We know beyond any doubt that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. In an unprecedented statement issued on Jan. 6, our intelligence agencies declared unanimously that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”
Intelligence assessments often are cautious and hedged documents. This one was expressed with great certainty, suggesting that the evidence on which it is based is indisputable even though it could not be made public without compromising intelligence sources and methods. Comparisons have been made to what former CIA Director George Tenet called the “ slam dunk” findings that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but that was hotly contested at the time within the intelligence community while there is no hint of disagreement here.
In response to this foreign interference with the most sacred processes of our democracy, the FBI is conducting multiple investigations, as it must. Now we learn that during his confirmation hearings for attorney general, then-U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions lied — there is really no other word for it — about his contacts with Russian officials during the election after sources within the U.S. Department of Justice told The Washington Post that he met twice with the Russian ambassador to the United States. This came only weeks after former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s misrepresentation of his own contacts with the Russian ambassador cost him his job.
Sessions has been forced to recuse himself from any involvement with Justice Department investigations involving Russia, which the president is reportedly furious over. If he has nothing to hide, why would this be such a problem for him? In a transparent attempt to divert attention from contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, he has made the wild charge that former President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap on the phones at Trump Tower during the election.
That there is not the slightest evidence of this does not bother him — he is, after all, the same man who has claimed that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton and that Obama was born in Kenya. But this time he has hung himself on his own tweets. Electronic surveillance of an American citizen without a court order is a crime. A little over a month ago he took a solemn oath to preserve, protect and defend the U.S. Constitution. If he believes the Obama administration broke the law, he should direct the Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation. But he will do nothing of the sort because he knows it is a lie.
There is an inevitability about scandal in the Beltway. We all know the hoary mantra that the coverup is worse than the crime. Watergate began as a second-rate burglary, but it destroyed a president. This time we know the burglars are in Moscow, but did they have accomplices in the Trump campaign? That is what we need to find out, and my guess is that, in time, we will. The mills of justice at the FBI grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small. FBI Director James Comey has taken the extraordinary step of asking the Justice Department to refute President Trump’s baseless wiretapping charges, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is in the early stages of an investigation inquiry into the Russian attack on our democracy. Both of Maine’s senators are members of that body, and they have promised to go wherever the facts lead.
This story is far from over, and it is not a matter of politics as usual across the great partisan divide. Those of us who still have faith in the integrity of our institutions will be watching very closely in the days, weeks and months ahead, and we may just say a few prayers, too, for the survival of our venerable republic of laws could be at stake.
Laurence Pope served in senior positions in the U.S. Department of State during a 30-year career and as charge d’affaires in Libya after the assassination of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. He lives in Portland.