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Dems tout FBI investigation of Trump campaign and Russia, but questions remain

President Donald Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 21, 2017, to rally support for the Republican health care overhaul by taking his case directly to GOP lawmakers. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

FBI Director James Comey’s confirmation that the agency is investigating ties between President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian forces that attempted to influence the 2016 election has instigated a new round of accusations, speculation, and conspiracy theories among Democrats.

At a House Intelligence Committee hearing Monday, Comey said he had been authorized to publicly confirm that the investigation of Russian efforts to interfere with the election exists.

“That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts,” he added.

Democrats have long questioned Trump’s frequent praise of Vladimir Putin, shadowy contact between his associates and Russians, and his potential financial ties to Russia. Monday’s hearing appears to have infused their crusade with fresh urgency.

“What happened here is not a run-of-the-mill campaign dirty trick, but rather a major national security violation in which a foreign adversary deliberately interfered in our elections in order to undermine America’s viability as a world power,” Democratic strategist Craig Varoga said.

Republicans downplay the impact of Russia’s meddling, and they argue that nothing revealed so far has incriminated the president or those around him. That has not discouraged critics on the left.

“Right now, this is serving as an innuendo festival for Democrats to try to drag down Trump’s approval rating,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.

He cited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s line about wanting to make Barack Obama a one-term president and said Democrats have set their sights on forcing Trump out of office even sooner.

“They don’t even want to make Trump a one-term president,” O’Connell said. “They want his head.”

Some Democrats are indeed speculating about impeaching Trump.

“It's a BFD @realDonaldTrump campaign is under FBI investigation. Collusion would constitute high crimes,” Rep. Ted Lieu tweeted, referring to the legal standard for impeachment. “What did @realDonaldTrump know?”

“Get ready for impeachment,” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Cal., tweeted Tuesday.

Others immediately seized upon Comey’s words to justify stalling Trump’s agenda and appointments as long as the cloud of suspicion hangs over the administration.

“I’d like to point out that it is the height of irony that Republicans held this Supreme Court seat open for nearly a calendar year while President Obama was in office, but are now rushing to fill the seat for a president whose campaign is under investigation by the FBI,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

“How can Congress, with good conscience, agree to further Trump’s agenda amid such serious allegations regarding possible illegal activity? The answer is simple: It can’t,” MoveOn.org Civic Action Campaign Director Jo Comerford said in a statement. “That’s why, given today’s news, Congress must shut down all Trump-related appointments and legislation until the American people learn the full truth about Trump and Russia.”

What the hearing actually revealed, though, was not much. Comey confirmed the investigation exists and he and NSA Director Mike Rogers directly refuted Trump’s allegation that Obama wiretapped him, but they said little else of substance on either subject.

To the frustration of members from both parties, Comey resisted calls to provide further details and confirm or deny exactly which Trump campaign officials and associates are subjects of investigation.

The end result was a five-hour hearing that offered something for everyone.

“Everybody had a good day yesterday,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant and a professor of advertising at Boston University.

Democrats got new ammo against the Trump administration, Republicans raised suspicions about Obama officials leaking information, Comey redeemed himself in the eyes of some critics, and Trump avoided getting bogged down in the issue at his rally that night.

Even if Democrats left the hearing with new talking points, they did not leave with much more knowledge about the Trump team’s Russian connections than they walked in with. Given the amount of leaking surrounding the investigation, Berkovitz expects proof of coordination would have been leaked by now if there was some.

“It’s been five months that these allegations have been a major media story and yet it’s been five months that there hasn’t been a smoking gun, a smoking anything,” he said.

O’Connell said Democrats may believe they got a “big win” out of the hearing, but they did not score the fatal blow against Trump that they are desperate for.

“There is nothing that will ever come out of any hearings on Russia that will satisfy them unless it results in him being impeached or resigning,” he said.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Cal., acknowledged on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that the concrete evidence is limited, but he suggested more will emerge.

“There is circumstantial evidence of collusion,” he said. “There is direct evidence, I think, of deception and that's where we begin the investigation."

On Monday, Schiff delivered a 15-minute opening statement laying out the case for suspicion of Trump’s ties to Russia. Much of it involved the activities of former Trump aides and advisers like Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, and Roger Stone.

All of those men have denied conspiring with Russia to benefit Trump’s campaign, but Schiff raised many questions about their meetings and travel. He relied heavily on a dossier compiled by a former British intelligence officer that U.S. agencies have never publicly corroborated.

By Schiff’s own admission, it is a highly circumstantial case. If the FBI finds nothing more incriminating in the course of its investigation, Democrats may be taking a risk by embracing the allegations.

Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi, a frequent critic of Trump and the GOP, warned in a recent column that the story is “a minefield” for Democrats and the media.

“It could also be true that both the Democratic Party and many leading media outlets are making a dangerous gamble, betting their professional and political capital on the promise of future disclosures that may not come,” he wrote.

The blowback from MSNBC host Rachel Maddow’s underwhelming reveal of two pages of Trump’s 2005 tax return last week would pale in comparison if months or years of digging into Trump and Russia eventually turn up nothing substantial.

“This could possibly backfire and boomerang on them,” O’Connell said.

He pointed to recent comments by former Obama administration intelligence officials indicating there is no hard evidence yet of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian hackers.

“All you have to do is listen to [former CIA Acting Director] Mike Morrell and [former Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper, who basically were like, guys come on, going down this rabbit hole is a bad idea,” he said.

Republicans raised questions Monday about the Clinton campaign’s ties to Russia. Among other things, campaign chairman John Podesta’s brother has done lucrative lobbying work for Russian banks.

“These guys are playing it like it’s a 1950s red scare,” O’Connell said of Democrats, but their side may be more vulnerable to insinuations of corruption than they realize.

Berkovitz sees less danger for Democrats in the current political environment.

“There’s no risk to the Democrats because we are in an age of hyperbole where Trump tweets out pretty much anything and… the cast of characters on the Democratic side drop allegation after allegation,” he said. “We are in a post-fact-checking era and that really works for both sides.”

Democrats and Republicans are playing to their bases here and passionate supporters may not care if they fail to definitively prove whatever they are claiming.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a big exploding cigar for either side,” Berkovitz said.

Varoga suggested Republican concern trolling about Democrats taking their allegations too far is a distraction from the thorough investigation both sides should be demanding.

“This talk of backlash is just more political spin, designed to change the topic,” he said, “when what we really need is a burst of patriotism, in which everyone puts aside political calculations and just does what is right for the country, which is to let the unvarnished truth come out.”

According to Varoga, Republican attempts to change the subject to leaks prove they have no interest in getting to the bottom of what happened.

“It is pathetic that some congressional Republicans are playing games and trying to cover up the fundamental threat to America posed by Russian interference in our elections,” he said.

Republicans may be able to eke out a political advantage, especially if the FBI investigation wraps up soon without conclusive evidence against the president.

“This could ultimately wind up benefiting Trump, particularly if he’s given a clean bill of health… Then he can make the case that all the Democrats are interested in is obstruction,” O’Connell said.

Recent polls have indicated most voters want an investigation of Russian interference in the election, so Republicans are wise to give them one and to hold hearings in public. Drawing attention to the leaks instead of the information that was leaked can be effective as long as real proof of criminality does not emerge.

“Since so far, for five months, true evidence has not been presented, both sides can keep going on their merry way,” Berkovitz said.

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