Confronted by the glare of Thursday’s dazzling Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing, we all focused on the bright shiny object that was and is former FBI Director James Comey. His dramatic testimony struck more than one observer as part recitation, part theatrical performance. In today’s political discourse, good television counts almost as much as good substance, all but guaranteeing Comey’s eclipse of everything else in the Washington universe.
However, for all of the revelations in Thursday’s hearing, it failed to shine light on the most important set of questions relating to Russian activities and the extent to which Russia has degraded U.S. national security through its espionage, influence, and cyberwarfare campaigns over the past two years. Even while Comey performed before the Senate, Russia’s schemes continued to unfold, undermining U.S. national security in myriad ways and places around the world. It may be the case that Trump lied; it may even be the case that he criminally obstructed justice and should be impeached. And yet we cannot let those important political questions consume all our attention, lest Russia do more harm while we are distracted.
L’affaire Russe began during the 2016 election campaign with investigations into alleged ties between Trump campaign officials, Ukraine separatists, and potentially the Russian government. These investigations focused on former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and policy adviser Carter Page, as well as their commercial affiliates.
Since then, we have learned of a series of high-level meetings between close Trump associates and the Russian government. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reportedly met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on three separate occasions during the campaign and transition. Deposed Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn met and talked repeatedly with senior Russian officials and also worked for myriad foreign interests during the campaign, actions that have now put him in considerable legal jeopardy. Trump aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner also met with senior Russian officials during this period, as well as prominent Russian bankers connected to Vladimir Putin and known for being agents of Russian influence abroad. Kushner reportedly went a step further, seeking to hide these communications at the time from U.S. intelligence agencies by asking to use Russian diplomatic facilities and secure communications channels. Of course, on the day after firing Comey, Trump met personally with Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office, reportedly revealing highly classified intelligence to the Russians regarding ISIS and the situation in Syria.
Any one of these encounters would raise serious questions about the intent of the meeting, and its outcomes, whether a private deal or foreign policy quid pro quo. Together, they signal something much more significant: a deliberate change of U.S. policy toward Russia, with these meetings serving as public acts of consummation for the new relationship between the two countries.
Judging by Russia’s string of foreign policy triumphs since last November, Putin appears to have the upper hand in his new relationship with Trump and the U.S. Since the election, Trump feuded with his own security agencies, which he and his advisers alternately accused of acting as a “deep state” to oppose Trump’s agenda and orchestrating leaks to humiliate and undermine Trump personally. Trump’s ill-considered words—including his obstinate refusal to affirm America’s commitment to collective self-defense—and amateurish diplomacy have sprained the NATO alliance, with the possibly of a fracture growing by the day. White House discussions of Afghanistan, Syria, and other national security subjects have stalled as Trump has been consumed by other priorities, including responding to self-inflicted crises like the Comey firing. Trump’s nine-day foreign trip made for a few good television moments like his sword dance in Saudi Arabia—but appears to have left a trail of wreckage, including a massive dispute between the Gulf states and statements by European leaders and erstwhile allies that they could no longer rely on the U.S. and must instead “fight for our own future and our fate ourselves as Europeans.” And, in perhaps the most clear quid pro quos reported yet, Trump officials allegedly pushed in the earliest days of his administration to roll back sanctions on Russia—sanctions imposed over the Russian intervention in Ukraine and Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
No one of these triumphs resulted directly from Putin pushing a button and having Trump act. They reflect a more subtle success, borne of Russian influence upstream in the Washington ecosystem. Russian intelligence agencies successfully interfered with and influenced the U.S. election, according to a consensus position of the U.S. intelligence community. By subtly influencing the election outcome, cultivating relationships with top Trump officials, and creating distrust of core U.S. national security institutions like the CIA—including among the president himself—Russia set in motion a complex chain reaction that is now paying off for the Russian regime. Whether they actively colluded with the Trump campaign or not, the Russians got what they wanted: a president who was more friendly to their interests, and more pliable in their hands too.
Leaders have used spectacle for centuries to entertain and distract their people. As a reality television star who used spectacle to rebrand himself and seize the presidency, Trump understands that power. Trump wins by refocusing public attention on Comey and his status as a “leaker” and reframing l’affaire Russe as l’affaire Comey. This public relations campaign against Comey may be shortsighted if and when the president comes under legal scrutiny by special counsel Robert Mueller. But for now, every day the media cycle churns over Comey’s leaks is a day the public debate isn’t focusing on Trump’s substantive actions—or failures—at home and abroad. This provides the cover Trump needs to continue his “deconstruction of the administrative state” and the darkness he needs to avoid scrutiny for his blunders too.
Trump’s response—and the response of his longtime lawyer Marc Kasowitz—illustrates how well Trump is playing this drama for his advantage. As the special counsel’s inquiry unfolds and reaches into the White House, touching close associates and family members, Trump understands the risk. As his agenda stalls, approval ratings sink, and his administration swirls in turmoil, Trump must know by this point he needs to act lest his presidency sink into the swamp. Although the possibility of impeachment for obstruction of justice looms, Trump appears to discount this threat. He probably doesn’t believe Speaker Paul Ryan would bring impeachment proceedings, let alone that Republicans would actually vote to remove him from office. And so a spectacle over alleged obstruction of justice—including direct comparisons of Trump’s word with that of Comey—is preferable to a spectacle over Trump’s myriad policy and governance failures. Just as he did on the campaign, quite successfully, Trump is using spectacle to distract the masses and divert attention from substance.
For members of Congress, and the rest of us, the only way to win is not to play Trump’s game; to remain focused on the broader threats posed to U.S. national security, rather than the narrow, petty political intrigues peddled by Trump and his henchmen. If Comey is telling an accurate story, then Trump likely acted to obstruct a Justice Department criminal investigation into Michael Flynn and possibly a broader inquiry into the Trump administration’s Russia ties too. That in and of itself is a huge matter. But it is dwarfed by the national security significance of the Russia ties themselves and the broader damage caused so far by the Russian government and its proxies. We cannot afford the luxury of being entertained by Trump’s spectacle while our national security crumbles in the background.