In filing a lawsuit accusing Russia, the Trump campaign, and WikiLeaks of a conspiracy to win the 2016 election, Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez says the party is standing up to Russian meddling in not just that contest, but the next one as well. “[When] you’ve seen attempted interference in the past, they’re going to do it again,” Perez told NBC News. “I’m punching back for democracy.”
The lawsuit is an outgrowth of the Democratic Party’s more than yearlong focus on Russiagate “above all else,” as a top Hillary Clinton aide once described it. This approach has definitively shaped both the resistance to Donald Trump and the media coverage of his presidency. Trump’s critics have clung to the hope that Special Counsel Robert Mueller will undo his presidency, leaving Democrats and pundits to focus less on White House policies than on its endless controversies and rotating cast of characters.
The newly leaked questions that Mueller intends to pose to Trump offer the most detailed look at his investigation to date. If Mueller has uncovered any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, he withholds it here. The vast majority of his questions are based on information that has already been made public. A possible exception is a question about “any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign.” The wording is vague; what does “potential assistance” mean, and does “Russia” mean the Kremlin or any Russian national? It could very well be the latter. We know that Manafort, while serving as Trump’s campaign manager, offered private briefings to a former business associate, Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, in what he says was part of an effort to collect on old debts.
Mueller also asks about the notorious Trump Tower meeting of June 2016, where Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya sat down with top campaign officials after offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. The meeting plays a central role in the hypothesis about how the Trump campaign and the Kremlin cooperated on the subsequent release of stolen Democratic Party e-mails. But Veselnitskaya’s pitch, as transmitted by music publicist Rob Goldstone, was for “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia,” not stolen e-mails, and the leaked questions offer nothing to indicate that Mueller has uncovered further information.
Veselnitskaya has just reemerged in the news with a lead New York Times story reporting that she “Had Closer Ties to Kremlin Than She Let On.” The impetus was Veselnitskaya’s statement in an NBC News interview that she had “been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general,” Yuri Chaika, since 2013, as well as the disclosure of hacked e-mail exchanges between them.
These exchanges, however, had nothing to do with the 2016 campaign or even the Kremlin. Instead, they pertain to Veselnitskaya’s work on behalf of the Russian firm Prevezon Holdings for a civil fraud case brought by the Justice Department in 2013 under the Magnitsky Act, which allows for US sanctions on Russian nationals. Veselnitskaya has even previously acknowledged her dealings with the prosecutor, telling congressional investigators last year that she has “interacted with the [Russian] Prosecutor General several times in the capacity of a lawyer.”
The New York Times and NBC News also failed to mention a bizarre twist to the story. On that same trip where she visited Trump Tower, Veselnitskaya also met with Fusion GPS, the opposition-research firm behind the Steele dossier, the DNC-funded report alleging a high-level conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Prevezon’s US law firm had hired Fusion GPS to dig up dirt on Bill Browder, the driving force behind the Magnitsky Act, for the company’s fight against the Justice Department’s case and US sanction. That very topic—the Magnitsky sanctions—is what Veselnitskaya and Trump officials say was discussed at the Trump Tower meeting. If Veselnitskaya is lying, that means she visited Trump Tower on the Kremlin’s behalf while simultaneously working with the very firm that was trying to uncover such a connection—in which case the Kremlin and the Trump campaign would have made a most unfortunate selection for their nascent collaboration’s intermediary. On the flip side, the plausibility of Veselnitskaya’s claim that she sought to discuss sanctions is bolstered by her contemporaneous work with Fusion GPS on that very issue.
Another suspected Trump-Russia intermediary is making even more waves. The federal investigation of Michael Cohen, the longtime Trump fixer and attorney, over potential bank fraud and campaign-finance violations has fueled rampant speculation that he could “flip” against Trump. The hoopla surrounding the investigation into Cohen has overshadowed a critical detail: Mueller is not carrying it out. In fact, the investigation stems from a decision by deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein that evidence uncovered by Mueller’s team and implicating Cohen does not fall under Mueller’s purview. The case was instead referred to federal authorities in New York.
That distinction has been lost in the legal cloud surrounding Trump, and the publication of a would-be bombshell story just four days after the FBI raided Cohen’s office. On April 13, McClatchy reported that Mueller’s investigators have evidence that Cohen visited Prague in the late summer of 2016. That would track with a key claim in the Steele dossier, which alleges that Cohen visited Prague to meet with Russian officials as part of his key role “in a cover up and damage limitation operation” to conceal the Trump-Russia relationship. Because Cohen vehemently denies visiting Prague, evidence placing him there right when Steele says he was would be a major development.
