One of the small joys of a political scandal is the way it enriches the English language. Entire college courses could be constructed around the linguistic analysis of such Watergate expressions as “cover-up,” “smoking gun,” “cancer on the presidency,” “third-rate burglary” and “twist slowly, slowly in the wind.”
So, too, with the current Trump-Russia furor that resembles — to borrow a line from Winston Churchill — “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus made his own linguistic contribution Sunday morning when he dismissed a New York Times story detailing Donald Trump Jr.’s 2016 campaign meeting with a Russian attorney, with connections to Vladimir Putin, as a “nothing burger.”
The expression, based on my database research, appears to have been coined in 1956 by Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons, who described actress Shelly Winters’ early career as “Miss Nothing-burger.”
Within hours, Priebus’ defense of the Trump family became, to use a Watergate expression, “inoperative.” The Times had followed up by reporting that the purpose of the June 2016 meeting (also attended by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner) was to collect damaging information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian lawyer. In a statement, the president’s son confirmed the purpose of the meeting, but claimed that nothing of value was obtained.
Too much — even for politics?
Even in the mud-wrestling arena of contemporary politics, there are tactics that remain off limits, like trolling for dirt from Russian operatives.
In 2000, as top Mitt Romney strategist Stuart Stevens pointed out on Twitter, the Al Gore campaign immediately contacted the FBI when it was sent George W. Bush’s debate materials. And the earlier revelation that the Ronald Reagan campaign had made use of a purloined Jimmy Carter 1980 debate briefing book prompted a congressional investigation.
So, once again, Republicans return to Capitol Hill having to duck questions about Trump and Russia when they presumably would prefer to talk about legislation. Actually, given how well “repeal and replace” is going in the Senate, Republicans might simply prefer a rousing game of Duck, Duck, Goose.
What is confusing about the Trump administration’s Russian front is that nobody in Congress, the media or the electorate knows for certain whether this is another Watergate or another Whitewater, the Clinton scandal that produced a haze of smoke, but little else.
Any Republican, with a dollop of independence from White House talking points, recognizes that Trump’s fan-boy affection for Vladimir Putin defies any rational pursuit of American self-interest. Equally baffling (unless you believe that Trump’s blimp-like ego explains everything) is the president’s refusal to accept the intelligence community’s verdict that Russia deliberately intervened in the 2016 election campaign.
Voters share many of these concerns. A recent Suffolk University/USA Today poll, conducted before Trump met with Putin, found that nearly three-quarters of voters consider Moscow’s electoral meddling to have been “serious.”
But where is the caviar on top of the blini? What is the hoped-for outcome of this crisis that has dominated the first half-year of the Trump presidency?
For the White House, the answer, of course, is “Please, please, make it all go away.”
But maybe Donald Trump Jr. should have thought of that before he met with the Russian lawyer in Trump Tower. And Jared Kushner might have paused twice before suggesting, while Barack Obama was still in the White House, setting up a secret back channel with Moscow, using Russian communications.
No smoking gun?
For rush-to-judgment Democrats, the goal has become nothing short of impeachment. But for all the cries of “obstruction of justice,” we have yet to find anything like a “smoking gun” that would convince fair-minded Republicans.
Many in both parties are placing their faith in the investigation being led by special counsel Robert Mueller. But not all grave offenses that upend democratic norms are prosecutable. For example, heedless ignorance about the nature of the Putin regime is lamentable, but not illegal.
For some, myself included, a major aim is an unequivocal public inquiry that establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt how Putin tried to undermine democracy in the 2016 election. The goal would be to assemble so much public evidence with a bipartisan imprimatur that even Twitter bots controlled by Moscow would be convinced.
Such an investigation would go beyond the well-intentioned efforts of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which have been constrained by the congressional schedule, limited staffing and too many juicy details reserved for executive session.
It is easy to become sidetracked by the debate over the new sanctions against Russia that were approved last month by the Senate on a 98-2 vote. Symbolic gestures — like Obama belatedly expelling 35 Russian agents and taking over two compounds on Maryland’s Eastern Shore — were never likely to deter Putin in 2018 and 2020. The rewards for Russia in manipulating American politics remain infinitely greater than the current risks.
During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton fired so many salvos at Trump that it was hard for voters to keep track. Was the major objection to the GOP nominee his disgusting behavior toward women, his mocking of the disabled, his slam-the-door attitudes on immigration or his abysmal ignorance of the government?
As Clinton learned on election night, when everything is a target, nothing sticks — unlike Trump’s incessant, repetitive attacks on “Crooked Hillary.”
Similarly, it is confusing whether the current goal in the to-Russia-with-love uproar is constitutional, prosecutorial, investigative or punitive. These diffuse aims may prove to be Trump’s best hope in containing a so-called nothing-burger of a scandal.