Thursday, July 27, 2017
What is it about Russia -- some vestige of all those Cold War spy films, perhaps -- that makes so many people, on all political sides, behave so irrationally when it's mentioned?
Consider the behavior of the Democrats, who are seeking to prove that Donald Trump and/or his campaign colluded with Russia, with the implication that this collusion somehow determined the outcome of the 2016 election.
Mainstream media feed this narrative, with breathless multiple-byline stories about Attorney General Jeff Sessions' encounter with the Russian ambassador in the Mayflower Hotel or Donald Trump Jr.'s ludicrous meeting with the Russian lawyer.
Of course, a genuine conspiracy would have been conducted with the internet age equivalent of secret messages written in invisible ink delivered to secret drop boxes. And it's not clear what useful guidance the shambolic, tweet-driven Trump campaign could have given Russians bent on messing with the American electoral process.
In any case, the Russia issue was litigated in the campaign. Candidate Trump's weird unwillingness to say anything negative about Vladimir Putin, plus his past business dealings in Russia, raised legitimate questions about his Russia policy. Hillary Clinton intelligently and aggressively aired these issues in debates and on the stump.
No evidence has been found that any state's election system was hacked. Hackers, apparently Russian (though Trump strangely said he doubted that), tried to access Republican and Democratic servers. They penetrated the Democrats' system and publicized embarrassing emails. Does anyone believe that those stories switched the 77,000 votes by which Trump narrowly carried Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin? Not really.
Ever since about 9 p.m. Eastern time on election night, Democrats have been yearning to oust Trump from office. Some otherwise-intelligent liberals outlined scenarios putting Clinton in the White House. Many imagine now that some smoking gun of collusion evidence will result in Trump's impeachment and removal from office.
But it's hard to imagine what it could be. Special prosecutor Robert Mueller may ensnare some witness in a perjury trap, but how do you have a smoking gun when there's no identifiable crime?
I think it's irrationally risky for Democrats to make collusion their major issue and effectively to promise they'll impeach Trump if they win a House majority next year. More to the point, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi seems to agree and has told colleagues to downplay the I-word.
She doesn't want to alienate that quantum of voters willing to vote for Democrats to check Trump but not wanting to force an impeachment trial, which would, as in 1999, result in acquittal in the Senate. But such cool rationality seems rare among her fellow Democrats.
Cool rationality is not a term anyone, fan or foe, seems likely to attach to Trump any time soon. His tweets and interview responses, seemingly determined to prompt Sessions' resignation as attorney general, are as irrational as critics' scenarios of his imminent replacement by Clinton.
Sessions, the only senator to endorse Trump before he clinched the Republican nomination in May 2016, has striven faithfully to carry out his policies. Sessions' recusal from involvement on Russia matters last March, though overcautious, was something Trump could have cautioned against then. And Trump could now legitimately call on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to cabin in what National Review's Andrew McCarthy has argued is Mueller's illegally broad mandate. Presidents have lines of communication with appointees less public than Twitter.
Trump, of course, has only himself to blame for Mueller's appointment, which resulted from self-admitted clever leaking and maneuvering by James Comey after he was abruptly fired as FBI director in May.
Meanwhile, it's hard to dismiss reports that other Cabinet members and Republican senators are dismayed and disheartened at Trump's treatment of Sessions. You would surely feel that way yourself if you were in their shoes.
Moreover, if Sessions resigns or is fired, there will be confirmation hearings for his replacement. One thing Democrats and maybe some Republicans will demand is a commitment that Mueller not be fired or his investigation not be limited.
Similar commitments extracted from Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus prompted their resignations when Richard Nixon ordered them to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox in October 1973. Nixon resigned 10 months later.
It has long been my contention that the political marketplace, like the economic marketplace, operates tolerably well when competitors, constrained by the rule of law, act out of rational self-interest.
It doesn't work so well when people on both sides keep acting irrationally.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.
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