House Dems try to make their case on collusion [UPDATED]

This morning, I watched the first three-plus hours of the House Intelligence Committee’s hearing on Russian election interference. FBI director James Comey and NSA director Adm. Mike Rogers testified.

Neither said much of substance, though Comey confirmed that the FBI is investigating allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. In not answering questions, the two witnesses cited reasons such as protecting classified information and, in Comey’s case, the existence of the FBI investigation.

Even so, the hearing was worthwhile for me because it provided an opportunity to hear the Democrats explain why they suspect, or purport to suspect, the Trump campaign of colluding with the Russians. Ranking Member Adam Schiff set forth that case in his 15 minute opening statement. Rep. Jim Himes added a few points later on.

I now have a better understanding of what former acting CIA director Mike Morell means by “the smoke” regarding “the question of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians.” Morell made it clear that he sees “no fire, at all,” not even “a spark.”

To support an inference of collusion, the Democrats need to show that Russia received (or was promised) something by the Trump campaign in exchange for interfering with the election. Otherwise, one should conclude that the Russians hacked Democratic emails solely for their own purposes without any prompting, promises, or cooperation from Team Trump. Both Comey and Rogers discussed what some of those purposes were.

Rep. Schiff pointed to two benefits he says Trump has bestowed on Russia: (1) the softening of a plank on Ukraine at the GOP convention and (2) Trump’s call on NATO members to meet their monetary commitments.

Citing the second “benefit” shows how desperate the Democrats are. It is perfectly reasonable for a U.S. president to insist that NATO members live up to their financial commitment — in other words, not to take advantage of the U.S.

Trump consistently calls out countries and individuals he feels are taking advantage of us in various contexts. It’s a unifying theme of his candidacy/presidency. Thus, one cannot reasonably infer that when he calls out NATO members for not paying their share, he is repaying a debt to Russia.

Moreover, as John has pointed out, key NATO nations seem ready to comply. NATO will be stronger, not weaker, when its members step up and meet their commitments.

Regarding the Ukraine plank, Rep. Schiff takes it as a given that the GOP plank on Ukraine was softened. Byron York of the Examiner disputes this. He says the final plank was actually tougher than the original.

What Rep. Schiff may have been referring to was the rejection of an amendment to the original plank that, according to Byron, would have made it stronger, mainly by calling for the provision of “lethal defensive weapons” for Ukraine. Team Trump didn’t want this in the platform and it didn’t get in.

However, it wasn’t in the original version either; nor, to my knowledge, was it in the Democratic platform. No inference of collusion with Russia should arise from the exclusion of this provision.

I haven’t seen the original plank, which Byron says has never been released to the public. However, if Byron is correct, and I have always found him to be reliable, then the key “fact” in support of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is “fake news.”

But let’s assume that the GOP plank was softened or, alternatively, that Team Trump caused certain tough language in an amendment to be nixed. What could reasonably be inferred from this?

It may well be that, for entirely good faith reasons, Team Trump’s view of Ukraine was softer than that expressed in the original plank or in the amendment. This would be an entirely innocent explanation.

Alternatively, it may be that, due to their past connections with Russia and with pro-Russian elements in Ukraine, key members of the Trump team hold a more pro-Russia view of Ukraine than the Republican authors of the tough plank or the author of the amendment. This might be seen as a less innocent explanation than the one described above, but it doesn’t imply collusion. If the Trump team members involved have always held the view expressed in the GOP platform (or a more pro-Russian view), then no inference of election-related collusion could arise from opposing a different version of the platform.

Questions asked by some Democratic members this morning seemed to bolster the view that certain key members of the Trump team have long been more sympathetic to the Russian position on Ukraine than many in the GOP are. Paul Manafort was singled out by Democrats in this regard. The names of Carter Page and Roger Stone (who had left the campaign by the time of the GOP convention, but may still have had Trump’s ear) also came up.

As explained above, by alleging long-time connections between these individuals and Russians and/or pro-Russia elements in Ukraine, the Democrats actually undercut any claim that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in exchange for a softer Ukraine plank. Their motive for softening that plank, if it was softened, would pre-date Trump’s candidacy.

Rep. Schiff also emphasized that Roger Stone predicted the release of John Podesta’s emails before it happened. This suggests that Stone was in touch with WikiLeaks. It doesn’t show that he was in touch with Russian agents. Stone said last year he had a back-channel to Julian Assange at WikiLeaks. He also admits he corresponded with “Guccifer 2.0” who he says “may or may not be a Russian asset,” after the WikiLeaks were published.

I think it’s also worth noting that if Stone were collaborating with the Russians, it’s unlikely that he would publicly predict what the Russians, as opposed to WikiLeaks, were going to do next.

The same can be said for Carter Page’s speech in Russia in the summer of 2016. Rep. Schiff pointed to that speech, which he described as pro-Russia. It seems unlikely that if Page were a party to a deal in which Russia was to interfere in the election in exchange for future favors, he would deliver a pro-Russia speech. More likely, he would say nothing to create suspicion of such a deal. But who knows for sure?

Anyway, the Democrats laid out their case today. It seems weak, especially if the Ukraine plank wasn’t softened. Perhaps, there’s enough to justify investigating. I would be interested in what Carter Page and Roger Stone have to say, for example.

Investigations are proceeding on two fronts — in Congress and at the FBI. This seems to be sufficient, if not overkill. There is no need for a select committee or a “special prosecutor.”

UPDATE: I have modified this past to reflect Byron York’s reporting that the Ukraine plank was not softened at the GOP convention.