|MARK PETERSON / REDUX / THE NEW YORKER|
Listening to National Public Radio for a coupe of news cycles after James Comey testified earlier this week before the House Intelligence Committee was an alternately depressing and infuriating experience.
The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had just publicly called the president of the United States a liar and confirmed that there is a counterterrorism investigation into whether the Donald Trump campaign colluded with Russia, a hostile foreign power, in its multi-pronged effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 election by sabotaging Hillary Clinton. It was not merely an historic moment, it was an extraordinarily important one, and the FBI's counterterrorism investigation arguably is the most explosive since Soviet spies stole American atomic bomb secrets over 70 years ago.
But NPR and a dismaying number of other media outlets seemed not to have felt the earth move and were more interested in focusing on trees and not the forest, including the Faustian tactics of intel committee Republicans and the president's latest furiously tweeted denials, then moving on to other trees like the foundering effort to repeal Obamacare and the Neil Gorsuch confirmation circus.
Cynics might suggest that NPR soft pedaled the story because its funding is in jeopardy as Trump slashes and burns arts and cultural appropriations in the federal budget.
Perhaps, but the bigger reason is a combination of things: Although the importance of what Comey said did not escape The New York Times, Washington Post, Talking Points Memo, Vox and CNN, and other cable news outlets breathlessly if briefly did their thing, the story was almost too big for people to get their heads around, including those somnambulant news editors at NPR. There is so much craziness in Washington these days -- so many Trump lies and so little time -- that the nightmarish hugeness of Comey's declarations may have seemed like just more crazy.
Beyond the incessant lying, the parallel universe in which Trump and his aides dwell complicates the news media's job.§
This inevitably makes it easier to take for granted the ravings of the president, as well as the Kellyanne Conways and Sean Spicers. It confers an undeserved credibility on them and further hobbles reporters who may have the best of intentions but couldn't see the forest for the trees as they skated through the Comey appearance, and as a consequence were unable or disinclined to put the scandal in the perspective it cries out for.
And speaking of perspective, an irony of Machiavellian proportions hangs over the scandal that many reporters have inconveniently forgotten.
It was Comey himself who was played by candidate Trump and his "Jail Hillary" noise machine, aided and abetted by the puppeteers controlling the Russian effort to influence the election by sabotaging Clinton, in going public 10 days before the election in announcing a reopened investigation into her emails that infamously fizzled, but much too late to prevent Trump's Electoral College victory.
Then there is this: If there has been a winner in this sordid game, it is Russian President Vladimir Putin regardless of whether Russia's exertions actually tipped the election to Trump. And Putin wins again as hyper-partisanship hobbles congressional efforts to get to the truth, as malleable as that concept has become, which further discredits American democracy abroad.
Another factor is that unlike past scandals, it is hard for the media to get its head around the Russia scandal. Same with the public, but that's why we need the media to tell us what's important and why, to focus on that damned forest and not just the trees.§
In Watergate, there was a two-bit burglary and attempted cover-up. Bill Clinton had an affair with a young staffer and lied about it. Valerie Plame was outed as a CIA agent as retribution for her husband discrediting a key rationale for invading Iraq.
But the Russia scandal has more characters than a Dostoevsky novel. There is no single plot line that wraps the scandal into a neat package, while the motivations of some of the characters, particularly those with big financial interests in Russia and Ukraine, are less than clear. And we still don't know the extent of involvement of the central character.
In fact, this could end up being an example of a cover-up without an identifiable crime because the collusion between the Trump campaign and Kremlin may have been "soft." That is, campaign aides and others like Michael Flynn welcomed the sharing of information on Clinton, including those emails, by Russian contacts but did not actively collude insofar as trading information.
That would be deeply unfortunate for those of us who agree with presidential scholar Douglas Brinkley that "There's a smell of treason in the air."
Finally, even with Comey's explosive testimony, opportunities to publicly investigate the Russia scandal beyond the FBI's ongoing efforts are diminishing.§
House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, who is supposed to be impartial, has willingly allowed himself to be compromised (no surprise since he was on the Trump transition team) and rushed to kiss Trump's ring on Wednesday after meeting with the press but before bothering to brief Democrats on the committee about his non-news that U.S. intelligence resources monitored conversations involving members of Trump's transition team who were merely doing their jobs, which was keeping an eye on the activities of Russian spies in the U.S. gussied up as diplomats.
Nunes' disclosure was a rather stunning security breach (for which he later half-heartedly apologized), with White House press secretary Sean Spicer declaring that the president had been "vindicated" although there still is no evidence that Barack Obama ordered the phones at Trump Tower to be tapped.
And so Republican members of the Intel Committee are bought and things will soon conveniently bog down in partisan rancor as the drip-drip-drip of new revelations continue. This most recently included a CNN report that Trump campaign operatives helped coordinate Kremlin-orchestrated "news" coverage damaging to Clinton, as well as a rash of political assassinations and unexplained deaths in Russia and Ukraine with indirect links to the scandal.
Over on the Senate side, the situation with the Senate Intelligence Committee is not a whole lot rosier. Democrats want Republican committee chairman Richard Burr to issue subpoenas for documents related to the scandal. His refusal to approve subpoenas would undermine the bipartisan nature of its investigation, while approving them would be a rebuke to the president.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department is at sea with the recusal of AG Jeff Sessions after he lied about meeting twice with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the campaign and the White House is madly scrambling to divert attention. This includes downplaying the role of Trump associates including Paul Manafort, whose ties to Russians linked to the scandal -- included a couple of recently deaded ones -- are especially intriguing despite Spicer's hilarious claim that Manafort had a "limited role for a limited time" in the campaign although he ran it for the better part of six months.
Evan McMullin, a former CIA agent who ran as an independent candidate for president last year, said it best: "Republican leaders have a choice: Protect the Republic or protect Donald Trump."
A special prosecutor beholden to no one, least of all Trump, is imperative. But absent a dramatic new revelation that will force hands, that won't happen unless the few Republicans on Capitol Hill with fully descended testicles (are you listening Lindsay Graham and John McCain?) get uppity and demand one.
To not do so would be a scandal.