The Republicans’ Fantasy Investigation

Posted January 13, 2018 11:56 a.m. EST

During O.J. Simpson’s trial for murder, his lawyers needed to throw the blame on someone besides their client. They settled on a vague story about drug dealers somehow tied to a close friend of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. The defense never even tried to explain why these malefactors “would have wanted to kill Nicole Brown Simpson (much less Ron Goldman),” Jeffrey Toobin wrote in his book about the trial. “That wasn’t the point of the defense strategy.” All the defense had to do was muddy the proverbial waters and gesture at an alternative theory of the crime.

The behavior of Republicans in Congress who are ostensibly investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election makes sense if you imagine them acting like Simpson’s lawyers. Though pretending to examine a crime against America, they are instead working to cover one up. To do so, they are spinning wild alternative scenarios with just enough surface plausibility to convince the easily convincible.

Because Republicans don’t have to prove their alternative theory, you rarely see it fully elaborated. But it goes something like this: Hillary Clinton’s campaign hired Fusion GPS to gather anti-Trump misinformation from Russia. Fusion GPS, working with retired British spy Christopher Steele, then delivered the Russian smears to the FBI, which was determined to thwart Trump. So if anyone was guilty of collusion with Russia in the 2016 election, it was Clinton and her allies.

On Tuesday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., gave a speech on the Senate floor about all the rabbit holes into which Republicans have tried to divert the Russia investigation. His Republican colleagues, he said, “have been repeating, in chorus with the White House and conservative media, the disproven claim that the Russians somehow commissioned the Steele dossier, or that Steele somehow got suckered by the Russians, or that some deep-state FBI set up the whole thing to pressure Trump.”

This tapestry of disinformation is the background to one of Trump’s tweets Thursday morning, which said in part, “Disproven and paid for by Democrats ‘Dossier used to spy on Trump Campaign. Did FBI use Intel tool to influence the Election?’ @foxandfriends Did Dems or Clinton also pay Russians?”

If it were just the president trying to sell the country on this photonegative version of reality, it would be unsurprising, since he is both a fabulist and a master of projection.

But now congressional Republicans who are supposed to be investigating Russia’s actions in the 2016 election are instead using their power to bolster Trump’s counternarrative. On Jan. 5, Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham sent a letter to the Justice Department asking it to open a criminal investigation into Steele, apparently for lying to the FBI.

Simply as a matter of procedure, the move shocked some Justice Department veterans. “I cannot think of a time that Congress has referred something to the FBI alleging a lie to the FBI,” Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman, told me. “It is, I believe, unprecedented.” It seemed like a stunt to undermine Steele’s credibility.

Also Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., grew frustrated with Republican stonewalling and unilaterally released the 312-page transcript of the testimony of Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn R. Simpson before the Judiciary Committee in August. Republicans on the committee had tried to keep the transcript secret. Reading it, it was clear why.

Again and again, the transcript shows Republican lawyers on the committee asking questions meant to substantiate the Trumpist narrative, particularly about whether Fusion GPS had been hired with the specific aim of starting an FBI investigation. Simpson’s detailed answers, given under oath, make the Republican theory look ridiculous.

In the questioning, Steele comes off as an earnest, upright figure who was stunned by his discoveries about Trump and Russia, and who felt duty-bound to go to the FBI. If Republicans had reason to believe that Simpson was lying to them, they could have referred him to the Justice Department, but they did not.

Like all good conspiracy theories, Trump’s counternarrative contains a few facts mixed with all the wild supposition. For example, it’s true that Peter Strzok, a counterintelligence agent who was part of the initial FBI inquiry into Trump’s Russia ties, texted a colleague with whom he was having an affair about the need for an “insurance policy” should Trump become president.

As The Wall Street Journal reported, Strzok was aghast at the seriousness of the investigation and was referring to the need to proceed quickly because should Trump win an upset victory, people suspected of colluding with Russia might end up in sensitive government jobs. (Strzok eventually became part of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation but was removed as soon as his texts came to light.) Republicans insist on pretending that the “insurance policy” was the dossier itself, a dirty trick created to undermine a potential Trump presidency. From Strzok’s text and a few other details, Republicans are weaving a story in which Trump is the victim rather than the beneficiary of illicit collusion.

Because there’s not even an attempt among Republicans to discover what Russia really did in the 2016 election, nothing much is being done to prepare for further Russian incursions. “The ultimate test is, when the November 2018 elections come, have we done what we should have done in order to protect those elections from foreign interference,” Whitehouse told me Thursday. “I don’t see us on the path to a good answer to that question.” You can’t solve a crime when you’re more interested in protecting the suspects.

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