March 29, 2017

Notes From the Underground: Russia Looms Over Trump's Presidency

Democracy in Crisis

After the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Russian interference with the U.S. election, I had to renew my press credentials and took the elevator down to the private subway that runs beneath the Capitol. As the train approached, I imagined a shirtless Alex Jones screaming that this subway is evidence of the Deep State.

Whatever role Russia, the actual country, played in Trump’s election, “Russia” is now the battlefield in which our conspiracy theories play out.

Revising History

As I was whisked beneath the halls of government, shortly after FBI Director James B. Comey confirmed that the bureau was investigating connections between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer demonstrated that even if the regime did not have ties to Putin, it had thoroughly absorbed his techniques. “Gen. Flynn was a volunteer of the campaign,” he said. And Paul Manafort “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”

Flynn played a prominent role in the campaign and served as national security advisor until he resigned because of a failure to disclose meetings with a Russian ambassador. Manafort was the campaign chairman until Trump fired him when his connections to pro-Russian Ukrainian interests became a burden on the campaign. These facts are indisputable, and yet Spicer disregarded them. Since then, the AP revealed that Manafort signed a $10 million-per-year deal with a Russian oligarch to help improve the image of the Putin regime in America.

Long before Putin, Stalin made a habit of revising history. Trotsky was erased from the revolution entirely. How far can they go with Manafort?

Palace Intrigue

“Donald Trump will resign 'soon', says top Democrat Dianne Feinstein,” an Independent headline reads. She actually said, of allegations that Trump has violated various laws: “We have a lot of people looking into this, technical people. I think he’s going to get himself out.”

Who knows what she actually means by “get himself out,” but plenty of people seem to be possessed of this idea that Trump is going to go down soon. This seems extremely unlikely. Trump escalates. He does not de-escalate.

Others think that Vice President Mike Pence and the cabinet will use the 25th Amendment to boot Trump from office. No way. The Deplorables would all see it as a coup and fight. Now, if Pence could maintain the support of the Deplorables and unite the country behind him and crack down on dissent? If Pence were Putin, polonium would be his best bet. We are not that far gone yet.

Impeachment Punchline

“Get ready for impeachment,” California Rep. Maxine Waters tweeted last week. But the House Republicans will never impeach Trump. They are too deeply tied to him now.

California Rep. Devin Nunes—who chairs the House committee investigating Russia—worked on the Trump transition team. After the hearing, he told Mother Jones’ David Corn that he had never heard of Trump aides Roger Stone or Carter Page, both of whom are under investigation for their ties to Russia.

Then, two days later, Nunes held a press conference. “I have seen intelligence reports that clearly show that the president-elect and his team were, I guess, at least monitored,” Nunes said. “It looks to me like it was all legally collected, but it was essentially a lot of information on the president-elect and his transition team and what they were doing.”

Nunes was seemingly the only person the information was shared with—although he shared news of its existence with the press and the White House before sharing it with the committee he heads.

“All of us are in the dark, and that makes what the chairman did today all the more extraordinary,” ranking Democrat Adam Schiff said, questioning the committee’s ability to continue the investigation and calling for an independent investigator.

The darkness favors Trump’s conspiracies. The far right interpreted Nunes’ claim as proof that Obama had “tapped” Trump Tower.

The Chaos Machine

The authoritarian chaos machine uses each scandal to its advantage. Immediately after the election, when a slew of stories examined the role that “fake news” played in the campaign, it looked bad for Trump. Then, during his first press conference as president-elect, Trump screamed “You are fake news!" at CNN’s Jim Acosta.

Trump and his allies are almost the only ones using the phrase now—and they use it solely in reference to legitimate news outlets.

This is what scares me the most about “Russia.” When it looked like Trump was going to lose the election, he declared it was rigged. That was the best thing he could possibly have said if he were, hypothetically, in the process of stealing the election. Stalin regularly accused his enemies of the very things he was doing. In Trump’s case, it would have forced his opponent’s supporters to blindly vouch for the election system, so that any subsequent charges of it actually being rigged could be called sour grapes.

In the intelligence committee hearing, Comey said that Russia will be back in 2020, and that looks like pretty good ammo for Trump. If he loses the election, he could say it was compromised by the Russians and cancel its results—the most Putinesque move possible.

The subway stopped, the doors opened, and I reemerged from underground, weighted down with Dostoyevskian dread.