It’s getting to be like the way every episode of South Park used to end with Stan blurting, “Oh, my God! They killed Kenny.” After his speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, plus-size White House spokesmodel Donald J. Trump, also known as Cartman, got to bask for all of 24 hours in being acclaimed as “presidential” by the temporarily deluded mainstream media, also known as the enemy of the people. That was mainly because, as the Washington Post’s ungulled Alexandra Petri put it, he’d managed to strut and fret for a whole hour upon the stage without actually biting any bats in half or something. But then Russiagate shit-splattered the news again, putting us right back in the cancer ward we’re learning to call our home away from home.
This time, it turned out that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had, as they say, “misled” Congress during his confirmation hearings when he stoutly maintained he’d had no contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign. The trivial exception was the apparently ultra-forgettable Sergey Kislyak, Vladimir Putin’s bustling ambassador to Cancer Ward, U.S.A. The future AG had met with Kislyak twice: once at the GOP convention in Cleveland, and once in his Senate office in September.
Just like disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Sessions claimed that nothing improper was discussed at those meetings. But that was only after he’d been caught fibbing about them, which raises an obvious question: If these kaffeeklatches are so totally routine and aboveboard, why does Team Trump always try to conceal them until push comes to shove? They’re like adulterers who first deny that their luscious office assistant, Miss Bolshoi, even came along on that business trip at all. Then they say she was just trying to help fix their laptop when it went on the fritz in that Motel Six at two A.M.
Trump has unapologetically behaved exactly as someone who was Putin’s pawn would behave.
By Thursday, Sessions was obliged to announce that he was recusing himself from any Justice Department investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, an investigation that may very well include his own activities at the time. We don’t know, partly because neither Justice nor the FBI will even confirm, officially, that any such probe is underway—although everybody knows one is.
Nor do we know how meaningful or meaningless Sessions’s recusal is. It’s still his department, after all, and presumably he wouldn’t have much trouble staying in the loop on whatever his subordinates are up to. That leaves a lot depending on the integrity of Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, himself a Trump appointee but also a veteran prosecutor with a long record of serving both Republican and Democratic administrations. But at least some Democrats, Nancy Pelosi included, are saying recusal isn’t enough and Sessions needs to resign.
Before this latest twist, both GOP Senator Richard Burr and GOP Representative Devin Nunes—the chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, respectively—were telling the press that reports of the Trump campaign’s “constant” contacts with Russian officials were a big bunch of nothing, pretty much advertising their unreliability as arbiters. Why? Because the White House begged them to pitch in doing damage control, no matter the damage to their own trustworthiness. It’s great to know that vigilant Congressional oversight is alive and well. Whatever happened to this bunch’s indefatigability when they spent two years and $7 million resolutely investigating the demon Hillary over Benghazi?
With only a smattering of dissenting voices, the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill is plainly determined to tough this one out, old-fashioned standards of probity (and patriotism) be damned. It seems obvious by now that both Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will pay virtually any price in exchange for a president who signs off on their legislative agenda, including putting up with considerable evidence that a foreign power did its best to help swing a Trump victory and the increasing suspicion that his own campaign’s bigwigs may have colluded in the effort. But starting with how Obamacare’s repeal has gone into the weeds, their legislative agenda is stalled, incipiently incoherent, and the first casualty of each new bombshell from Trumplandia. Whenever McConnell and Ryan think they’ve finally caught a breather, it’s “Oh, my God! They killed Kenny” again.
The idea that Russiagate will simply go away if the GOP majority stays obstinate looks more like magical thinking every day. One way the revelation of Sessions’s let’s-not-call-it-perjury may represent a turning point is that, for the first time, even a few Republicans ventured to suggest a special prosecutor might be needed to look into the whole mess, although the most surprising convert (Rep. Darrell Issa) backtracked fairly fast. That’s a remedy McConnell and the White House are sure to fight tooth and nail, but it’s now on the table, even so.
In a pattern familiar to old Nixon hands, each new Trump surrogate who’s been reported as having dallied in that Motel Six with Miss Bolshoi during the campaign and/or transition is somebody closer to Trump himself. You can’t get much closer than Jared Kushner, who joined Flynn for a Trump Tower meeting with the ubiquitous Kislyak last December. Our friend Sergey really does get around, doesn’t he? Maybe you’d stay on the go too if your U.N. counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, had just become the seventh Russian diplomat (and the second on U.S. soil) to unexpectedly kick the bucket since last November.
Until the contents of MI6 alum Christopher Steele’s notorious intelligence dossier are either verified or disproven, which may never happen, we’ll have no way of knowing whether our 45th president actually was or is Putin’s pawn. Nonetheless, it’s worth recognizing that, ever since he announced his candidacy in 2015, Trump has unapologetically behaved exactly as someone who was Putin’s pawn would behave. In fact, that’s been the single most consistent thing about his conduct—and otherwise, he’s not exactly famous for consistency.