When the Democrats were clobbered in the 2016 election, they were handed both a political gift and a grave responsibility. That presidential campaign had included the most significant scandal in the history of the United States. A foreign adversary had covertly interfered to boost the chances of the underdog candidate who won—and that candidate had encouraged this attack; his campaign had secretly signaled to the adversary that it did not mind the intervention; and the candidate and his top aides had repeatedly denied in public that the assault was real, in essence providing cover for the foreign foe seeking to subvert American democracy. This was treachery and betrayal—the stuff that political parties can justifiably exploit, and wrongdoing that legislators have a duty to expose to safeguard the nation. Yet the Democrats have failed to shape a clear narrative regarding the Trump-Russia scandal, and that failure has landed them in the current mess marked by the party’s fierce internal debate over impeachment and its reaction to the latest Donald Trump scandal: his alleged attempt to muscle the Ukrainian president to produce dirt on Joe Biden.
After Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump, shellshocked Democrats did nothing at first to highlight the critical fact that the election had been undermined by Vladimir Putin’s information warfare—a plot aided and abetted by Trump and his campaign’s brazenly false denials. (The Russian intervention indeed had an effect: In the last month of the race, the near-daily dumping by WikiLeaks of Clinton campaign emails stolen by Russian hackers shaped the all-important media coverage of the contest.) Trump and the celebrating Republicans were not going to address this matter. It was up to the Democrats to raise a fuss. But they didn’t. It took weeks for President Barack Obama and the White House to impose sanctions on the Russians. And the leaders of the Capitol Hill Democrats said little about the Russian attack. Shortly after the election, I asked Nancy Pelosi, then the House minority leader, if she intended to push for an investigation. She responded as if the thought had not yet crossed her mind but said it would be a good idea. And it was only in response to questions I submitted to Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office that Schumer, the top Democrat in the upper body of Congress, issued a statement noting that he would support an investigation. Neither was leading a charge at this point—and that means they were not telling the story of Trump’s perfidy when those details and actions were fresh.
Not until two months after the campaign’s finish—following the intelligence community’s release of a report in early January 2017 confirming that Russia had attacked the election in part to benefit Trump, and the publication by BuzzFeed News of the so-called Steele dossier—did the Democrats make a concerted effort to force the Republicans then controlling both houses of Congress to launch investigations. Yet at this stage, the controversy was dominated by the salacious allegations of the Steele memos (blackmail! the pee tape!), not Trump’s treasonous conduct during the campaign. And that provided Trump and his cultists an opening to characterize the Russia scandal as a hoax based on unfounded wild allegations and dismiss the whole thing.
Congressional inquiries were initiated, but the GOPers in charge turned these probes into a circus (in the House) and a stall job (in the Senate). Democrats did voice outrage when Trump engaged in misconduct and spewed lies related to the Russia inquiries. They howled when he fired FBI chief James Comey. They howled when Trump publicly accepted Putin’s denials over the conclusions of the US intelligence community. Yet they did not consistently press the fundamental point: Trump had betrayed the nation during an election influenced by Russia’s clandestine attack. Perhaps fearful of being branded sore losers, they did not advance the theme that Trump’s presidency was tainted and, to some degree, less than fully legitimate.
Admittedly, advancing any theme in a political environment dominated by Trump’s chaos, demagoguery, and lies is a tough task. But there never seemed to be a concerted Democratic effort to cast a big picture of the Trump-Russia scandal and to stick with it. In his never-ending battles with House Republicans, Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, did attempt to keep the scandal alive, but he often seemed an outlier within his party leadership. On the other side of Capitol Hill, Sen. Mark Warner, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, mostly played nice with his fellow Republicans, as that investigation dragged along. And in the months before the midterm elections, according to one prominent House Democrat, Democrats were told that causing a stink about the Trump-Russia scandal was not likely to help Democratic candidates. The issue was kicked to the curb. Perhaps this was the right move, for the Democrats crushed the Republicans and took back the House. But discussion of Trump’s 2016 treachery receded. And the Democrats did not go ballistic when it was revealed that during the 2016 race, Trump, who was then claiming he had nothing to do with Russia, had been secretly pursuing a tower deal in Moscow that could reap him hundreds of millions and that his firm had contacted Putin’s office for help on the project. Of course, Trump continued to deny the scandal was a scandal, calling it “fake news” and denouncing journalists who broke stories on this front as enemies of the people. There was no strong, unified Democratic response to Trump’s disinformation.
The Democrats took the eggs they had and placed them in a basket held by Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed after Trump fired Comey. They waited and waited for the former FBI chief to indict Trump or release a report that would be so searing that it would spark a political uprising across the land and scare the bejeezus out of the Republicans who stood with Trump regardless of his misdeeds. They essentially contracted out the job of holding Trump accountable for the original sin of his presidency: collaborating with the Russian attack on the United States. (Schiff’s promise to revive the House Intelligence Committee’s Trump-Russia investigation and run a robust probe has not yet been fully met.)
