The one issue where Democrats have won early, decisive victories over President Donald Trump is on his Russian policy. Michael Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions were both caught lying about their conversations with the Russian ambassador, forcing the former to resign as national security advisor and the latter to recuse himself from an inquiry into Russian interference in the election. This has put Trump on the defensive. Sessions’s recusal reportedly sent the president into a spiral of rage that led to his notorious tweets accusing former President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump’s campaign.
Because the Trump administration’s possible collusion with the Russian government touches such a nerve with the president, it would be seem to be an ideal opening for Trump opponents. But some astute analysts think the Russia story is a dangerous quagmire for both political critics of Trump and journalists covering the story. They fear that the story might amount to more smoke than fire, taking attention away from more pressing issues.
“Imagine if the same kind of attention could be trained and sustained on other issues—like it has been on the Muslim travel ban,” Masha Gessen argued last week in the New York Review of Books. “Russiagate is helping [Trump]—both by distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues, and by promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office.”
Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi fears that the final scandal will amount to a relatively minor matter, thus discrediting the press and Trump critics:
Hypothesize for a moment that the ‘scandal’ here is real, but in a limited sense: Trump’s surrogates have not colluded with Russians, but have had ‘contacts,’ and recognize their political liability, and lie about them. Investigators then leak the true details of these contacts, leaving the wild speculations to the media and the Internet. Trump is enough of a pig and a menace that it’s easy to imagine doing this and not feeling terribly sorry that your leaks have been over-interpreted.
If that’s the case, there are big dangers for the press. If we engage in Times-style gilding of every lily the leakers throw our way, and in doing so build up a fever of expectations for a bombshell reveal, but there turns out to be no conspiracy—Trump will be pre-inoculated against all criticism for the foreseeable future.
Gessen and Taibbi are right that many people have too high an expectation for the Russia story, seeing it as a magic bullet that will destroy the Trump presidency. At its most extreme, the story has led to unhinged conspiracy theories that Trump is a Manchurian candidate controlled by the Kremlin. Conservative journalist Louise Mensch, for instance, suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin had Andrew Breitbart murdered in 2012 so that Steve Bannon, now Trump’s chief strategist, could take over the media outlet. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, said that it’s “absolutely true” that the Russians have a compromising tape of Trump with prostitutes. (She later retreated from the claim.)
There are other reasons to sideline the Russia narrative. For a Democratic Party adrift after last year’s electoral wipeout, focusing on the Russia story risks ignoring hard questions about the need for internal reform. After all, if the election loss can be blamed on Russian interference, the party doesn’t need to change. For some on the anti-war left, there is also the fear that the Russia story will ignite a new Cold War. And pushing unfounded claims about the Trump administration’s Russian connections only contributes to the destructive culture of conspiracy created by the president.
These concerns are legitimate, but they don’t settle the matter. After all, there is no reason that the narrative of Trump’s unexplained connections to Putin’s government has to be framed in a conspiratorial or xenophobic way. Even the most innocent explanation of all the available facts still suggests that Trump’s close associates have made compromising connections to dubious characters, including oligarchs and Russian intelligence agents. On the issue of xenophobia, it’s worth noting that an alliance with Russia seems part of Bannon’s larger project of a global alt-right, an informal alliance with the likes of Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen as well as Putin, all in opposition to an imagined monolithic Islamic threat. Opposing this alliance is the opposite of xenophobia: It’s a taking a stand against an attempt to ally America with Islamophobic and anti-immigrant forces in other lands.
Pursuing the Russia story is a retreat from politics, only if it is framed simply as a matter of Trump having ties with Russia, and not connected to Trump’s ideological agenda. But the story is organically linked with other aspects of Trump that deserve critique. Trump’s mysterious ties to Russia can’t be divorced from his secrecy about his finances, his affinity for autocratic politics, and his desire to upend American foreign policy in the pursuit of an Islamophobic agenda. The Russia story is not a distraction from developing an anti-Trump politics, but central to the case against him.
As for worries that the story will amount to nothing, it’s worth noting that this has already been disproven. Flynn’s resignation was a major defeat for Trump since Flynn was one of Trump’s closest senior advisers. Given the evident skittishness of the Trump administration around these issues, Flynn likely won’t be the last to go. In any case, even it were politically desirable to stop the Russia story, that’s beyond anyone’s power, including Trump’s. The issue is in the hands of law enforcement agencies, the intelligence community, and Congress. Trump opponents will have to figure out how to respond to the unfolding news, but there’s no question that it deserves notice, and ought to be leveraged responsibly to further discredit the president.