Liberals looking for signs of fight in the Democrats heading into November may want to avoid watching this video of Virginia Senator Mark Warner appearing Wednesday at the Code Conference 2018, a big-deal tech and media conference sponsored by the tech website Recode and held in Rancho Palos Verdes, an absurdly bucolic suburb of Los Angeles.
Warner, a telecom millionaire, was among his people. His two questioners got right to the point, asking him about the recent Senate Intelligence Committee report on the extent of Russian hacking of the 2016 election. Then the conversation turned to the various pressures the committee faces.
I first got wind of this from a Bloomberg report Wednesday afternoon that carried the ominous and extremely unsettling headline: “Russia Probes Wouldn’t Expand If Democrats Win Congress, Warner Says.”
Uh… what? The top Senate Democrat on the Russia investigation actually said in effect that the Democrats, if they captured the Senate this November, wouldn’t even continue the probe once they took over? The write-up also quoted Warner directly as seeming to equate partisan pressures on the committee from left and right, and expressing the view that Americans “will be tired of it if this is not wound down in this calendar year.”
I reached out to Warner’s press office, to be fair and all, because sometimes news stories do take remarks out of context. I was directed to a video of the senator’s appearance, accompanied by a write-up of his session on the conference’s official web site (that’s what I linked to at the top of this column).
The context was, shall we say, other than reassuring. Since I bothered to watch the thing (the money part runs from roughly 7:15 to 8:30), I’ll give you the full quote and context, so we can be as fair as possible.
It is true that in the section of the speech where he’s discussing these matters, Warner never says in so many words that “probes wouldn’t expand.” But he did make the other remarks attributed to him. First, he said there’s “enormous pressure” on Republicans to shut the probe down. Then he said there’s “a lot of pressure” on Democrats “to call this guy out as guilty tomorrow.” Then he noted that his committee is doing a counter-intelligence investigation, and Robert Mueller is doing a criminal investigation.
Then, with no questioning or prompting, he shifted gears and said: “But I do think the notion for those who may be partisans in the crowd say, ‘Well, gosh if the Democrats take control, they’ll be able to really ramp these up’… I think the American public will be tired of it if this is not wound down in this calendar year.”
No amount of context can change the meaning of that. In fact, the conference’s in-house reporter, who once worked at CNN, knew exactly what to put in his lead paragraph: “The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee made an argument that is often pushed by conservatives: The American people would get “tired” of the Russia probe by the end of the year.”
What in the world is the leading Senate Democrat on this matter doing talking like that? For one thing, it’s terrible politics. Democrats are tying themselves in the usual knots trying to figure out how to talk about Donald Trump on the campaign trail. They seem to think it’s either “don’t mention his name” or “impeach, impeach, impeach!” They’re terrified of being branded as crazed for impeachment, so they, or some of them, overcompensate in the direction of saying nothing.
But there’s a middle ground that doesn’t seem too hard to me. Don’t use the word impeachment, so Republicans can’t even cut a cynically edited ad; but say things like, “We’re going to investigate the administration thoroughly, from Russia to the family business to the EPA and HUD to who’s really benefiting from the tax bill, and we’ll see what we turn up and move forward from there.”
That will satisfy most (not all, but most) liberals and sound completely responsible to swing voters. So Democrats can—and must—handle this question without being afraid to mention Trump’s name, or their base voters will be deeply dispirited.
But there’s an even more important reason not to say what Warner said than electoral positioning. The future of the country is now clearly at stake. With this Spygate nonsense, Trump and his abettors have made plain that there is no lie they won’t tell to keep Trump in power, and no norm or institution they won’t trash or subvert.
To promise not to investigate this president into the next calendar year because the people will be tired of it is to promise not to perform the duty of protecting the Constitution. Warner, like every senator, took an oath of office that begins: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic...” [my italics].
We can begin to see now where this is headed. Mueller will indeed, it’s my guess, work into next year, perhaps well into next year; he looks like he has lots of rocks still to turn over (will Warner criticize him for going on too long?). He will issue a report that may not call for indicting a sitting president but that could well be sweeping and devastating in all kinds of ways. If it’s illegal and this crowd didn’t do it, it’s only because they didn’t think of it or didn’t have the time.
At that point will commence a ferocious pushback campaign to destroy Mueller, his team, his findings, everything. You say that’s already started? It has, but next year it’s going to be like nothing we’ve seen so far.
That’s when Warner and his colleagues, the Republican ones especially, are going to have to take a stand in defense of the law. I think we know how much we ought to count on the Republicans. That will put all the more weight on the shoulders of the Democrats, especially the one who might be chairing the most relevant Senate committee. Protecting the Constitution takes as long as it takes, whether people “tire of it” or not.