This was vintage Donald Trump, full of bluff and bluster, and animated by conspiracy theories for as long as he has been in the public eye. This is the man who boasted that he got his military intelligence from the Sunday morning shows, who claimed to know more about ISIS than the Generals, and who eschewed the daily intelligence briefings. This is the man whose rivals in the Republican primaries warned that he was a con man, a pathological liar, and a cancer on the Republican Party. Yet any number of senior, respected Republican members of Congress still saw fit to place their own credibility on the line in his defense.
And, true to form, in the wake of Comey's testimony giving the lie to the entire episode, the White House responded by confirming that Trump has no intention of withdrawing--much less apologizing for--his accusations. The only question that was left at the end of the day was how on earth could anyone be surprised?
For all the build up, we actually learned little new from this week's testimony by James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers. They confirmed what had long been concluded by any reasonable observer: that Russia's President Vladimir Putin led an information operation targeting our presidential election, and that the FBI was continuing to investigate Russia's actions, as well as potential collusion in Russia's operations by Trump campaign operatives. Comey described Putin's strategy as having three distinct objectives: first, to seed chaos in our election and damage public confidence in U.S. democratic institutions; second, to undermine Hillary Clinton as a candidate and--presuming she was expected to win--her credibility and capacity as President; and, finally, to support Donald Trump's campaign. In response to Republican pushback, Comey specifically emphasized that it was not just that Putin deeply detested Clinton and wanted her to lose, Putin wanted Trump to win.
Republicans have been dragged kicking and screaming to accept the fact of Russia's efforts on Donald Trump's behalf. It was not enough that Republicans won the presidency, they seemed determined to feel clean and righteous about how things transpired. Even as many Republicans ultimately came to acknowledge over the past few months that the Russian operation was real, they were always quick to caveat any discussion of Putin's efforts with the disclaimer that, 'of course, nothing Russia did impacted the results of the election.' If nothing else, that codicil to the discussion of Russia's efforts was debunked by the tenor of Monday's testimony.
We will, of course, never know what the impact ultimately was of Russia's operation on the outcome of the election. Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College by virtue of a combined 77,000 vote margin in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, representing a mere 0.06% of the 127 million votes cast across the country. It was an outcome that has been attributed by some to Clinton's lack of an effective campaign message and evident disdain for the white working class voters who flocked to Trump, and by others to James Comey's own interventions into the race. But given the closeness of the race--Republican disclaimers notwithstanding--one simply cannot dismiss the impact of Russian intervention as a factor that may have tipped the balance. Russia's cyber and disinformation efforts--including the steady stream of WikiLeaks disclosures--had the effect of a months-long campaign of attack ads designed to drive up Clinton's negatives.
It was not surprising that just a day after their testimony, the stock market suffered its worst one day decline of the year--as traders began to question whether Trump would be able to deliver on the tax cuts he has promised--and conservatives in the House began to push back against Trump's demands that they fall in line and support his healthcare bill.
Chuck Todd's comments raised the question of how a conspiracy theorist and demagogue who long ago sacrificed any claims to credibility could suddenly have a credibility gap. The answer, of course, is that Republicans have been steadfast in their to determination to convince themselves that Donald Trump is someone other than who he really is. Just ten months ago, Marco Rubio warned that they were dealing with a con man, and Ted Cruz warned that Trump was a pathological liar.
That was the Donald Trump who loomed in the background as the House committee listened to testimony, the man who Rick Perry suggested early on was a cancer on conservatism, a toxic mix of demagoguery and mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party on the road to perdition. Republicans--who sat shaken and ashen-faced as Comey spoke--had to be asking themselves how far down that road they are prepared to go.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.