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Trump and Russia: Washington’s fashionable conspiracy theory

former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper

 

March 10, 2017

“Does intelligence exist that can definitively answer the following question, whether there were improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials?” This was the question posed by Chuck Todd to former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Meet the Press last Sunday.

“We did not include any evidence in our report … that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians,” Clapper answered. Todd pressed: “But does it exist?” Todd asked.

“Not to my knowledge,” Clapper said.

This pretty well sums up the furor over Russian involvement in the 2016 election. The charges of collusion between the Trump campaign and a foreign government to change its outcome are nearly deafening. Yet they are no more credible or backed up by facts, at this point anyway, than President Trump’s charges that his phone lines were tapped by his predecessor.

Did Russian propaganda organs attempt to affect American public opinion in 2016? Definitely.

Were the Russians behind WikiLeaks’ illegal hacking and leaking of Democrat emails? Almost certainly.

Have Trump’s public positions on relations with Russia been unconventional? Disturbing? Evidence of naive (or, assuming the worst, malevolent) trust in a foreign ruler whose murderous activities represent a menace to world security and order? Yes, as we have repeatedly argued in this space.

Yet there’s no crime in being wrong about Vladimir Putin that anyone but the voters are allowed to punish. Nor is there even a crime in contacting Russian officials. The fleeting contacts we know of between people closely or loosely associated with Trump’s campaign (several of which occurred at public events) do not amount to anything like evidence of a potentially treasonous conspiracy to let a foreign government select the U.S. president.

Unless one assumes that federal law enforcement is hiding all of the relevant evidence from the public that lends credibility to this conspiracy theory, it remains just that.

Perhaps there is evidence of collusion out there — a transcribed phone call, or an emailed request to a Russian handler. If such a thing emerges, then everyone must put party politics aside and take these accusations seriously.

But at least for now, and despite the already-legendary leakiness of Trump’s administration, even the top Democrat and the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee admit total ignorance of any such evidence.

The only lawmaker to suggest in public that such evidence exists — Chris Coons, Delaware’s junior Democrat senator — was forced to retreat from the claim and offer an apology.

And Coons has since shifted his argument in a way we expect many others to follow once the congressional investigation begins later this month, assuming it doesn’t produce any extraordinary new revelations. Coons is now arguing that if law enforcement and the intelligence agencies have nothing, maybe there’s evidence in Trump’s tax returns instead.

So barring an extraordinary revelation, we may soon reach the point where half of Washington is placing all its hopes on a large bribe from the Kremlin being listed on Trump’s 1040. And if he ever does release that document, and no such thing is there? At that point, we can at least hold forth the hope that the evidence is buried in a file cabinet at Hawaii’s Department of Vital Records.

Speaking of which, perhaps Democrats feel justified in approaching this subject as a means of revenge. Millions of Americans will never forgive Trump for his own baseless conspiracy-mongering as a private citizen against President Obama over his birth certificate. But strange that so many who felt justifiably angry about that are now so eager to prove there was nothing unique about it