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Republican congressmen are probably covering up for Trump in part because they’re implicated

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WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 07: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) (3rd L) shares a laugh with Republican members of Congress after signing legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and to cut off federal funding of Planned Parenthood during an enrollment ceremony in the Rayburn Room at the U.S. Capitol January 7, 2016 in Washington, DC. President Barack Obama has promised to veto the bill. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) *** BESTPIX ***

Michelle Goldberg — currently the most valuable pundit at an elite American news publication — reminds us of this classic moment of kidding on the square:

But that doesn’t explain why, for example, Speaker Paul Ryan, a Russia hawk who is retiring in January, allowed his party to torpedo the House Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian interference in the election. Ryan, after all, knows full well who and what Donald Trump is. In a secretly recorded June 2016 conversation about Ukraine, obtained by The Washington Post, the House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, said, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.” Far from disagreeing, Ryan said, “What’s said in the family stays in the family.” If he were patriotic — or even if he just wanted to set himself up for a comeback should Trump implode — he would have stood up for the rule of law in the Russia inquiry. It’s hard to see what he got in return for choosing not to.

But even though Ryan is 1)retiring, 2)doesn’t seem to be seriously pursuing any kind of legislative agenda as his clock runs out, and 3)isn’t in charge of the branch that confirms judicial nominees, he’s still doing nothing. Which makes more sense now than it ever has:

This week, however, a new possibility came into focus. Perhaps, rather than covering for Trump, some Republicans are covering for themselves.

Last Friday, Robert Mueller, the special counsel, indicted 12 members of Russian military intelligence for their interference in the 2016 election. The indictment claims that in August 2016, Guccifer 2.0, a fictitious online persona adopted by the Russian hackers, “received a request for stolen documents from a candidate for the U.S. Congress.” The Russian conspirators obliged, sending “the candidate stolen documents related to the candidate’s opponent.” Congress has, so far, done nothing discernible to find out who this candidate might be.

Then, on Monday, we learned of the arrest of Maria Butina, who is accused of being a Russian agent who infiltrated the National Rifle Association, the most important outside organization in the Republican firmament. Legal filings in the case outline a plan to use the N.R.A. to push the Republican Party in a more pro-Russian direction.

Butina, 29, appears to have worked for Alexander Torshin, a Russian politician linked to organized crime who is the target of U.S. sanctions. She developed a romantic relationship with Paul Erickson, a conservative operative close to the N.R.A. (Court filings cite evidence it was insincere on her part.) Erickson, in turn, wrote to a Trump adviser in May 2016 about using the N.R.A. to set up a back channel to the Kremlin.

The young Russian woman clearly understood the political significance of the N.R.A. In one email, court papers say, she described the central “place and influence” of the N.R.A. in the Republican Party. Through her pro-gun activism, she became a fixture of the conservative movement and was photographed with influential Republican politicians. A Justice Department filing quotes Torshin as comparing her to another young, famous Russian agent: “You have upstaged Anna Chapman. She poses with toy pistols, while you are being published with real ones.”

If the N.R.A. as an organization turns out to be compromised, it would shake conservative politics to its foundation. And this is no longer a far-fetched possibility. “I serve on both the Intelligence Committee and the Finance Committee,” Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, told me. “So I have a chance to really look at this through the periscope of both committees. And what I have wondered about for some time is this whole issue of whether the N.R.A. is getting subverted as a Russian asset.”

If the N.R.A. is not merely fanatically committed to horrible policy but a collaborator with Russian ratfucking, the Republican Party is fully implicated. Which indeed explains a lot.

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the 2018 midterms.

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