Princess Leia has a message for the Senate Intelligence Committee: “Help us, Obi-Wan. You’re our only hope.”
That’s the deal right now on Capitol Hill. The House intelligence panel’s probe of the Trump-Russia scandal has been blown up at the starting gate — thanks to the sabotaging efforts of its Trump mole, chairman Devin Nunes — and the only hope is that its Senate counterpart will provide some bipartisan adult supervision.
Believe it or not — and how amazing it is to detect a ray of optimism — we might actually get a fair measure of what we dearly need.
Such was the impression yesterday, when Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Mark Warner briefed reporters on the Senate panel’s nascent investigation. Slowly and methodically, they’ve been preparing to act publicly on their bipartisan January promise to track the full extent of Russia’s electoral interference – and the full extent of Russia’s links to the Trump campaign. They’ve scheduled interviews with at least 20 witnesses. They have seven professional investigators looking at all the intel. They’re reportedly in talks with Christopher Steele, the ex-British MI6 agent long deemed credible by American agencies, who authored the now-famous dossier on Trump-Russia.
Given Trump’s ongoing efforts to debase our democratic system — as lately evidenced by Devin Nunes’ faithful servitude — you certainly have a right to be cynical about chairman Burr’s pledge to follow the facts; he is, after all, a Republican, and most congressional Republicans are still loath to cross the loathsome Leader. On the other hand, Burr said yesterday: “I’ll admit that I voted for (Trump). But I’ve got a job in the United States Senate.”
Burr also said — and isn’t this refreshing — that he and Warner “realize that if we politicize this process, our efforts will likely fail. The public deserves to hear the truth about possible Russian involvement in our elections, how they came to be involved, how we may have failed to prevent that involvement, what actions were taken in response, if any, and what we plan to do to ensure the integrity of future free elections at the heart of our democracy.”
Is he sincere about all this? Or will he don the T armband and rig the probe?
Here’s a reason for hope: Burr is protected from the wrath of Trumpkins back home. He won re-election in North Carolina last November, which means he doesn’t have to face the voters for another six years. Plus, he has publicly stated that he won’t even run again. So he’s politically well-positioned to put the country first.
Plus, the wrath of Trumpkins may well abate as their ranks continue to dwindle. Trump’s latest Gallup approval rating is 35 percent; Richard Nixon’s rating didn’t drop that low until his fifth year in office. At this rate, Trump is destined to be less popular than the flu.
Indeed, it was noteworthy yesterday that Burr ceded the podium to Warner and did not dispute the Democrat’s decision to share what they already know about the extent of Russia’s pro-Trump fakery. Warner said:
“There were upwards of 1,000 paid Internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia…They can then generate ‘news’ down to specific areas in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania (such as) ‘Clinton is sick,’ or ‘Clinton is taking money.’ Fake news…I’m not here to re-litigate the election but part of our responsibility as well is to put the American public on a higher level of alert that this time it was Russia, it could be other foreign nations as well. We are in a whole new realm around cyber that provides opportunity – huge, huge threats to our basic democracy.”
Burr concurred. He said it’s the Senate committee’s job “to educate the rest of the world about what’s going on, because it’s now into character assassination of candidates.” And the committee’s mission starts today, with public hearings on Russia’s meddling in western democratic elections; hopefully, this opening salvo will also contextualize what Russia did here – and who in the Trump camp knew what when.
(Just to give you a taste: In this morning’s hearing, a Republican senator noted that Putin has long sought to meddle in western elections, then asked why it worked so well in America last fall. Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, promptly pinned the blame on Trump: “The answer is very simple, and it’s what nobody is saying in this room. The reason ‘active measures’ worked in this U.S. election is because the commander-in-chief used Russian ‘active measures’ at times against his opponents” – for instance, by citing Russian fake news and echoing Russian talking points pushed by RT, Putin’s propandanda TV network.)
Most importantly, Burr promised yesterday: “This investigation’s scope will go wherever the intelligence leads.” That was pleasing to hear. Or maybe I was just reminded of an old Steely Dan lyric: “Why not chase it where it goes.”
Forget Devin Nunes’ craven machinations. The chase is still on. As Watergate jailbird H. R. Haldeman warned as the Nixon scandal unraveled, “Once the toothpaste is out of tube, it’s hard to get it back in.”