In the special counsel’s most extensive comments to the media about the investigation to date, a Mueller spokesperson responded to queries about the story with a warning:
What I have been telling all reporters is that many stories about our investigation have been inaccurate. Be very cautious about any source that claims to have knowledge about our investigation and dig deep into what they claim before reporting on it. If another outlet reports something, don’t run with it unless you have your own sourcing to back it up.
No other outlets have confirmed McClatchy’s report. Articles from the same co-authors, Peter Stone and Greg Gordon, have relied on similarly vague sourcing. After reporting that the NRA may have been used to funnel Russian money to the Trump campaign, Gordon conceded in an interview that one possibility is it “did not happen at all.”
The need for a disclaimer that a seemingly bombshell story may be entirely unfounded underscores a key reason for the Trump-Russia collusion theory’s momentum to this point: It is difficult to prove that something did not happen. When it comes to the Steele dossier’s voluminous allegations, it is common to hear observations such as “not a single revelation in the Steele dossier has been refuted” (Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein) or that “just because it was unverified didn’t mean it wasn’t true” (former CIA director John Brennan). All of this is an artful way of saying that, after more than one year, nothing substantial has been proven.
This loose evidentiary standard has promoted ambiguous or benign statements—and topics that would normally belong in tabloids—to the level of front-page news. Case in point is the revived focus on the Steele dossier’s outlandish claim that the Kremlin has blackmailed Trump with a 2013 videotape of him watching sex workers urinate in his Moscow hotel room.
Former FBI director James Comey can claim significant credit for the pee tape’s extended shelf life. In his new memoir, A Higher Loyalty, Comey recounts that Trump was obsessed with the pee tape, instructing him to disprove it and raising the issue multiple times. “I don’t know whether the current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013,” Comey told ABC News. “It’s possible, but I don’t know.”
With Comey fanning the flames, reporters have scrambled to uncover whether flight logs and Trump’s time in Moscow offered a window for the urination episode to take place. Comey, wrote The New York Times‘ Michelle Goldberg, “has started a long overdue national conversation about whether the pee tape is real.”
If there is a national conversation about the pee tape worth having, we might explore why its alleged Kremlin owner hasn’t been able to put it to use when it comes to influencing US policy. The Trump administration “has taken steps the Obama administration was not willing to” (John Herbst of the Atlantic Council), leaving Russian President Vladimir Putin to “cope with an administration that has proved to be far more hawkish than he expected” (foreign-policy scholar Daniel W. Drezner).
The view is far different for Democrats who have staked their political identity on the opposite being true. “We know that this administration is Putin’s poodle,” Perez declared in unveiling the DNC lawsuit. That distortion may also extend to how Democratic leaders like Perez see their own party. Losing to the most unqualified presidential candidate in history capped a downward spiral that has seen the Democrats squander hundreds of seats at every level. Despite Trump’s unpopularity, the DNC has been unable to capitalize in the critical area of fundraising, raking in half of what Republicans did in 2017, and, with the exception of Senate incumbents, showing similar returns so far this year. By all indications, the party has shunned the self-reflection that such a crisis requires, promoting the same types of centrist, corporatist candidates of previous cycles.
In adopting an old playbook, Democratic leaders are ostensibly counting on the controversies surrounding Trump to produce different results. But if their lawsuit is any indication, such a hope would be misplaced. The DNC’s claim of a “fertile ground for a conspiracy” between Trump and the Kremlin relies on a familiar litany of cherry-picked open-source information, none proving any actual Trump-Kremlin cooperation, let alone contact. It also advances a legal argument that would criminalize the publication of pilfered material—posing a threat to press freedom far beyond its intended target, WikiLeaks.
Some Democrats are skeptical about devoting party resources to a whole new legal front. Congressmember Jackie Speier says the suit is “not in the interest of the American people,” while a spokesperson for Senator Claire McCaskill calls it “a silly distraction.” The Trump-Russia story, a Democratic county chair in Ohio complained to BuzzFeed, is the “only piece [the DNC has] been doing since 2016. [Trump] keeps talking about jobs and the economy, and we talk about Russia.” A campaign strategist in the Midwest adds: “I haven’t seen a single piece of data that says voters want Democrats to re-litigate 2016…. The only ones who want to do this are Democratic activists who are already voting Democratic.”
Perez rejects those concerns. “We know how to walk and chew gum [at the same time],” he told NBC News. “I don’t know the amount of money that it will take. But I’ll tell you, it’s hard to put a price tag on preserving democracy.” Few people who oppose Trump would dispute that our democracy is under threat. But it is difficult to see how a preoccupation with the 2016 outcome, the daily White House soap opera, and a Trump-Russia collusion theory is the way to punch back. Democrats may wish to reckon with the price tag of preserving their approach.