Let us sit back, just for a moment, and absorb the reality of the revelations of the past few days.
For apparently the first time in history, the president of the United States himself was the subject of a counterintelligence investigation. This means that his ties to a hostile power were significant enough to overcome the high bar the FBI would have to clear to investigate any American for possibly being influenced or compromised by another country — much less its own chief executive.
We have also learned that the president has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal his discussions with an enemy foreign leader not only from intelligence and foreign policy figures in his own administration, but even from the senior officials of his own Oval Office. It should go without saying that he has tried, in this area as in so many others, to wall himself off from congressional oversight.
The president himself is always a reliable barometer of the importance of such revelations, and his panicky tweeting and a subsequent bizarre interview on Fox News (where else?) suggest that these reports are indeed bombshells.
The president’s enablers are dismissing all of this as just more of a Deep State conspiracy set in motion by an FBI aggrieved by the firing of James Comey. The enraged Trump opponents who call themselves the Resistance are convinced that this is evidence not only of Russian influence, but of a Manchurian Candidate who is now the Red President.
Trump clearly has something to hide
The Deep State story is nonsense. The Mole in the Oval image, meanwhile, is too extreme — but not as crazy a theory as it was a year or two ago. The president clearly has something to hide. As I have written many times over the past two years, it is highly unlikely that there is any innocent explanation for the remarkable frequency and depth of the Trump coterie’s interactions with Russia for some 30 years, and especially during the campaign.
While Trump is not an “agent” of the Russian Federation (too many people use this kind of language without knowing what it means to counterintelligence officials), it seems at this point beyond argument that the president personally fears Russian President Vladimir Putin for reasons that can only suggest the existence of compromising information.
Despite the lurid fantasies of the president’s opponents, however, this information is most likely regarding the possible entanglement of Trump’s finances in New York with the Russian mob, Russian intelligence and the Russian government — which are, functionally, the same group — over the past decades.
Americans who are trying to think through the implications of these new developments more calmly should bear in mind three disturbing realities.
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First, the existence of the counterintelligence investigation is not a scandal. Indeed, it would be scandal if we had found out today that the FBI had not launched an investigation.
Trump’s behavior regarding Russia has always presented a serious security concern. But when Trump fires the director of the FBI, and then brags about it to actual Russians, only the most stupid or craven law enforcement agency would decline to investigate what to any counterintelligence officer would be the brightest of dozens of flashing red lights. The White House communications shop can throw invective at James Comey and other Justice Department officials, but the FBI had no choice. It was doing the job Americans count on it to do.
Second, the president’s attempts to hide the content of his conversations with Putin are not only abnormal but also deeply suspect. The intelligence community, members of Congress and the public should always be anxious whenever any American official talks to a top Russian leader and then tries to seize the notes. This kind of behavior violates practices of sensible diplomacy and intelligence analysis, and no one acts this way for innocent reasons.
Nor are conversations between the president and Putin merely some personal matter. Such discussions might in fact need to be confidential; sensitive diplomacy often requires a close hold on the informal back-and-forth between top leaders. But their content should be known at the very least to the administration’s own top intelligence and foreign policy advisers.
It’s one thing to hold back information for strategic reasons from the public or even the opposition party. All presidents have done that. It’s another to withhold information from your own advisers.
Republican hypocrisy on Trump is titanic
This is not normal, in any way. As things stand, more people in the Kremlin than in Washington know what Trump said to Putin. It is almost certain that there are readouts and analyses of Trump’s discussions with Putin — but that for now, they are in Russian.
Finally, it is exhausting but nonetheless necessary to point out again the titanic hypocrisy of the Republican Party and of Trump’s apologists in the conservative media. If President Barack Obama had shredded his notes of a meeting with the Iranian president, or if Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager were sitting in jail for lying about meeting a Chinese business associate — and alleged intelligence officer — to share polling data, that alone would have been enough for the GOP to impeach everyone from the president to the White House chef.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump team ties to Russia might be coming to an end, if his willingness to let former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen speak to Congress next month is any indication. Mueller’s report could make these recent revelations seem like the sound of distant fires compared with the bombshells about to explode. But even had Mueller never been appointed, we are already in the midst of the most astonishing scandal in American history.
What happens next is unknowable. But for the president’s supporters to double down in the face of mounting evidence that the president himself is, in some way, compromised by our most dedicated enemy, while making excuses for his secretive behavior by attacking the men and women of the FBI, is a road so dark that perhaps even Joseph McCarthy would not have dared walk it.
Tom Nichols, a national security professor at the Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School, is a Russia expert and author of “The Death of Expertise.” The views expressed here are solely his own. Follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom