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How big a deal is Trump-Russia? It depends on who you ask in D.C.

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Democrats have advanced the idea that the truth of President Donald Trump’s contact with Russian officials — and the ensuing cover-up — could determine the fate of his presidency.

It’s been just your typical 10 days in Washington: an FBI director was fired, the U.S president allegedly shared Israeli intelligence with top Russian officials, leaked memos indicated that the president asked that former FBI director to stop investigating an aide, and the Department of Justice appointed a special counsel to get to the bottom of all this.

Such a turn of events, you’d think, would provoke near-universal alarm, outrage and exasperation from politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Not so much in Donald Trump’s Washington: though Republicans and Democrats alike have sounded concern over what’s been happening — and conceded it’s not normal — they’ve diverged in some key ways.

For Democrats, this all confirms the worst about Trump and his presidential administration; for Republicans, this is an exercise in racing to conclusions, media-fueled mass hysteria designed to undermine the president, whatever the merits of the allegations against him.

Democrats have led the charge for a special investigator into ties between the Trump team and Russia, and any cover-up that ensued; they’ve also called for testimony, evidence, and in some cases, impeachment proceedings.

Republicans have been quieter, with only a few — including 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen — calling for an independent investigation. But few are going out of their way to defend their scandal-ridden president and his dominance of the news cycle, as the Hill GOP works on health care, tax reform, and other legislative priorities.

How are Minnesota’s representatives reacting to the news, and what are their expectations for the investigation as it proceeds through a deeply divided Washington?

Special counsel hailed by both sides

Minnesota Democrats had been loudly calling for a special counsel for months, and were relieved at Wednesday night’s news that the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, selected former FBI director Robert Mueller for the job.

Minutes before that news broke, Sen. Al Franken was reflecting on the history-making weirdness of the past 10 days. Sitting in his office, the senator called the events of the past week “bizarre” and “very, very disturbing.”

Mueller, who served under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, promises to inject some normalcy into these strange proceedings. He has a sterling reputation in Washington, and enjoys respect from politicians in both parties. As special counsel, he will have broad latitude to collect information and subpoena witnesses and documents, with the specific goal of finding evidence of any criminal wrongdoing.

Robert Mueller
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Robert Mueller

Franken said in a Wednesday evening statement that he welcomes Mueller’s appointment, calling it a “necessary and important step.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar sounded relief at the news in an interview, saying she was “picturing we’d be in this endless cycle of asking for a special prosecutor and it’d never stop.”

Klobuchar, a former prosecutor herself, lauded Mueller’s tenure as FBI director, particularly his handling of investigations into recruitment by the Somali terror group al-Shabaab in Minnesota, and called him a “consummate professional.”

In a statement, Paulsen called Mueller’s appointment “a step forward in restoring public confidence to look into this matter… Director Mueller is well-equipped and highly respected on both sides of the aisle.”

Second District GOP Rep. Jason Lewis said in a statement that he supports a special counsel if the Department of Justice found it appropriate. “I look forward to getting this issue behind us with a thorough and complete investigation,” he said. 

Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer said in a statement that “while no evidence has been presented, I support the numerous, nonpartisan investigations currently being conducted by the House, Senate, and FBI.”

The basics of the situation

Despite the bipartisan support for Mueller, there’s still deep disagreement between Republicans and Democrats over exactly what is at stake here, and they interpreted the developments in the days before Mueller’s appointment very differently.

Both explicitly and implicitly, Democrats have advanced the idea that the truth of Trump’s contact with Russian officials — and the ensuing cover-up — could determine the fate of Trump’s presidency.

Some Democrats, and even Republicans, have said that if it is true Trump asked former FBI director James Comey to stop investigating his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, it constitutes grounds for impeachment.

Franken said that talk of impeachment was getting too far ahead of the story. “You have to know a little more about it, it gets close to obstruction of justice, but I don’t want anyone to get ahead of themselves,” he said. “This still is an investigation, as far as I know, into whether the Trump campaign or associates of the Trump camp helped the Russians interfere with our elections.”

“In investigating that, I guess it’s now gone into whether the president acted inappropriately in trying to cover up, and sometimes it’s the coverup that’s the biggest problem.”

First District Rep. Tim Walz did not use the word impeachment, but in a Tuesday statement, he said if the reports are true, “they make the president unfit to serve as Commander-in-Chief.”

To Walz, the partisan division over the Trump-Russia story is remarkable given that it concerns foreign interference in a U.S. election.

He said that such partisanship wouldn’t have been on display even in 2007, when he first arrived in Congress. “It’s absolutely unprecedented since I’ve been here,” he told MinnPost on Thursday.

“I never said they shouldn’t do their Benghazi investigation,” Walz said of the Republican majority. “I keep asking them, it feels to me like it’s a fair frame, if Hillary Clinton did this, how mad would you be? How can we not find some common ground that we had a foreign power trying to influence our elections?”

“I’d be just as mad if it were Hillary Clinton. I hope they understand the stakes. I, at times, feel they don’t see our sense of frustration.”

