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Opinion | James Clapper’s bombshell: Russia swung the election. What if he’s right?

This morning, “Fox and Friends” aired an interview with President Trump, in which he hailed the National Football League’s decision to herd African American players prone to kneeling during the national anthem into locker rooms, sparing NFL audiences the uncomfortable spectacle of accomplished black athletes protesting systemic racism and police brutality.

Trump said: “I don’t think people should be staying in locker rooms. But still, it’s good. You have to stand, proudly, for the National Anthem. Or you shouldn’t be playing. You shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”

Only hours earlier, PBS aired the perfect complement to Trump’s command for unthinking nationalistic fervor — and let’s not confuse this with patriotism, which, as George Orwell told us, is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life” that the true patriot has “no wish to force on other people” — in the form of an interview with former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.

In that interview, Clapper expanded on the claim made in his book that, in his judgment, Russia’s subversion of our election did, in fact, prove decisive in tipping it to Trump:

“As a private citizen, it’s what I would call my informed opinion that, given the massive effort the Russians made, and the number of citizens that they touched, and the variety and multi-dimensional aspects of what they did to influence opinion … and given the fact that it turned on less than 80,000 votes in three states, to me it exceeds logic and credulity that they didn’t affect the election. And it’s my belief they actually turned it.”

Clapper noted that the intelligence community’s formal 2017 assessmentof Russian interference was not charged with assessing its impact. But this is exactly the point. It wasn’t the place of the intel community to place its imprimatur on this debate one way or the other. But now that Clapper is free to offer his own view, he believes Russia did swing the election — and he knows a lot more about the specifics of what Russia did than we do.

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Last night, Rachel Maddow called on usto treat this as a “bombshell.” As Maddow put it, “the director of national intelligence for the last seven years” has concluded “that the current president of the United States was only installed in office because of a successful Russian intelligence operation,” raising obvious questions about his legitimacy.

We probably will never know whether Russia’s interference — whose tip we only glimpsed in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals for their sabotage plot — was sufficient to swing the election. The result had many causes. But allow me to point out that journalists regularly suggest, on an even flimsier basis, that this or that Hillary Clinton failing caused the outcome. Yet even asking whether Russian interference — or, say, James B. Comey’s 11th-hour intervention — might have been sufficient to swing a relative handful of votes is regularly greeted with knee-slapping ridicule, even though, as Brian Beutler has noted, every journalist knows that it is absolutely plausible.

But this Clapper claim has relevance well beyond whether Russian interference was decisive. It places the ongoing efforts by Trump and his allies to frustrate an accounting of what happened in a whole new light.

The key point is this. Even if you put aside whatever the Trump campaign did or didn’t do to conspire with Russian sabotage, what’s left is this obvious fact: Trump and his GOP allies don’t want to know the full story of what Russia’s operation entailed in and of itself, because it doesn’t concern them in the least, and indeed they are engaged in an active effort to keep that story suppressed.

It keeps getting lost in the discussion, but one of the charges of both Mueller’s investigation and the probes run out of Congress has been to determine the full truth about the Russian effort separate and irrespectiveof whether there was any Trump campaign collusion with it. Trump himself has regularly dismissed the whole thing as a hoax. The GOP-run House Intelligence Committee probe laughably airbrushed Russia’s goal of helping Trump win out of its final conclusion, putting it at odds with both the intelligence community and Senate Intelligence Committee Republicans.

And this isn’t the only way in which Trump’s Republican allies are actively working to prevent the full truth from coming out. Their push for the release of highly sensitive Justice Department documents on the FBI informant that Trump and his allies have railed about — who contacted Trump campaign officials after the FBI established questionable contacts involving Russian hopes of corrupting the election — represents direct collaboration between Trump and Republicans to subvert Mueller’s investigation. This pressure resulted in an extraordinary capitulation by DOJ, in which officials agreed to make info they believe to be compromising available only to Republicans (though now Democrats will get a briefing as well).

Why we have congressional oversight of intelligence

In this context, note this additional comment from Clapper to PBS. He referenced the importance of what he called “enlightened” congressional oversight of the intelligence community. The members of oversight committees, Clapper said, “have a special burden,” because in conducting this oversight with special access to secret information, “the members of those committees have to represent our citizens, to make sure what the intelligence community is doing is legal, ethical, and moral.”

Whatever you think of Clapper, he is pinpointing the core difficulty here. We want congressional oversight of our intelligence services, so the public can have confidence that their awesome powers are not being abused. But there comes a point at which legitimate oversight gets weaponized and perverted into its opposite — a bad-faith political effort to subvert legitimate law enforcement activity and prevent accountability and justice. In this case, what’s being subverted is an effort to determine the full extent of outside sabotage of an American presidential election, something that may have altered its outcome.

