The Dueling Narratives on Trump and Russia

While Democrats express alarm over Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin, Republicans see partisan conspiracy theorizing.

Senator Mark Warner (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

It’s nearly two years into President Donald Trump’s first term in office, and almost as long for federal investigations into his campaign’s connections to Russia. After two bombshell news reports Friday and Saturday, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle took to the airwaves Sunday morning and talked at length about those probes. Their reactions highlight the divergent—and perhaps irreconcilable—narratives that America’s left and right believe about the Trump-Russia saga.

On Friday evening, The New York Times reported that after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, the FBI began to investigate whether Trump was working for Russia. On Saturday, The Washington Post revealed that Trump has concealed details of his face-to-face meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin even from his own administration, going so far as to take his interpreter’s notes. Democrats saw the stories as more cause for concern about Trump’s relationship with Russia, while Republicans largely defended the president and derided the left’s interest in the issue as a partisan obsession that has seeped into law-enforcement institutions.

Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a leader of its bipartisan investigation that runs parallel to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, condemned Trump for the secrecy surrounding his conversations with Putin, saying that he “broke all protocol” in limiting aides and confiscating notes.

“The American government does not know what was discussed between Trump and Vladimir Putin in that, frankly, pathetic, embarrassing encounter where Trump was kowtowing on the world stage to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki,” the Virginian said on CNN’s State of the Union. When the host, Jake Tapper, asked whether he thought Trump had worked for Russia against American interests, Warner replied, “That’s the defining question of our investigation and the Mueller investigation.”

The No. 2 Senate Democrat highlighted the allegations from the Post’s report on Trump’s private conversations.

“Why is he so chummy with Vladimir Putin?” Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois asked on ABC’s This Week. “This man who is a former KGB agent, never been a friend to the United States, invaded our allies, threatens us around the world, and tries his damnedest to undermine our elections, why is this President Trump’s best buddy? I don’t get it. And when he takes the interpreter’s notes and wants to destroy them so no one can see what was said [in a] written transcript, it raises serious questions about the relationship between this president and Putin.”

Senator Chris Coons, a centrist Democrat from Delaware who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the Times story “a concerning, even alarming report” that underlined the importance of letting Mueller complete his investigation.

“There’s been a confusing and at times even alarming tendency on the part of President Trump to compliment President Putin and to do things like his abrupt announcement of a withdrawal from Syria that led his own secretary of defense to resign, that has led many of us to question his closeness to and his affinity for President Putin,” Coons added in his Fox News Sunday interview.

The Democrats’ 2016 vice-presidential nominee, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, repeated the standard line for establishment Democrats by downplaying talk of impeachment and emphasizing the need to protect the special counsel’s probe. Kaine portrayed the reported FBI counterintelligence investigation of Trump as evidence of the president’s questionable conduct.

“They had to have a very deep level of concern about this president to take this step,” Kaine said of FBI leaders in the wake of Comey’s firing.

But to congressional Republicans, the reported counterintelligence probe didn’t show evidence of concern about Trump, but rather a conspiracy against him.

“It tells me a lot about the people running the FBI, McCabe and that crowd. I don’t trust them as far as I throw them,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who’s shifted from bitter critic to close ally. He was referring to Andrew McCabe, the bureau’s former acting director, whom then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired last year after McCabe’s misleading statements about a leak to reporters.

“If this really did happen, Congress needs to know about it,” Graham added in his Fox interview. “How could the FBI do that? What kind of checks and balances are there?” Graham also questioned the motives of the unnamed “former law-enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation” who were sources for the Times report. And, he added, “I, for one, don’t trust what I read in The New York Times.”

“We have seen all kinds of corruption within the FBI,” said Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who also named McCabe. Despite “an awful lot of innuendo from Senator Warner,” Johnson said, “I have not seen any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. I have seen evidence of collusion between Democrats and Russia, with the Steele dossier.” However, while Democrats did pay for the opposition-research dossier to which Johnson referred, there is no evidence that they got Russia’s help on the document. The Post’s fact-checker has debunked the claim that Hillary Clinton or other Democrats colluded with Russians.

Johnson gave a possible rationale for Trump’s decision to keep his conversations with Putin secret: “I do know that President Trump was burned earlier by leaks of other private conversations, so I can certainly understand his frustration from that standpoint.” The senator may have been referring to disclosures about Trump’s May 2017 Oval Office meeting with the Russian ambassador, during which he reportedly called Comey a “nut job” and revealed highly classified details about a terrorist plot, possibly compromising the intelligence-gathering methods of Israel, a close ally. (Russia has a close relationship with Iran, whose Islamist regime calls for Israel’s destruction.) The details were so sensitive that they were flagged in notes about the discussion, notes that likely contributed to the embarrassing leak about Trump’s indiscretion.

The House Republican leader suggested another potential explanation for the president’s secrecy.

“I know what the president likes to do,” Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “He likes to create a personal relationship, build that relationship, even rebuild that relationship, like he does with other world leaders,” perhaps referring to the surprising diplomacy with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. McCarthy suggested that Trump wasn’t really being secretive, since in a Fox News interview Saturday night, the president said, “I’m not keeping anything under wraps. I couldn’t care less.” (There was no follow-up question from the Fox personality Jeanine Pirro, who listened to the president brag about his 2016 Electoral College victory before telling him, “You’ve got such fight in you, it is unbelievable.”)

McCarthy, Johnson, and other Republicans also argued that voters should consider the Trump administration’s actions on Russia, from sanctions over election meddling to Russia’s transnational natural-gas pipeline to lethal weapons for Ukrainians fighting Russian-backed forces. Johnson also said Trump’s slowdown of his own abrupt Syria withdrawal showed his toughness toward Russia. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas echoed Trump’s assertion that his administration has shown more toughness than former President Barack Obama’s, pointing to Obama’s infamous 2012 hot-mic mishap, in which he was recorded telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” after his reelection. The Post last year described Trump as a “reluctant hawk” on Russia, pushed by his advisers and Cabinet members. While experts and fact-checkers have concurred that the Trump administration has some tough policies, Warner argued that “almost all of these sanctions did not arise from the White House—they arose because of huge, bipartisan concern from Congress.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the Times report without refuting its substance. “The notion that President Trump is a threat to American national security is absolutely ludicrous,” he said on CBS. “The idea that’s contained in the New York Times story, that President Trump was a threat to American national security, is silly on its face and not worthy of a response.”

Cruz, another former Trump critic, who called in the president for a boost during his surprisingly tight 2018 reelection campaign, was the only Republican who said he was interested in the details of Trump’s secrecy in discussions with Putin.

“I’ve seen the allegations,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I want to find out more about what happened there.” But the Texan went on to downplay the Trump-Russia saga.

“There is an incredible divide between Washington and the rest of the country when it comes to Bob Mueller and the Russia investigation,” Cruz said. “The mainstream media, Washington is obsessed with it. And when you get outside the Beltway, I don’t find anybody concerned with this at all.”