Speaking to MinnPost on Wednesday, Lewis echoed the cautious official line of many Republicans: that Democrats are rushing to judgment.

“Let’s see what’s there,” Lewis said. “I know everyone wants to jump to August of ’74,” he added, referencing when the Watergate story broke, “but we need to have cooler heads prevail and to see where the facts lead us.”

“I mean, there’s clearly a distraction,” Lewis said about what’s going on in Washington. “But let’s be honest, there’s a zeal from the media on this that’s palpable.”

Lewis clarified he wasn’t suggesting the media was making up the Trump reports, but he emphasized that Trump’s disclosure of intelligence to Russian officials in a private meeting — intelligence gathered by Israeli officials — “concerns me as much as leaking classified information, or changing it to a different server then leaking it deliberately, which is crime,” referencing alleged action by Clinton.

“Hers was clearly a crime,” Lewis said, referencing Clinton, “this wasn’t a crime, because the president did it. Was it wise? That’s another question.”

Now what?

Now that Mueller has been appointed as special counsel, it ensures that this investigation will remain part of the political landscape for the foreseeable future.

“A lot of these investigations have been done in a year,” Klobuchar said. “Watergate was done in 14 months. I do think it’s going to take a while to get to the bottom of all this.”

Other special counsel investigations into executive branch activity have taken very long to complete. The final report from the special counsel on the Iran-Contra investigation, for example, was released in August 1993 — nearly six years after the congressional committees investigating it had completed their work.

Klobuchar and Walz said that a forming a congressional commission to further investigate the Trump-Russia ties would be best. While a special counsel’s work is limited to criminal charges, a special congressional commission has latitude to report more facts without the intent of uncovering criminal wrongdoing.

That decision would have to be approved by the GOP majorities in Congress, which are preoccupied that this ongoing story could distract from their ability to push through their legislative agenda. Lewis didn’t sound the alarm, but acknowledged that this is part of the dynamic: “To get sidetracked is a danger, it’s always a danger,” he said. “When you’ve got these distractions, I suppose the danger goes up a bit.”

Beyond supporting the special counsel, Democrats believe their GOP colleagues still have a role to play in holding the executive accountable. “The Senate is a check and a balance and that hasn’t changed,” Klobuchar said, adding she hopes Republicans are up to the task.

Republicans may be fuming about Trump privately, but at least publicly, Democrats are raising questions about the new president’s judgment — perhaps more loudly than at any point in his tenure.

Klobuchar said she didn’t want Trump to win the election, “but I couldn’t have predicted this, that it’d be this out of hand on the Russia front… Political predictions aside, our country was at a point where I was starting to question whether we were going to follow the Constitution.”

“It’s one of those things,” Franken said, “each of these things is shocking, yet it doesn’t surprise you when you think about it… We’ve had some presidents who, like Nixon, have behaved badly, but this one, this is a new one. This is a new brand of not-so-good.”

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Comments (10)

Not really

The "bigness" of reality isn't actually a function of who you talk to. Different perspectives of the Holocaust don't determine the nature of the Holocaust for instance, or whether or not the Holocaust was a "big deal". You can always find someone who doesn't think something like Watergate, Iran Contra, or Monica Lewinsky are big deals, but that doesn't actually determine how big a deal they really are.

So of course you have a partisan "divide" regarding the Trump/Russia controversy, but that's been obvious for months. The fact that there is a partisan divide doesn't tell us anything about the gravity of the charge. Republicans may not think a president who interferes with an FBI investigation and tries to intimidate an FBI director is a "big deal", but that doesn't mean it isn't a big deal. Conversely, that Democrats think it IS a big deal, doesn't make it a big deal.

Let's not pretend that what people "say" about a thing is more important than the thing itself, that's stenography pretending to be substance. If Trump or members of his campaign staff coordinated attacks on the Clinton campaign in some way, and if Trump or members of his staff are now compromised by that collusion (or any other relationship with Russians), and if Trump tried to quash the FBI investigation into this collusion and comprise, that's a big deal regardless of who says what about it or who you talk to.

But Paul -

If we recognize that there are facts in the world with a relationship of one sort or another to underlying values, we would find that there are judgments to be made and hence actions to be taken. In other words, civic engagement and democracy! And where would the establishment and its media be then?

Both Sides!!

As a conservative, I say good I'm

happy there is a special investigator appointed. If Trump is found to have broken the law then he should be held accountable. The facts will go where they go!! All this hysteria and guilty by gossip by liberals, DC elites and media is nothing more than hot air!!

Regular folks would love to see our Federal Government actually work for our country. A friend of mine (a liberal) is trying to determine whether to build a new manufacturing line here or in Mexico. He needs to know what the Federal business tax burden will be (current 35% or 15% as proposed), will Obamacare still mandate he provide poor coverage at a high price for his workers (high monthly payments for him, little choice for his employees and high deductibles that many young workers can't pay), how much money can he deduct for starting up a new line? This is one small business person trying to make decisions that will affect 60-75 workers, multiply that thousands and you have our economy on hold. Get tax reform done, get what level the Government will be involved in our healthcare over and allow regular folks to go about their business.

