Funny thing is happening as the investigation into Russian “hacking” of the 2016 election gathers steam. You have Democrats beginning to snivel about the lack of evidence and you see their fellow travelers in the media encouraging Democrats to not oversell the story.
Even some Democrats on the Intelligence Committee now quietly admit, after several briefings and preliminary inquiries, they don’t expect to find evidence of active, informed collusion between the Trump campaign and known Russian intelligence operatives, though investigators have only just begun reviewing raw intelligence. Among the Intelligence Committee’s rank and file, there’s a tangible frustration over what one official called “wildly inflated” expectations surrounding the panel’s fledgling investigation.
Since the probe was first announced in December — days after the FBI and CIA told Congress they believed the Kremlin had worked to elect Trump — political infighting has fundamentally shifted its mandate. Instead of a surgically precise examination of the raw intelligence that led US agencies to conclude the Kremlin attempted to tilt the election, the Intelligence Committee investigation has quickly become the catch-all for any politician’s lingering questions related to Moscow. Now, several committee sources grudgingly say, it feels as though the investigation will be seen as a sham if the Senate doesn’t find a silver bullet connecting Trump and Russian intelligence operatives.
“I don’t think the conclusions are going to meet people’s expectations,” a second official said.
Those growing concerns have taken a backseat to the issue of whether enough evidence exists to threaten Trump’s presidency. Nearly all of the officials BuzzFeed News spoke with said they aren’t expecting to find that, and further, said they would be surprised if they’re able to find anything concrete enough to prosecute any of Trump’s advisers. “I don’t think any of the contacts are going to be referred,” the second official said, speaking about whether Trump’s associates could be referred to the Justice Department for prosecution for their alleged contact with Russian officials. But, the official added, if any are, it’s not likely to be campaign-related. Instead it could be “someone like Carter Page, [for] connections with a Russian businessman,” the official said.
If you’re in the mood for irony, The Rolling Stone had a warning for Democrats:
If there’s any truth to the notion that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian state to disrupt the electoral process, then yes, what we’re seeing now are the early outlines of a Watergate-style scandal that could topple a presidency.
But it could also be true that both the Democratic Party and many leading media outlets are making a dangerous gamble, betting their professional and political capital on the promise of future disclosures that may not come.
We can’t afford to bolster these accusations of establishment bias and overreach by using the techniques of conspiracy theorists to push this Russia story. Unfortunately, that is happening.
One could list the more ridiculous examples, like the Washington Post‘s infamous “PropOrNot” story identifying hundreds of alternative media sites as fellow travellers aiding Russia, or the Post‘s faceplant over a report about a hacked utility in Vermont.
Take the Times story about Trump surrogates having “repeated contacts” with Russian intelligence officials (an assertion that can mean anything, incidentally – as a reporter in Russia I had contact with Russian intelligence officials, as did most of my colleagues and friends in business, and there was nothing newsworthy about those interactions).
But what if there is nothing else to find?
Thus we are now witnessing the extremely unusual development of intelligence sources that normally wouldn’t tell a reporter the time of day litigating a matter of supreme importance in the media. What does this mean?
If that’s the case, there are big dangers for the press. If we engage in Times-style gilding of every lily the leakers throw our way, and in doing so build up a fever of expectations for a bombshell reveal, but there turns out to be no conspiracy – Trump will be pre-inoculated against all criticism for the foreseeable future.
The press has to cover this subject. But it can’t do it with glibness and excitement, laughing along to SNL routines, before it knows for sure what it’s dealing with. Reporters should be scared to their marrow by this story. This is a high-wire act and it is a very long way down. We might want to leave the jokes and the nicknames be, until we get to the other side – wherever that is.
The irony here, of course, is that you have the publication that ran a totally unsourced story on a brutal gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity telling Democrats to go slow on the Russia story.
This whole thing, never all that plausible in its implications to begin with, is beginning to take on the air of the 1992 October Surprise investigation wherein George H. W. Bush was alleged to have flown to Paris, via XR-71, to meet with Iranian agents to arrange release of American hostages, or rather, to prevent them from being released to Carter.
I suspect, in the end, a lot of Trump critics, left and right, are going to be left looking ridiculous. I also suspect that there will be blowback here in terms of the various leak investigations underway and what was conceived as a way of discomfiting Trump and making his life tougher and transition more turbulent will be revealed for what they truly were: felonies carrying long prison sentences.