The greatest political scandal in U.S. history was not Aaron Burr’s shooting of Alexander Hamilton, and perhaps wasn’t even Watergate. Rather it may have been Richard Nixon’s secret efforts in 1968 to sabotage a U.S. diplomatic effort to end the Vietnam War.
Nixon’s initiative, long rumored but confirmed only a few months ago, was meant to improve his election chances that year. After Nixon won, the war dragged on and cost thousands of additional U.S. and Vietnamese lives; it’s hard to see his behavior as anything but treason.
Now the FBI confirms that we have had an investigation underway for eight months into whether another presidential campaign colluded with a foreign power so as to win an election. To me, that, too, would amount to treason.
I’ve been speaking to intelligence experts, Americans and foreigners alike, and they mostly (but not entirely) believe there was Trump-Russia cooperation of some kind. But this is uncertain; it’s prudent to note that James Clapper, the intelligence director under Barack Obama, said that as of January he had seen no evidence of collusion but that he favors an investigation to get to the bottom of it.
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I’m also told (not by a Democrat!) that there’s a persuasive piece of intelligence on ties between Russia and a member of the Trump team that isn’t yet public.
The most likely scenario for collusion seems fuzzier and less transactional than many Democrats anticipate. A bit of conjecture:
The Russians for years had influence over Donald Trump because of their investments with him, and he was by nature inclined to admire Vladimir Putin as a strongman ruler. Meanwhile, Trump had in his orbit a number of people with Moscow ties, including Paul Manafort, who practically bleeds borscht.
The Associated Press reports that Manafort had secretly worked for a Russian billionaire close to Putin, signing a $10-million-a-year contract in 2006 to promote the interests of the Putin government. The arrangement lasted at least until 2009.
As the AP puts it, Manafort offered to “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government.” (Manafort told the AP that his work was being falsely portrayed as nefarious.)
This is guesswork, but it might have seemed natural for Trump aides to try to milk Russian contacts for useful information about the Clinton campaign. Likewise, the Russians despised Hillary Clinton and would have been interested in milking U.S. contacts for information about how best to damage her chances.
At some point, I suspect, members of the Trump team gained knowledge of Russian hacking into Clinton emails, which would explain why Trump friend Roger Stone tweeted things like “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel.”
This kind of soft collusion, evolving over the course of the campaign without a clear quid pro quo, might also explain why there weren’t greater efforts to hide the Trump team’s ties to Russia or to camouflage its softening of the Republican Party platform position toward Moscow.
One crucial unknown: Did Russia try to funnel money into Trump’s campaign coffers? In European elections, Russia has regularly tried to influence results by providing secret funds. I’m sure the FBI is looking into whether there were suspicious financial transfers.
The contacts with Russia are by Trump’s aides, and the challenge will be to connect any collusion to the president himself. The White House is already distancing itself from Manafort, claiming that he played only a “very limited role” in the campaign – even though he was Trump’s campaign chairman!
Many Democrats are, I think, too focused on Jeff Sessions and have too transactional a view of what may have unfolded. Treason isn’t necessarily spelled out as a quid pro quo, and it wasn’t when Nixon tried to sink the Vietnam peace initiative in 1968.
In the past, as when foreign funds made their way into Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, Republicans showed intense interest in foreign interference in the political process. So it’s sad to see some Republicans (I mean you, Devin Nunes!) trying to hijack the House investigation to make it about leaks.
Really? Our country was attacked by Russia, and you’re obsessed with leaks? Do you honestly think that the culprit in Watergate wasn’t Nixon but the famed leaker Deep Throat? Republicans should replace Nunes as head of the House Intelligence Committee; he can’t simultaneously be Trump’s advocate and his investigator.
The fundamental question now isn’t about Trump’s lies, or intelligence leaks, or inadvertent collection of Trump communications. Rather, the crucial question is as monumental as it is simple: Was there treason?
We don’t know yet what unfolded, and raw intelligence is often wrong. But the issue cries out for a careful, public and bipartisan investigation by an independent commission.
“There’s a smell of treason in the air,” Douglas Brinkley, the historian, told The Washington Post. He’s right, and we must dispel that stench.
Nicholas Kristof is a New York Times columnist. Contact him at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.