Keep your eye on the ball: Russia helped elect Trump

     FBI Director James Comey testifies as the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence holds its first public hearing on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the murky web of contacts between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russia, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 20, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    FBI Director James Comey testifies as the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence holds its first public hearing on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the murky web of contacts between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russia, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 20, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    It’s too facile to say that Donald Trump launched missiles just to draw our attention away from the Trump-Russia scandal. Hitting Syria for its human rights abuses was not necessarily a bad idea in principle, and some noteworthy Democrats — like Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton — have long supported it.

    But, fortuitously for Trump, military action is always a surefire way to dominate the news and blow everything else off the radar screen. The thing is, I refuse to play along.

    Eye on the ball, people. On any average news day — granted, no days are “average” anymore — the bombshell that was dropped yesterday by The New York Times would’ve led the pack. But early this morning, it was posted halfway down the home page and appeared “below the fold” with a one-column headline on the printed front page. I doubt you even know about it. Here’s the opener:

    The CIA told senior lawmakers in classified briefings last summer that it had information indicating that Russia was working to help elect Donald J. Trump president, a finding that did not emerge publicly until after Mr. Trump’s victory months later, former government officials say. The briefings indicate that intelligence officials had evidence of Russia’s intentions to help Mr. Trump much earlier in the presidential campaign than previously thought …

    One factor in the CIA analysis last summer was that American intelligence agencies learned that Russia’s cyberattacks had breached Republican targets as well as Democrats. But virtually none of the hacked Republican material came out publicly, while the Russians, working through WikiLeaks and other public outlets, dumped substantial amounts of Democratic material damaging to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.

    We’re so overwhelmed by everything that’s going on — Steve Bannon off the National Security Council, Devin Nunes forfeiting the helm of the House Intel Committee, the U.S. Senate killing the filibuster rule and forfeiting its traditional rep as “the world’s most deliberative body,” a real estate son-in-law troubleshooting around the globe, all topped now by Trump’s missile launch — that we risk losing sight of the most serious and profound scandal in American history, even as it continues to unfold.

    The inescapable truth, as underscored by the Times story we’re tempted to overlook, is that Trump eked out his win (77,000 votes in three Rustbelt states) with the help of private correspondence stolen by a foreign power working on his behalf. And the Times story’s significance should be obvious: The CIA picked up on Russia’s pro-Trump manipulations — and potential Trump campaign collusion — long before voters went to the polls. Earlier than we ever knew:

    The former officials said that in late August — 10 weeks before the election — John O. Brennan, then the C.I.A. director, was so concerned about increasing evidence of Russia’s election meddling that he began a series of urgent, individual briefings for eight top members of Congress, some of them on secure phone lines while they were on their summer break. It is unclear what new intelligence might have prompted the classified briefings. But with concerns growing both internally and publicly at the time about a significant Russian breach of the Democratic National Committee, the CIA began seeing signs of possible connections to the Trump campaign, the officials said …. The officials said Mr. Brennan also indicated that unnamed advisers to Mr. Trump might be working with the Russians to interfere in the election.

    Some of the briefed lawmakers shared those findings with the FBI. But the FBI, running its own parallel probe, was initially less convinced that Trump associates might be involved. Initially.

    But as the election approached and new batches of hacked Democratic emails poured out, some FBI officials began to change their view about Russia’s intentions and eventually came to believe, as the CIA had months earlier, that Moscow was trying to help get Mr. Trump elected, officials said.

    So. Why were we kept in the dark for so long? Why were we allowed to cast our ballots without being apprised of what was really going on? Why did the government remain mum about Russia’s pro-Trump mission during those final 10 weeks?

    Because Republicans controlled Capitol Hill, and they resisted any public statement that might put the onus on their presidential candidate. And because Democrats, including the lame duck president, were afraid that a public statement about a pro-Trump tilt by Russia would look like a “partisan” attempt to help Clinton (as opposed to what such a statement would actually have been: a defense of our democratic process).

    The bottom line — and this is most unfortunate, now that Trump is playing commander-in-chief — is that the current Oval Office occupant is demonstrably tainted by illegitimacy. That’s just based on what we already (belatedly) know. Which brings me to another new story that deserves serious attention — as reported by Elizabeth Drew, the veteran Washington journalist whose sources in both parties have been excellent since the ’70s. Her piece ends with this:

    The discontent with Donald Trump on Capitol Hill runs very deep and also very wide. I’ve been told that upwards of two-thirds of the Senate Republicans, in particular, discuss — in the gym and in clusters on the Senate floor — their desire to see him gone. These senators talk rather openly — even with their Democratic colleagues — about their fear of Trump’s recklessly getting the country into serious danger …

    Whether or not anything is ever proved, most members of Congress, including Republicans, think something was amiss in the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia, or Russians, including plutocrats who owe much to Vladimir Putin. No one thinks that FBI Director Comey would have opened, much less announced, a counter-intelligence investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Russian government in its attempt to sway the election if he didn’t have serious evidence. On the Senate floor the other day, a cluster of Republicans jocularly made a pool on the way in which they think Trump will be forced to leave office.

    Perhaps, instead of conducting a pool, they could actually do something to hasten him along. Do they really want to follow a tainted incompetent into battle?

    By the way: This old tweet, from Trump toady Sean Hannity, is too delicious to resist. This was Hannity, typing about President Obama, on Sept. 3, 2013:

    Glad our arrogant Pres. is enjoying his taxpayer funded golf outing after announcing the US should take military action against Syria”

    ——-

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.