In a recent column, I argued that there is little chance of a wave election in 2018. However, if the Democratic Party wants to make it more likely, they have a clear game plan. The conventional wisdom about midterm elections is that the party out of power benefits from nationalizing the election, and the party in power benefits from localizing it. Thus, Democrats aim to make the 2018 midterms a referendum on the Trump presidency and the Republicans aim to keep the focus on the merits of the candidates, their policies, and the parties’ leadership. The most obvious issue in the Democratic playbook is “the Russian issue.”
The national intelligence council has assessed that hackers operating under the aegis of Russian intelligence carried out a hack of the Democratic National Committee and published the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, on Wikileaks. The CIA and the FBI have declared with “high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed the hacking and that it was utilized as part of a broader operation to diminish Hillary Clinton and therefore aid Donald Trump. Trump dismisses this finding as “fake news,” and insists “Russia is a ruse” to undermine his presidency and delegitimize his election. Since the inauguration, intelligence officials have been deliberately leaking the details of ongoing investigations to reporters. Bombshell accusations followed: “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence,” “Spies Keep Intelligence From Donald Trump on Leak Concerns,” and “Justice Department warned White House that [National Security Adviser] [Mike] Flynn could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.”
Mike Flynn’s sudden departure from the post of National Security Adviser plunged all of Washington’s attention into the Russia issue. Flynn may have violated the Logan Act, according to many of his critics. However, we only learned the nature of Flynn’s call with the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, from a surreptitious leak - intelligence officers monitor foreign emissaries’ phone calls but revealing the names and details of an American citizen's’ participation is subject to court proceedings and regulations that were not followed. To their detractors, the sources of the leaks are regarded as “Obama holdovers,” ensconced in the deep state trying to undermine Trump. Their defenders argue that they’re career professionals concerned that President Trump’s deference to Russia abrogates decades of diligent work. Finally, some go as far to suggest that Trump is “an unwitting agent of a foreign adversary” manipulated into deference because of his personal affinity for Putin or financial interests in Russia. After all, they’ll note, Flynn is the third Trump confidante to resign because of a connection to Russia. Providing more oxygen to this fire, on March 1, 2017, reports surfaced that the Attorney General had met with Russian Ambassador as a Senator and Trump surrogate, something he denied during his confirmation hearing, and recused himself from any current or future investigations into the Trump campaign the following day.
Selective leaks and unsubstantiated accusations repeated by the press are not the right way to learn the extent of Russia’s involvement. In the Republican-controlled Congress, a total of seven committees are investigating. Some, like House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, are focused on the leaks. Others, like the Senate Intelligence Committee, are focused on the intelligence community's investigations. That has some members of Congress, led by Sen. John McCain, calling for a select committee to explore the entirety of the issues without jurisdictional roadblock. Others, including Rep. Darrell Issa, are pushing for a special prosecutor. According to McCain, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is resisting any such effort. Similarly, Speaker Paul Ryan has voiced his support for further investigation but hasn’t supported the establishment of a select committee. The party leaders are probably right. It’s often better to wait until the standing committees have exhausted their resources before launching a special investigation.
If they investigate Trump, it will likely anger the president and his supporters. He is popular with the voters Republicans have to rely on in 2018 and beyond. However, if they don’t investigate thoroughly, the Democrats will have an issue with which they can run a referendum on Republican leadership. They’ll say this is the biggest scandal in American history and Republicans are shielding the president from scrutiny. Republicans could toe the president’s line - any discussion of Russia is a ruse to distract from the real progress they’re making and delegitimize the election. That could work - turnout typically favors Republicans in midterm elections - but it’s not a sure bet. Surely, they’d rather not face such a conundrum.
Whatever they decide, the Russian issue isn’t going away anytime soon.
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