(CONTAINS THRILLS, SPILLS AND CHILLS
NOT IN THE ORIGINAL THUMBSUCKER PUBLISHED ON MARCH 21)
At this extraordinary juncture in American history and the ninth week of the Donald Trump presidency, let us reflect on where we are: Russia attacked the U.S. in the form of a multi-pronged effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 election by sabotaging Hillary Clinton, a violation that in another time would have provoked a national security crisis. But instead there has been an ever escalating series of confabulations by the president and his allies even as the director of the FBI, in an unprecedented public rebuke, calls the president a liar and strongly hints that his campaign conspired with the Kremlin.
"There's a smell of treason in the air," said leading presidential historian Douglas Brinkley of Monday's extraordinary events. "Imagine if J. Edgar Hoover or any other FBI director would have testified against a sitting president. It would have been mind boggling."
Indeed, but Comey's marathon testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday -- which included the suggestion that a smoking gun in the Russian scandal had been found -- was somehow anticlimactic, as well as its enormity being under appreciated by feckless National Public Radio and some other media outlets even if providing aid and comfort to a foreign nation trying to commandeer the process at the heart of democracy is the very definition of treason.
It was Trump who yet again boggled the mind, ferociously tweeting during and after the hearing that "NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process" and that collusion between his campaign and Russia "is all fake news," which was in sync with his aides and congressional allies' strategy to try to divert attention from the crisis engulfing the White House by ignoring the leaks that have helped keep the scandal alive and focusing on the leakers. Or as Russian dissident Gary Kasparov, who now lives in the U.S., put it: "The house is on fire and the GOP demands to know who called the fire department."
Saying anything that crossed his untethered mind on the campaign trail was one thing, but Trump has yet to realize that as president, his words carry extraordinary weight, and his repeated assertions that Barack Obama ordered his phones in Trump Tower tapped, further disproven by the bogus allegations made Wednesday by House Intelligence Committee chairman David Nunes, have become even more surreal in light of Comey's unequivocal denials.
This has not stopped Trump from making a host of evidence-free claims, and that in part was why Comey was on Capitol Hill, further distracting from Trump's agenda, breathing new life into public interest in the Russia scandal and further emboldening Democrats, who smell blood and believe the scandal could hobble, if not take down, the Trump presidency as Trump continues to deal with crises by creating new ones.
Democrats, meanwhile, are justifiably furious that Comey had been sitting on the Russia investigation for months but arguably enabled Trump's Electoral College coronation by going public 10 days before the election in announcing a reopened investigation into Clinton's emails that fizzled.
Let's look at exactly what Comey said under oath:
"I've been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI as part of our counterintelligence mission is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts."
Comey further explained in response to a question from Republican Congressman Michael Turner that a counterintelligence investigation is opened when there is "a credible allegation of wrongdoing or reasonable basis to believe that an American may be acting as an agent of a foreign power."
In response to a question from Congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat, he said that the Russian government preferred a presidential candidate who had a dim view of NATO (which Trump has) and openly admires Russian President Putin (which he does).
Comey testified that the investigation began "in late July." This followed several events of probable interest to the FBI that would have been more than enough to start digging:
On July 7, Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page gave a speech in Moscow authorized by then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in which he spoke of Barack Obama's Russia policy in hostile terms.
On July 11, the Trump campaign strong armed the platform committee at the Republican National Convention into striking a pledge to assist Ukraine against Russian military aggression.
On July 16, Trump adviser Roger Stone, a self-proclaimed dirty trickster who later was found to be communicating with a Russian intelligence cutout who hacked the Democratic National Committee, launched a new broadside against Clinton.
On July 21, Lewandowski was fired and replaced by Paul Manafort, a former business partner of Stone's and longtime communications advisor to the pro-Russian Ukrainian prime minister whose ouster led to the crisis in the former Soviet republic.
On July 22, WikiLeaks released its first batch of hacked Democratic National Committee emails, infuriating Bernie Sanders supporters and further stoking the Clinton email controversy.
On July 27, Trump himself infamously asked Russia to step up its hacking of Clinton emails and challenged it to find 33,000 so-called "lost" emails not included in a State Department probe.
Stone, who is not on the White House payroll but has lawyered up, is believed to be a subject of the FBI investigation, which insiders describe as wide ranging, as are Page, Michael Flynn, who was Trump's short-lived national security advisor, and Manafort, who in addition to being a flak for that pro-Ukrainian prime minister secretly worked for a billionaire Russian aluminum magnate with mob ties who is a Putin intimate on projects to . . . uh, Make Russia Great Again, for a cool $10 million a year for several years. Manafort took no salary running the Trump campaign, so who was paying him? And when did his contract to advance Russian interests end?
Meanwhile, Intel Committee chairman Nunes, who has proven himself to be a dim bulb, let slip on Fox News Sunday that "I don't think there's any but one [at the White House] that's under any type of investigation or surveillance activities at all."
Speculation on who that "but one" may be centers on Wilbur Ross, Trump's newly minted Commerce secretary, who has been mobbed up with the Bank of Cyprus, used by Russian oligarchs to launder billions of dollars in cash.
Meanwhile, the probe also is said to include the role far-right news sites and Kremlin-controlled automated computer bots deploying pro-Trump articles may have played, and whether Trump campaign operatives helped coordinate coverage during periods when the campaign was flagging.
So where do we go from here?
Acknowledge that there is a lot of smoke but no fire. Yet. And the bizarro possibility of a cover-up but not a crime. But appointment of a special prosecutor is now more necessary than ever as it becomes more and more obvious that this may be a scandal on the scale of Watergate, if not bigger, only carried out digitally and with a hostile foreign power calling the shots.
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 scrambling to divert attention and downplaying the role of scandal principals like Manafort, whom press secretary Sean Spicer now hilariously claims had a "limited role for a limited time" in the campaign despite the fact he ran it for the better part of six months.
Yes, the contacts between important Trump associates and Russians both in and out of government could be a very big coincidence, but we're talking about dozens of contacts which, when they see the light of day, are at first denied and then downplayed.
(Oh, and it turns out there was a wiretap at Trump Tower. But it was in 2011-2013 and involved the FBI, which with court approval tapped unit 63A, several floors below Trump's penthouse, in pursuit of a Russian organized crime money laundering operation that led to 30 grand jury indictments.)
If Trump's assertion that there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russian government was even remotely true, he should welcome an independent investigator, but having someone in charge whom he would not be able to influence is his greatest fear.