even if they’ve now pretended to forget it. For years, Trump was financially entangled with organized crime as well as with Kremlin-friendly oligarchs, and by keeping those entanglements secret, he gave Putin leverage over him from the moment he took office.
Write Simpson and Fritsch, “In the end, the Mueller probe sidestepped the question that so unnerved Fusion GPS and Christopher Steele in the summer of 2016: Was the president of the United States under the influence of a foreign adversary?” Republicans have used all the power at their command to defame people who’ve asked this question. Perhaps that’s because otherwise they’d have to take seriously all the evidence that the answer is yes.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.