After a lot of "I can't comment on that," there's much we still don't know about the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign's alleged ties to Russia, or what the fallout will be.
On Monday morning, the House Intelligence Committee kicked off its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Well, sort of. As the questioning of FBI director James Comey and NSA director Michael Rogers progressed, it became clear that there were two investigations going on at the same time: Democrats on the committee were focused on alleged ties between Donald Trump's campaign and the Russian government, while Republicans asked questions targeting US officials who have leaked classified information to the press, especially the leaks that led to former Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn's resignation.
Throughout the hearing, both Comey and Rogers were "studiously vague," as Comey put it at one point. Neither would discuss anything that touched on classified information or ongoing investigations, which ruled out most of what was being discussed. The major breaking stories to come out of the sometimes testy question-and-answer session were Comey's confirmation that the FBI was indeed investigating communications between Trump's campaign and Russia and the denial from both Comey and Rogers that there's any evidence to support Trump's wild allegation that Barack Obama was tapping his phones. Beyond those on-the-record statements, however (which were not exactly surprising), the hearing was dominated by the FBI and NSA heads dodging questions and refusing to give out information. Though it was maybe the most high-profile hearing of the young Trump era, it raised more questions than it answered. Here are some of them:
Is Anyone Going to Be Prosecuted for Leaking?
The committee Republicans' questions were pointed inquiries that followed Trump's lead—they focused relentlessly on the fact that the leaking of any classified information is a felony and also seemed to be interested in looking into how many people in the NSA, FBI, or larger Justice Department would have known that Flynn was speaking to the Russian ambassador. South Carolina congressman Trey Gowdy even asked Comey if reporters could potentially be prosecuted for publishing classified information, which would be a major attack on the freedom of the press. Gowdy also asked Comey whether he had briefed several Obama administration officials, including Obama himself, about Flynn's conversation with Kislyak—the implication clearly being that Obama holdovers were the ones to leak classified info in an effort to sabotage the new White House. (Even leaving the Flynn issue aside, Trump's administration has been notably leaky.)
Whoever leaked this information to the press—Obama people, Trump people, or sources from the intelligence community—it's not clear that anyone will face prosecution and actual jail time. Such cases are relatively rare, and stories like the Post expose that doomed Flynn rely on multiple sources; if the Trump administration does go after leakers aggressively, there could wind up being more than one arrest.
Is Trump Himself Under Investigation?
The most concrete stories about the Trump campaign's connections to Russia have discussed Flynn, former campaign manager Paul Manafort, former adviser Carter Page, and longtime ratfucker and Trump ally Roger Stone—officials who don't have any current White House role. It's far from clear that any of these people communicated with Russia about Russian efforts to influence the election, and even if they did, there's the further question of whether Trump himself was aware of these conversations. Going by what's been reported publicly, we're several steps removed from the president himself being in hot water. The question is whether there are things that haven't been reported publicly yet that could damage the president.
How Will Trump Spin This News?
The two obvious headlines here—"Trump has no evidence for wiretapping allegations" and "Trump's people are under investigation"—are both bad for the president. So it's no surprise that by Monday afternoon, with the hearing still going on, Trump was already spinning:
To unpack those tweets: In that top video clip, Rogers is saying that the Russians didn't hack voting machines—but of course they didn't; the interference in the election that everyone is talking about is the hacking and releasing (via third parties) of emails that harmed the Clinton campaign. The tweet accompanying the other clip is clearly meant to imply that Obama himself may have leaked info about Flynn's call to the ambassador—but that doesn't address the actual shady business Flynn is accused of, which is lying to Pence and others about that call.
(These tweets were brought up at the hearing by Connecticut Democrat Jim Himes. True to form, Comey and Rogers avoided calling them false but didn't push back on Himes when he said that the first tweet was a mischaracterization.)
Congressional hearings are often used by politicians to ask extremely long, leading questions to witnesses who can't or won't respond—or asking obvious questions, like, "Is leaking classified information illegal?" or, "Were you aware of Flynn's travel to Russia?" This sort of grandstanding was on display Monday from both sides and provided plenty of opportunity to excerpt misleading clips. Comey wouldn't deny that Trump himself was under investigation either, but that obviously isn't proof of anything any more than his statements about briefing Obama.
Did the Russians Actually Want Trump to Win?
Off to the side of the two key discussions about the leaks and the alleged communications with Russia was a hair that Republican members of the committee were trying to split: Did the Russians want Trump to win or just want Clinton to lose?
Everyone agrees that the Russian interference in the election was at least partially aimed at causing havoc for havoc's sake; it's also common knowledge that Putin disliked Clinton for a host of reasons related to her time as secretary of state, including his blaming her for some 2011 pro-democracy protests in Russia. But committee Republicans—mainly Mike Conaway of Texas and Chris Stewart of Utah—asked questions aimed at dispelling the notion Trump was pro-Russia or that the Russians intended to manipulate him. "The logic is that because [Putin] really didn't like candidate Clinton, that he automatically liked Trump. That assessment's based on what?" Conaway asked skeptically.
According to Comey, by the summer the Russians likely didn't think Trump had a chance (few people did) and became more focused on undermining Clinton. It's also true that reports of Trump's campaign weakening an anti-Russia plank in the GOP platform were badly overblown. But the Russians were obviously trying to tear Clinton down, and as Comey said, if you're rooting for one team to lose, you're rooting for the other team to win. And obviously, Trump is more friendly to Russia than Clinton.
"America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align," Trump said in a speech to Congress last month. "We want peace, wherever peace can be found. America is friends today with former enemies." It's pretty obvious who that was about.
Watch the VICE News Tonight segment on the young Democrat running on an anti-Trump win in Georgia:
What Will the Political Fallout Be?
It seems impossible that Trump or his associates will be indicted on any charges, given how thin the public evidence is that they actually talked to Russia about the email hacking. But it also seemed impossible that the FBI would openly be investigating a victorious presidential campaign, so who knows? The more likely scenario, however, is that this scandal continues to hover in the background long after the investigation is over, just as Clinton's complex email affair did.
If Trump delivers on his promises about the economy and brings more prosperity to parts of America left behind in the recovery, I can't imagine too many people will care about this Russia business. But if Trump remains unpopular, the whiff of scandal—combined with other issues, like his company's history of shady business practices—could become a stench. It may be hard for voters to get behind the president or his party in 2018 or 2020 if the Russia thing turns into the most important story of the year.
Will the Russians Strike Again?
The most ominous moments of the hearing weren't about Trump or leaks—instead, they were about the plain fact staring us all in the face: Whatever the Kremlin's intentions, the hack-and-leak strategy was shockingly effective in distracting everyone, especially the media. If they had that kind of effect, why wouldn't they do the same thing, not just in Europe but in America again?
"They'll be back," is how Comey put it. "One of the lessons they may draw from this is that they were successful because they introduced chaos and division and discord and sewed doubt about the nature of this amazing country of ours and our democratic process. It's possible they're misreading that as, 'It worked and so we'll come back and hit them again in 2020.'"
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