The foremost strategic goal of last year’s Russian meddling in US elections, former director of national intelligence James Clapper said at his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, was to sow discord and distrust among Americans.
Unfortunately, that effort worked beyond the Kremlin’s greatest hopes. And to judge by the hearing, it’s still working: Senate Republicans, especially the tedious Texas Republican Ted Cruz, continue to approach the investigation in a partisan spirit, ensuring that the chain of events the Russians began continues to yield dividends in division.
By failing to take Monday’s hearing seriously — Cruz instead went off on a tangent related to Hillary Clinton’s e-mails — too many GOP senators are shying away from doing their jobs. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa senator, was more interested in obfuscating the issue of Russian meddling by instead harping on press leaks. Other senators wanted to relitigate the unrelated issue of President Trump’s travel ban. Bringing up those sideshow issues not only distracts from the real problems, but deepens the divisions Russia sought to exploit in the first place.
Clapper expressed just a hint of exasperation midway through the hearing at questions that seemed more aimed at making political points than getting to the truth about a national security threat. “The transcendent issue here is the Russian interference in our election process,” he said.
Hopefully, as the inquiries unfold, more Republicans will follow the example of Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, whose thoughtful questions to Clapper and the other witness, former acting attorney general Sally Yates, put his GOP colleagues to shame. After all, as Clapper said during the hearings, Republicans are sure to become targets of Russian interference eventually.
Yates was the main attraction in the lead-up to the hearing, but in the end, she and Clapper told the committee little that wasn’t already public information (though her smackdown of Cruz made great television). She testified that she had informed the White House that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had lied, a notification she gave 18 days before he was fired. Although she was cagey about providing details of classified matters, it’s clear that Flynn had lied about his conversation with the Russian ambassador to the United States, whose phone the US intelligence community had under surveillance.
Flynn’s lying — and the Trump administration’s slow and deceptive response to it — form an important part of the Russian interference story. But only a part. The public needs a Congress willing to put aside partisan point-scoring to get to the bottom of the whole saga of Russian interference, including any possible collusion with the Trump campaign. Monday’s hearing didn’t provide much new information, but it showed Americans — and the rest of the world — that many US political leaders are all too happy to do the Kremlin’s work by continuing the partisan sniping instead.