It’s amazing how the Capitol Hill Republicans continue to beclown themselves in the service of Donald Trump. The more they try to minimize Kremlingate — as they did again yesterday, while questioning former CIA director John Brennan — the more they soil themselves.
Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, Brennan gave us the fullest public accounting thus far of Russia’s “aggressive” and “multifaceted” penetration of the ’16 presidential election — and he spoke openly of Russia’s “contacts and interactions” with people in the Trump campaign. We should thank the Republican committee members for making that possible, because it was their hapless questioning that prompted Brennan’s candor.
One particular exchange told the tale. Trey “Benghazi” Gowdy, who apparently still thinks that what happened (or didn’t happen) in Libya five years ago is monumentally more important than a Russian penetration of our democracy, asked Brennan:
“Did evidence exist of collusion, coordination, and conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian state actors, at the time you learned of 2016 efforts?”
Note Gowdy’s trickery; he sought the narrowest possible answer (as did Republican colleague Tom Rooney, who asked the same narrow question). But when Brennan first learned of Russia’s massive effort last June, it was too early to know whether any Trump associates were in cahoots. As a counterintelligence veteran, Brennan’s job as CIA chief was simply to gather the most suspicious intelligence and decide whether it warranted an FBI espionage investigation. Gowdy and Rooney didn’t want the big picture, but Brennan, in response, took the opportunity to provide it anyway:
“I encountered, and am aware, of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. officials involved in the Trump campaign – that I was concerned about, because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals. And it raised questions in my mind as to whether the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals. I don’t know whether ‘collusion’ — that’s your word — existed. But I know that there was a sufficient basis of information and intelligence that required further investigation by the Bureau to determine whether or not U.S persons were actively conspiring or colluding with Russian officials.”
Gowdy, having just been sacked in his own end zone (nothing new there), tried in vain to regain his footing: “Do you know the basis of that information?” Brennan, in his priceless response, reminded Gowdy that the committee on which he’s serving already has that information — the stuff that the CIA shared with the FBI — but that it can’t be aired in public because “it is appropriately classified.”
Brennan didn’t have to name names — we already know that Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and a current senior West Wing figure have suspicious ties to Russia — but again, thanks to the GOP’s small-picture queries, he took the opportunity to widen the frame:
“Having been involved in many counterintelligence cases in the past, I know what the Russians try to do. They try to suborn individuals and they try to get individuals, including U.S. persons, to try to act on their behalf either wittingly or unwittingly. And I was worried by a number of contacts that the Russians had with U.S. persons (in the Trump camp). And so therefore, by the time I left office on January 20, I had unresolved questions in my mind as to whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting U.S. persons involved in the campaign or to work on their behalf — again, either in a witting or unwitting fashion. And so therefore I felt as though the FBI investigation was certainly well-founded and needed to look into those issues…
“Frequently, people who go along a treasonous path do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is too late.”
Chalk up that last remark as a quotation for the ages.
Tom Rooney made things worse for the GOP when he demanded to know whether the intelligence actually showed “that Moscow was working for Donald Trump.” Oh man. Brennan drove an 18-wheeler through that one:
“Their efforts were to diminish (Hillary Clinton)…They had a more favorable view of Mr. Trump and tried to increase his prospects, and they probably felt that they were going to increase his prospects.”
If these Republican lawmakers wish to retain even a shred of credibility, they’d be wise to ask questions that shed fresh light on the burgeoning scandal. Shilling for Trump is a losing proposition. How easy it would have been to ask the most important question of all — the most basic big-picture question — but, alas, it was a Democrat, Danny Heck, who posed it to Brennan:
“Please tell my constituents, my neighbors, why they should care — and not just in Washington, D.C., but in Washington state and Texas and Connecticut and points in between — and why should they care, and why do you care, sir?”
Brennan, who in his 36 years as an intelligence official served under presidents in both parties, replied:
“Well, for the last 241 years, the nation and the citizens have cherished the freedom and liberty upon which this country was founded upon. Many brave Americans have lost their lives to protect that freedom and liberty and lost their lives to protect the freedom and liberties of other peoples around the world. Our ability to choose our elected leaders, as we see fit, is, I believe, an inalienable right that we must protect with all of the resources and authority and power.
“And the fact that the Russians tried to influence resources and authority and power, and the fact that the Russians tried to influence that election so that the will of the American people was not going to be realized by that election, I find outrageous and something that we need to, with every last ounce of devotion to this country, resist and try to act to prevent further instances of that. And so, therefore, I believe, this is something that’s critically important to every American.”
If only Trump and his congressional toadies felt the same urgency.