The Congressional Intelligence Committee met today to begin its investigation of Russia’s interference in the U.S. election. The first two witnesses were FBI Director James Comey and head of the NSA Adm. Mike Rogers. Close observers of the ongoing scandal were not expecting much drama. The hearing was open to the public, and given the sensitive nature of the issue, it seemed unlikely that either Comey or Rogers would be able to say anything of particular interest. And the Republican Chair, Devin Nunes, had signaled he had no intention of allowing this investigation to focus on the Trump administration. Nunes has complained the real crimes are the constant drip of leaks that have kept this story in the news for months. Nonetheless, not only was there drama, but history was made.
Comey began his testimony by confirming, for the first time, that the FBI is conducting a criminal investigation into whether the sitting President of the United States colluded with a foreign power to influence the outcome of the election. He announced it dryly, using carefully chosen words that made it sound like an unimportant administrative detail. But the implications were clear, and even after all these months of headlines and conjecture, they were astounding: For the first time in American history, the President is being investigated for treason.
Treason is a shocking word. It has not been thrown around much as this Russian scandal has grown, and for good reason. But conspiring with a foreign power to influence a U.S. election must surely fall within the definition of “giving comfort to her enemies”. And when Clinton’s former campaign manager Robby Mook used it today, saying “If U.S. campaign aides helped the Russians, knew about the Russians plans, or asked the Russians to intervene in any way, they should be prosecuted for treason…” it was hard to disagree.
It is also hard to imagine all these aides acted coincidentally, without any guidance, given that the one thing they all have in common was their direct line of reporting to the candidate, Donald Trump. Is it possible an over zealous campaign surrogate, like Roger Stone, decided on his own to communicate with the hacker who stole emails from the Democratic Party? Absolutely. But at the same time that Paul Manafort altered the Republican policy platform to the benefit of Moscow? And when Carter Page and Mike Flynn were meeting with the Russian Ambassador? It is too much to believe all of them reached out to Moscow on their own accord. If Trump’s aides are accused of treason, then he must be too.
Comey’s bombshell was not the only surprise of historic proportions in the hearing. No one expected the Republican Congressmen to demonstrate any zeal. The idea that their presidential candidate is being investigated at all must fill them with a profound sense of unease. And, when that President is as mercurial and vindictive as this one, it is no surprise that only a small handful of GOP politicians have been brave enough to raise their own concerns about his Russian links. But, no one expected Chairman Nunes and his colleagues like Congressman Trey Gowdy to so brazenly choose party over country.
The overwhelming majority of their questions throughout the five hour hearing was focused on the leaks about the investigation, and not on the investigation itself. Gowdy seemed almost in tears at one point as he tried to comprehend why anyone would be so malicious as to leak proof Mike Flynn had lied about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. The Republicans made it clear they were less worried about the Russian scandal, and more upset that anyone had found out about it.
I consider myself, sadly, to be a cynic. This bothers me, because I feel my judgments on the world and the people in it can be too harsh. But, that was before I had watched these Republican Congressmen today. Their shameless attempts to distract attention from foreign powers threatening American democracy, and to focus it on the journalists reporting the scandal left me speechless.
I realized that when it comes to American politics, I am a complete naïf. Even in my most jaded moments I would not have imagined an elected American politician, faced with stakes as high as these, in front of so many cameras, could so openly and unapologetically choose his party over his country.
The choice these congressmen made today, to protect the interests of Russia and Republicans and not to defend the interests of America and democracy, will be long remembered, and history will not be kind.