When Mueller in March submitted his final report—a damning document that confirmed the Russian attack, that noted that Trump lied about the assault even as he tried to benefit from it, that detailed Trump’s scheme to make a bundle in Russia (with the help of Putin’s office) while running for president, and that chronicled many alleged obstructions of justice committed by Trump—the Democrats were initially outmaneuvered by the Trump administration, with US Attorney General William Barr prior to its release falsely characterizing the report as concluding there was no obstruction or collusion. Yet once the report became public, the Democrats committed their own blunders. They seized on the obstruction issue and concentrated their attention on Barr’s efforts to undermine the report, engaging in a pissing match with the attorney general about the redactions in the report and whether he could be questioned by a committee lawyer, rather than members of Congress, when testifying before the House Judiciary Committee.
All of this was important—but not as important as Trump’s assistance to Russia when it was attacking the United States. The public and voters were less likely to care about Trump obstructing an investigation if they did not fervently care about the topic of that investigation: the Trump-Russia scandal. The back-and-forth with Barr and even the fixation on obstruction distracted attention from the fundamentals of the scandal. And Mueller’s dry and underwhelming appearance before the House Judiciary Committee in July was no gamechanger. The Democrats miscalculated by scheduling Mueller to testify first for hours on obstruction before he would on the same day appear before the House Intelligence Committee to discuss the first volume of the report that honed in on the Russian attack and the Trump campaign. At the start of that second session, Schiff offered a kickass introduction that captured the essence of the scandal:
Your report tells another story as well. For the story of the 2016 presidential election is also a story about disloyalty to country, about greed, and about lies. Your investigation determined that the Trump campaign—including Trump himself—knew that a foreign power was intervening in our election and welcomed it, built Russian meddling into their strategy, and used it. Disloyalty to country. Those are strong words, but how else are we to describe a presidential campaign which did not inform the authorities of a foreign offer of dirt on their opponent, which did not publicly shun it, or turn it away, but which instead invited it, encouraged it, and made full use of it?
Disloyalty to country. This was the sort of powerful, visceral, and to-the-point framing that too often has been absent from how Democrats have discussed the Mueller report and the Trump-Russia scandal. Yet it came midway through a long day—and after the news cycle had established Mueller’s testimony on obstruction as the topic du jour. The media coverage did not zero in on Trump’s disloyalty because the Democrats had made obstruction the main item of contention.
It might indeed be hard for some politicians to call a sitting president “disloyal” and argue he has betrayed the nation (though Fox News, some Republican officials, and assorted conservative commentators did not find this a problem during the Obama years). It sounds extreme. But that’s the reality, and if Democrats can’t aim straight at this, fixating on obstruction is not an effective substitute. As significant as that angle is—a president should not be obstructing justice—it relies upon process arguments and legal interpretations that can be debated (yes, in bad faith) ad infinitum. Voters looking on might consider this just another messy Washington dustup.
Which brings us to the present moment. Democrats have been tying themselves in knots over impeachment, with Pelosi and other Democratic leaders apparently at odds with most of the House Democratic caucus and Twitterers demanding impeachment of Trump. (Pelosi has feared that she does not have 218 Democratic votes for impeachment, with a handful of Dems from districts that Trump won not willing to vote to toss him out of the White House. That might be shifting. But the two last things Pelosi wants is to lose an impeachment vote and then lose the House majority if voters in these Trumpy districts turn against their Democratic representatives.) Though it may be too late for told-you-so’s, another path might have placed the Democrats in a less difficult spot (emphasis on might).
The Democrats never made a robust effort to convey the full tale of Trump and the 2016 election. Sure, they took stabs at it. But it rarely seemed to be a priority. During the Democratic presidential debate, none of the leading candidates have broached this topic in a significant manner. And when the Democrats moved into the majority in the House at the start of this year, they did not figure out how to hold high-profile and effective hearings on Trump’s various corruptions—including the Trump-Russia scandal—to create a fierce narrative about his campaign and White House skulduggery. Had they done so, there would be a well-established context for the new Ukraine scandal. A fellow who welcomes a foreign government’s attack on the United States is just the sort who would abuse his power to pressure another government to supply him opposition research on a political foe. This is all crooked and nefarious conduct and some of it could be illegal.
In the months they have controlled the House, Democrats have intermittently taken swings at individual Trump scandals (obstruction, tax returns, Deutsche Bank, Jared Kushner’s security clearance, emoluments, and more), but they have gotten bogged down in the intramural impeachment argument and in details and sideshows (such as tussling with Barr). They have not clearly cast the spotlights they now possess on Trump’s major acts of malfeasance. Moreover, they have not knitted together and presented to the public a full, compelling, and coherent account of Trump’s iniquities—which could have set the table for impeachment proceedings. Instead, the question of impeachment has come to overshadow any oversight effort designed to explain and highlight Trump’s wide-ranging corruption, which, in a way, began with Russia and Trump’s corrupt election victory.
In 2016, Trump made common cause with an enemy engaged in political warfare against the United States—and he has largely gotten away with this and has subsequently put the nation at risk. True, Trump and his Republican handmaids and media confederates have vigorously mounted a vast and never-ending disinformation campaign to bury this truth with distractions, innuendos, counterattacks, and falsehoods. Still, the Democrats overall have not endeavored to make this fundamental element of the Trump presidency a central feature of the ongoing battle. That is both political malpractice and neglect of constitutional duties.