Those afternoon soap operas usually have no appeal to us, but we found ourselves fascinated on Monday with the oh-so-slowly developing plot on that one about the Russians meddling in America’s most recent presidential election. On the latest episode they had a congressional hearing, with a former acting attorney general and a former director of national intelligence testifying, which might sound rather dry, but if you’ve been following the story closely there were a couple of subtle twists.
The stars of the episode were Sally Yates, a career Department of Justice lawyer who had risen through the ranks over 25 years and briefly filled in at the AG spot after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and James Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who had served in a variety of high-level intelligence posts in all the administrations from President George H.W. Bush to President Barack Obama, which might also sound rather dry. Neither delivered the knockout blow that the Democratic characters asking the questions were clearly hoping for, but they shared some information that was pretty darned embarrassing to Trump, fared well against the more hostile questions asked by the Republican characters, and tantalizingly refused to divulge the still-classified answers to all the questions that every up-to-date viewer was asking.
Surprising no one, Yates testified she had warned the Trump administration that its pick for National Security Advisor, retired Air Force Gen. Michael Flynn, had been giving false information about his contacts with Russian officials to Vice President Mike Pence, who was then passing the same false information along to the public. Flynn offered his resignation after a mere 24 days on the job, which was quickly and gratefully accepted, but that was nearly two weeks after Yates gave them the heads-up that he was susceptible to Russian blackmail, and nothing about that story makes Trump look good. Since then it had been revealed that Flynn is also being investigated for illegal business dealings with foreign governments, both the Democratic and Republican ranking members on yet another committee have concluded Flynn probably broke the law, and however it turns out it won’t make Trump look any better.
Trump has “tweeted” in response that “General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama administration — but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that,” all of which is true enough, but Flynn was also fired by the Obama administration, and it’s been widely reported that Obama personally warned Trump not to hire the guy. The White House press secretary acknowledged the accuracy of those reports, saying that Trump dismissed the suggestion, figuring Obama was merely sore about Flynn’s post-firing criticisms of the administration, which might have been at least partly true, and probably made Trump all the more eager to hire him, but that still doesn’t make Trump look good.
Yates was fired as acting attorney general after she refused to order her staff to defend Trump’s proposed ban on travel from certain Muslim countries, and although that had nothing to do with l’affaire Flynn all the Republican characters wanted to ask about that. As far as we’re concerned the travel ban was legally defensible, although she made a very lawyerly case to contrary that the courts so far seem to agree with, and in any case Trump was clearly within his rights to fire her for insubordination, which Yates frankly acknowledged, but we expect that only those viewers already rooting for the Republican side found her less credible because of it.
Trump had sent out a preemptive “tweet” to “Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Council.” The “W.H. Council” was apparently a reference to the White House counsel, and of course the Republican characters did ask if she had been an anonymous source for any of the news stories. She quickly replied “Absolutely not,” and if she was lying under oath she was remarkably confident about it. We expect that to most viewers she came off as poised, professional, and highly competent. For a 25-year veteran of the Justice Department she’s rather attractive, too, in a poised and professional sort of way, with a soft southern accent that doesn’t sound at all crazy liberal, and that seems to matter on these afternoon soap operas and ongoing reality shows.
Both she and the far less telegenic Clapper, who was there for some reason we never quite discerned, were also very poised and professional and competent-sounding as they dodged all the questions by explaining that an answer would require revealing classified information. That’s the juicy part, so the rote testimony was something of a teaser.
Flynn’s just a subplot is a far bigger story about how the Russians meddled in various ways with the past election, apparently working against Trump’s Democratic opponent, which by now all the intelligence agencies and Trump’s own intelligence agency picks and even Trump himself don’t deny, and all the investigations concern whether any of Trump’s people or perhaps even Trump himself had anything to do with it. That’s the most embarrassing thing about Flynn, and when you throw in the campaign chairman that Trump had to fire over possibly illegal dealings with the Russians and the current full-blow Attorney General who’s had to recuse himself from the ongoing because of his own unacknowledged contacts with Russians, and Trump’s past excuse-making for the Russian regime, the story seems likely to drag on.
The Republican characters were clearly annoyed by the continuing series, and asked a lot of questions about how all this embarrassing information has been getting out. Flynn and that campaign chairman and a former campaign foreign policy were all overheard by the intelligence agencies with they spoke with Russian operatives that were being tapped, and according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper a number of allied intelligences were also listening in and sending warnings back to the states, but American citizens who wind up thus being tapped are supposed to be kept anonymous, except in certain circumstances. There’s some argument about whether the “unmasking” of Trump’s associates met those certain circumstances, and how they wound up in the press surely involved a crime by someone or another, but so far none of the leaks have been denied, and they’re all pretty embarrassing and might add up to a far bigger crime.
The Republican characters were eager to know if Yates was aware of any information that would suggest any collusion between the Russian meddlers and the Trump campaign, and by now that’s surely what most viewers are asking, but the anti-climactic response was that an answer would require divulging classified information. Sounding very poised, professional, competent and downright non-partisan, Yates stressed that no one on the committee or anywhere else should make any assumptions, one way or the other, based on that non-answer, but the Democratic characters were clearly more pleased than the Republican.
We’ll keep following this very slowly-developing story and try not to make any assumptions how it turns out, but for now it seems likely to take a long, long time.
— Bud Norman