As predicted, today North Carolina Senator Richard Burr resigned his chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee after being served a warrant by the FBI. Burr is being investigated for what appeared to be insider trading in stocks after receiving a classified briefing on the dangers of the novel coronavirus.
But Burr was also the chair of a bipartisan committee that had endorsed the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, concluding that Russians did, in fact, attack America in 2016. The committee went beyond Mueller’s conclusions to suggest that members of the Trump campaign had welcomed that intervention. The committee is due to issue its final report soon. Now, with Burr out of the chairmanship, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will appoint a successor. It seems likely that the new chair will change the forthcoming report to support Trump’s new narrative that the Russian investigation was illegitimate rather than to accept the findings of the intelligence community and Robert Mueller’s team.
The attempt of Trump’s party to reinforce the president’s new narrative that somehow the Obama administration attacked his presidency showed today in another way, too. Under pressure from Trump, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) announced that the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, which he chairs, would begin hearings in June on the origins of the Russia investigation. Although the Justice Department’s own inspector general has agreed that the investigation was legitimate, Trump continues to insist that it was not, and lately he has had the support of Attorney General William Barr in that assertion. The Senate investigation will begin with the case of Michael Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty to lying to federal officials but whose case the Justice Department is now seeking to abandon on the ground the investigation itself was illegitimate.
While Graham agreed to call senior officials to testify, he has drawn the line at demanding that former President Barack Obama appear. Trump tweeted today: “If I were a Senator or Congressman, the first person I would call to testify about the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA, by FAR, is former President Obama. He knew EVERYTHING. Do it [Lindsey Graham], just do it. No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more talk!” To this, Graham responded that he would not do so. “[H]auling a former president before an oversight committee, I don’t think that’s been done before. And presidentially, I’d be careful what I wish for,” he said.
There is, of course, a larger story behind this rush to create a dread conspiracy. The manufactured investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails consumed the 2016 election season until even now many Americans believe she broke laws, although last October the State Department’s final report on the issue concluded Clinton engaged in no wrongdoing. Then, of course, Trump tried to strong arm Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky into making a public announcement that his government was investigating Joe Biden’s son Hunter as well as searching for proof that Ukraine, rather than Russia, attacking us in 2016. The Trump campaign is well aware of the power of investigations to sway public opinion.
So, as economist and political advisor Robert Reich put it on Twitter: “How to run for re-election with 85,000 dead in 10 weeks because you denied the problem, and 36 million jobless in 8 weeks because you did squat? Invent a conspiracy against yourself.”
But will this conspiracy theory stick with voters?
Two people today, one a journalist and one a classics professor, independently noted to me that Trump’s recent attack on Obama completes a classic story arc. Trump’s political career began with conspiracy-theory attacks on Obama. Trump’s “birtherism” theory was that Obama was born not in America but in Africa, and thus was ineligible to be president. After four years of promises to his base that have ended up in chaos, now characterized by death and unemployment, Trump has returned to where he began, with a conspiracy-theory attack on Obama. In literature, that narrative arc—the return to the beginning—means the story is nearing its end.
Indeed, it’s a little hard to believe that any but Trump’s staunchest supporters will look around at where we are right now and conclude that the problem is what Obama did four years ago, rather than what Donald Trump is doing now.