The "hot air" by liberal elites will continue no matter what happens (Trump derangement syndrome). If Trump is guilty of any crimes, prosecute him but allow regular folks to try to live their lives with some clarity as to what they can expect from our Federal Government. This is why folks are disgusted with our elected officials, they care more about scoring political points than helping the voters!!!

I agree . . . . .

I agree that it is a good idea to have a special counsel now appointed to pursue this investigation. But keep in mind that - as you said - the facts will go where they may. Remember - it's not just Trump under investigation - it's his entire team. So they may or may not find wrongdoing directly on Trump's part, but they may or may not also find wrongdoing on the part of some of those who are now or have been very close to him and influential on him. And that is important to learn about, as well. So this is not JUST about Trump, although it has potential and serious implications where Trump is concerned.

As for "what level the Government will be involved in our healthcare" - that could have been over and done with LONG ago if the Republicans would have been willing to work across the aisle to address and find solutions for the problems as they came up rather than just take every last problem with this large and very complex bill as an excuse for another vote for repeal and another opportunity to sue.

Do they REALLY think that their brand-spankin'-new bill is going to roll off the presses error-free? It just doesn't happen that way.

Why not fix the one that's out there rather than insisting on starting all over again? If they had, your friend would likely already have had most of his concerns and questions answered rather than being thrown back into a state of uncertainty all over again. Needless and unfortunate.

Joe's Friend

If Joe's friend really thinks that businesses actually pay taxes at the 35% rate, he's probably not too sharp. Same deal for his accountant. It's time bury that old canard.

I think Joe's friend

Might be better served by determining whether or not he has a market for all this new production he's considering. A tax rate of zero will do him no good if there's no one to purchase his goods or services.

You Don't Need A Weatherman...

Gee, GOP representatives have suddenly become very circumspect about investigations. You'd almost think they just spent 6 years and scads of taxpayer dollars on investigations that turned up nothing, despite their rhetoric.

Jason Lewis was not part of

Jason Lewis was not part of Congress when Trey Gowdy tried desperately and for many months and repetitious hearings to pin the Benghazi violence on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He couldn't. She was not to blame. We all know that (except for Gowdy, and maybe Jason Lewis).

Jason Lewis also had better tell us exactly what was "leaked" by Secretary of State Clinton's private email server. Lewis wasn't there for that, either. As far as I know, the idea that something classified was "leaked" by Clinton's email server is a false claim by the alt right folks like Steve Bannon and other radio and TV screamers--like Jason Lewis, in his life before last November. Nothing then classified (the Republicans made sure that some of her emails were determined to carry material only labeled classified several years after she shared them) was leaked.

Republicans can scream about Hillary Clinton all they want. But they can't be allowed to get away with continued falsehoods about her record. If James Comey had concluded that Clinton had committed a crime, he would have recommended prosecution. The fact that he only found her use of a private email server "careless" (not nation-endangering), and found that no rational person would prosecute her (note: rational), is what drives Jason Lewis and his ilk up the wall. He probably also considered that Gen. David Petraeus had given highly classified material to his mistress, for the book she was writing about him, and the U.S. decided not to put Petraeus in jail. How could Hillary's "carelessness" with her emails--with nothing "leaked"--compare to outright but unpunished treason by Petraeus?

But Republicans don't get to keep up the lies about Clinton. Or compare her activities AT ALL with the acts of the self-destructive child we now have in the White House. Trump is in another world, altogether. He and his presidency are not normal.

Rushing to judgment

There would be no "rush to judgment" if the GOP partisans in control of the House and Senate were actually performing their jobs and not pretending that the blizzard of tweets emanating from the White House shifting the narrative every news cycle was normal behavior. At some point, a President who flip-flops every few days on his own version of "Truth" actually demands some answers. And accountability.

And who's rushing to judgment anyway? Is asking that a Special Prosecutor or demanding that the House and Senate Committees conduct investigations or open an independent investigation, "judging" anything. The public has a right to know what's going on with their government. Or at least, so they say.

I'm concerned that the Special Counsel appointment to investigate possible ties to the Russian attempts to interfere with the election might sweep some other questions under the rug. Like: what authority did Trump's private attorney Michael Cohen and Felix Sater (a man with unknown connections to the Trump business whom Trump has claimed is virtually a stranger to him), have to be delivering a peace proposal with Russian to a member of the Ukrainian government? Or what about Russian participation in President Trump's real estate, hotel and casino empire? What secrets remain hidden in the President's tax returns?

Let the Special Counsel investigation unfold, but Congress should not let this investigation off the hook from its responsibility for oversight. Even if the President belong to their party, GOP members of Congress should not forget that their duty lies first to our Nation.

reaction will change with each new fresh revelation

we are no where near completing investigation of Trump's financial ties to Russian kleptocrats, nor of his campaign contacts with Russians during the election campaign. Republicans still want it all to go away to they can cut taxes for really wealthy people, and cut medical access to poor Americans.

Let's not decide how big a deal it all is until all the evidence is in, and reported to We, the People. We'll decide - not those in Washington DC - how big a deal it is when the investigations are complete.