Whether Clapper is right in claiming that the outcome was indeed altered will probably forever remain an open question. But his assertion does highlight the fact that Trump and his GOP allies are actively trying to prevent that full story from coming out — and aren’t troubled in the least by the possibility that he might be right.

* DEMS WILL GET INTEL BRIEFING:The Hill reports that the White House, bowing to criticism, will hold a meeting with intelligence officials and bipartisan members of Congress to show documents related to the FBI informant whom Trump has railed about in recent days.

Previously there had been a meeting scheduled for Republicans only. That meeting will still happen, but at least now Democrats will have their own look at the intel, so they’ll be able to offer a rebuttal if and when Republicans dishonestly leak about what they’ve been shown.

* TRUMP WANTED TO ‘BRAND’ THE INFORMANT: The Associated Press reports on Trump’s private thinking about the FBI informant:

Trump has told confidants in recent days that the revelation of an informant was potential evidence that the upper echelon of federal law enforcement has conspired against him, according to three people familiar with his recent conversations but not authorized to discuss them publicly. Trump told one ally this week that he wanted “to brand” the informant a “spy,” believing the more nefarious term would resonate more in the media and with the public.

Never mind the damage Trump’s campaign against law enforcement could do; this is all about branding.

* NORTH KOREA SUMMIT IN DOUBT:North Korea is now threatening to pull out of the summit, after Vice President Pence doubled down on the insistence on total denuclearization. Anna Fifield comments:

The punchy statement comes a day after Trump suggested there was a “substantial chance” that he would postpone or cancel the summit, scheduled to be held in Singapore on June 12, if North Korea did not meet “certain conditions,” without elaborating on what those conditions were.

This morning on “Fox and Friends,” Trump floated the idea that North Korea might be permitted to denuclearize in phases, though this would have to be “rapid.” He’s totally got this.

UPDATE: NORTH KOREA SUMMIT CANCELED: It’s off:

President Trump on Thursday canceled a planned summit next month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, citing “tremendous anger and open hostility” from the rogue nation in a letter explaining his abrupt decision. “I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting,” Trump said to Kim in a letter released by the White House on Thursday morning.

So no Nobel, then?

* LOTS AND LOTS OF WOMEN ARE RUNNING: CNN tallies it up:

In 1970, there was just one female Senate candidate. Today, there are 49 to 54 women running, depending on whether and which third-party candidates you include. There are 394 women running for the House and 56 in governor’s races (including third-party candidates), as of May 23.

Also: Thirty-two women are running for Senate as Democrats vs. 22 who are running as Republicans. Whatever happens this fall, this has to be seen as a good development. Thanks, Trump!

* COULD ROGER STONE FLIP ON TRUMP? Politico reports that Mueller’s investigators are zeroing in on longtime Trump confident Roger Stone and quotes a Stone friend saying that he could flip if charged. And:

The Trump-Stone relationship could be a treasure trove for federal investigators. The men met during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign and have maintained a professional partnership over the last four decades. Stone has represented Trump as a lobbyist for his gambling, airline, and hotel businesses. He has counseled Trump on four potential White House runs.

As one person who knows both men put it, “Stone knows everything.” Mueller is already scrutinizing Stone’s relationship with Julian Assange amid WikiLeaks’ release of the hacked emails.

* TRUMP HAS HAD ONLY ONE SOLO NEWS CONFERENCE: Glenn Kessler looks at data that compares presidential interactions with the news media and finds:

Trump has had only one solo news conference, compared with 34 for George H.W. Bush, 18 for Bill Clinton, 13 for Obama, nine for Reagan and five for George W. Bush.

As Kessler drily notes, pressers “are helpful for presidents, because it forces them to confront possible contradictions in their policies.” Which, of course, is exactly why he doesn’t hold them.

* TRUMP TESTS CHRISTIANITY: E.J. Dionne Jr. reports that Bishop Michael Curry, who preached at the royal wedding, is leading a vigil to the White House to offer a Christian critique of Trump. Dionne comments:

This is a testing time for the country as a whole, but the moment presents a particular challenge to the Christian churches. Trump, after all, won a substantial majority of the vote among white Christians. The battle within Christianity … is at least in part between those who would use faith as a means of excluding others on the basis of nation, culture and, too often, race, and those who see it as an appeal to conscience, a prod to social decency — and, yes, as an invitation to love.

One has to wonder if there is anything Trump could do that would cost him substantial support among white evangelicals Christians.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant — what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.

  Follow @theplumlinegs

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