Leah Litman // 5/18/17 //
The New York Times and Washington Post appear to be locked in a battle to break significant news about the Trump administration. On Monday, the Post reported that Trump had shared highly sensitive intelligence information with Russia about ISIS that had been gathered by an ally who did not want the intelligence to be shared. On Tuesday, the Times reported that James Comey had created a memo that documented Trump's request that Comey “let go” of the investigation into Trump’s former National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn. Then, on Wednesday, the Times reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate Russia-related wrongdoing (as well as any other incidents of wrongdoing that may be uncovered in the course of the investigation). But the Post also broke a story on Wednesday, and that story has unfortunately been somewhat eclipsed by the news of Mueller’s appointment as special counsel.
The Post story is …. Well, I’ll just quote this part of it:
A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016 exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a Californian Republican known in Congress as a fervent defender of Putin and Russia.
After McCarthy stated that “Putin pays … Trump,” he added “Swear to God.” Then this exchange followed:
“This is an off the record,” Ryan said.
Some lawmakers laughed ….
“No leaks, alright?,” Ryan said, adding: “This is how we know we’re a real family here.”
“That’s how you know that we’re tight,” [Representative] Scalise said.
“What’s said in the family stays in the family,” Ryan added.
Yes that’s also right. After McCarthy said that the Republican nominee for President of the United States was receiving payments of some kind from Russian President Vladimir Putin, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, in the Post’s words “interjected, stopping the conversation from further exploring McCarthy’s assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.”
But that’s not it (is it ever, these days?). The Post story is filled with what is (in my view) deeply troubling evidence of Republicans’ efforts to cover for Russia-related wrongdoing in order to bolster Trump. Thus, for example, before McCarthy stated that Putin was paying Trump (and Rohrbacher), McCarthy said:
“I’ll guarantee you that’s what it is …. The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp [opposition] research that they had on Trump,” McCarthy said with a laugh.
(Emphases mine.) I didn’t realize that a foreign government hacking a political party to influence a presidential election was so hilarious. (McCarthy’s statements about who Putin paid was an answer to Paul Ryan’s question of who the Russians “delivered” the opposition research to.) Just to underscore what those statements mean in case it isn’t clear: the House leadership seemed to think that the Russians hacked the DNC. And apparently they thought that was funny.
The Post reported that they have listened to and verified a recording of the conversation. The Post also reported that Evan McMullin, who as policy director to the House Republican Conference participated in the call, authenticated the contents of the conversation.
Still more. The Post story describes the Republicans’ reaction to the Post story, and their reaction is (in my view) a parody of some of the responses to the bombshell news of the Comey memo memorializing Trump’s request that Comey “let go” of the investigation into Trump’s former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s Russia-related wrongdoing.
Here was the reaction to the Post story about a conversation in which the House Majority Leader stated that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin paid something, or gave something, to Trump:
When initially asked to comment on the exchange, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for [Paul] Ryan, said: “That never happened,” and Matt Sparks, a spokesman for [Kevin] McCarthy, said: “The idea that McCarthy would assert this is absurd and false.”
After being told that The Post would cite a recording of the exchange, Buck, speaking for the GOP House leadership, said: “This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor.” …. “This was a failed attempt at humor,” Sparks said.
Where to begin:
(1) If the statement was a joke, why was the initial response to insist that the report of the conversation was false, absurd, and would never happen?
(2) If the statement was joke, why demand secrecy from the other people on the call? If it was a joke, why demand secrecy while saying Godfather-esque (or Fast-and-Furious-esque, if you prefer) things about the tightness (and secrecy) among families?
I'll give them this: I don't actually take McCarthy's statement that "Putin pays ... Trump" to reflect a belief that Putin was actually paying Trump. But the discussion, at a minimum, indicates an awareness that Putin was assisting Trump, and thus that Trump was vulnerable to Russian influence and control. Else nothing about that exchange could possibly be funny; it woud only be funny if it had some grain of truth or likelihood of truth to it. And the statement that Russia hacked the DNC could be a statement of an actual belief or a suspicion, one that the Republican leadership felt had to be concealed.
The series of responses to the Post story is similar to the song-and-dance we heard in response to the Comey memo. The response to the Comey memo was slightly more credible (but still does not rise to the level of plausible). But the parallels to the response to the Post story are notable.
With respect to the Comey memo, some Republicans initially attempted to minimize the memo. Senator Richard Burr (North Carolina), for example, stated that: “I think the burden is on the New York Times—if they’re reporting it and they’ve got somebody who’s got the document—they need to get the document and get it released.” When Paul Ryan was asked whether he still had confidence in President Trump, Ryan, ever the profile in courage, responded “I do,” before saying that he wanted to learn more before “pre-judg[ing] anything.”
Then came a second reaction to the memo documenting Trump purportedly asking Comey to “let go” of the Flynn investigation. One Representative (James Comer) said that Trump may have been joking, and that “it looks different on paper.” Other unsourced speakers maintained that “Trump was just spouting off.” Or that he “wasn’t telling Comey to end [the] investigation”; that’s just the way Trump speaks. I didn’t realize gaslighting was a defense to obstruction of justice or abuses of presidential authority.
The Post story is troubling because it suggests what some Republicans were willing to look past in order to ensure their party’s nominee won the Presidency—they would acknowledge and laugh at Russia hacking their opponent (while concealing the hacking), and they would support a candidate they thought was vulnerable to Russian influence (while also concealing that as well). But why do they insist on continuing to support Trump--why do they care if Trump remains President when the other option is Vice President Mike Pence becoming President? A question for another day, perhaps.
Follow Leah on Twitter @LeahLitman