This must be what it was like to live through Watergate.
The disorientation, the confusion, the half-truth, the shock, the dark humor. I think of something Elizabeth Drew, the author of one of my favorite books on the era, wrote — “Watergate was a time of low comedy and high fear.” The farce of the story distracts from its horror, and so we take refuge. Twitter is never funnier than when a new Trump-Russia story breaks.
This isn’t a scandal as we are used to thinking about it. This isn’t an embarrassment, or a gaffe. This is a security breach. It calls into question whether America’s foreign policy is being driven by the favors President Donald Trump owes Vladimir Putin for his political help or, perhaps worse, whether it’s being driven by the fear that Putin will release far more damning material if Trump crosses him.
This is a story that makes clear nothing the current White House says can be trusted. Donald Trump Jr., who enthusiastically tried to work with Russians to upend the election, called allegations that the Trump campaign would work with the Russians "disgusting” and “phony.” His father tweeted, as recently as May 12, that “the story that there was collusion between the Russians & Trump campaign was fabricated by Dems.”
These are acts that cast doubt on the basic patriotism of the current White House — a White House that takes, as its slogan, “America First.”
This is a story that reminds us that the last election was often dominated, and perhaps decided, by a crime — Russia’s theft of Democratic emails, which may or may not have happened with the Trump campaign’s support. And it refocuses our attention on the fact that Trump fired the director of the FBI in an attempt to end the investigation into that crime.
The generous interpretation, until now, was that this was all bumbling and idiocy and coincidence. Yes, the Trump campaign had a lot of strange meetings with Russians, and sure, it seemed to routinely forget them during congressional testimony and security checks, and of course, Russia intervened in the election to harm Hillary Clinton. But incompetence, we were assured, was the likelier explanation than conspiracy.
Donald Trump Jr. knew exactly what he was being offered. The email he got was crystal clear. His source is referred to as a “Russian government attorney.” The invitation for the meeting explains that she will “provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information.” The intermediary assures Trump Jr. that “this is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
His reply, it cannot be said often enough, was “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer” — and late in the summer is exactly when the hacked Democratic emails actually began to be released.
It wasn’t just Trump Jr. Campaign manager Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner knew, too. They were forwarded the emails. They knew exactly what this meeting was. And they were there. They wanted the documents. They wanted to work with the Russians.
They seem to have known about more than just this meeting. As my colleague Matt Yglesias observes, there is no surprised response on these emails. Neither Trump Jr. nor Manafort nor Kushner react with confusion or interest when informed that Russia wants to help Trump win. The alliance is already credible enough, and already serious enough, that they take the email without further vetting or discussion. No one suggests running it by the foreign policy team or even the FBI.
Did Donald Trump himself know? It would be remarkable if he didn’t. It would mean his son and his son-in-law and his campaign manager had tried to collude with the Russians — endangering his campaign and giving a foreign government blackmail material over his presidency — without telling him. This seems unlikely. But if Donald Trump knew, then it means he knew what he was firing James Comey to hide. Then it is clearly obstruction of justice.
Even if Trump himself did not know, consider all the damning evidence here: We know that his son, son-in-law, and campaign manager at least tried to work with a semi-hostile foreign power to win the election. We know that foreign power conducted a large-scale and successful cyber-espionage effort against the Democratic Party. We know that Trump continues to treat Russia unusually gently — palling around with Vladimir Putin even as he undercuts NATO and weakens the Western alliance.
And so we are faced with a crisis that leaves vast swaths of American politics stained. The election is tainted. The White House is tainted. Our foreign policy is tainted. If impeachment seems impossible, it is only because we believe that Republicans in Congress would sooner protect a criminal administration than risk their legislative agenda to uphold the rule of law — which is all to say, Congress is tainted, too.
The actors in this drama are often comic, pathetic, and incompetent. But the damage they have done, and are doing, is almost beyond imagining. As often as this looks like farce, we should not forget it’s a tragedy.