Like a lot of people being interviewed, Ron Wyden wants to know when the story will run. Sunday, he’s told.
“Sunday?” he cries in mock disbelief. “Anything could happen by then!”
In Donald Trump’s Washington, the news cycle has no brakes.
And indeed, just as Oregon’s senior senator was expressing his alarm at the president openly telling NBC’s Lester Holt that he fired FBI director James Comey because he wanted the investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia to stop, another bombshell broke. A Comey memo of an earlier conversation with Trump described the president telling him – in the manner of a mob boss instructing a prosecutor who was on his payroll – that he hoped Comey would stop investigating the Russian ties of former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who was a “good guy.”
Trump also suggested that Comey should put some reporters in jail.
The White House denied the story, but over the past week two stories originally denied by White House staffers – about the decision to fire Comey and about Trump’s passing classified information to the Russian foreign minister – were later confirmed.
Then deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein – perhaps feeling hung out by Trump’s originally suggesting that firing Comey was Rosenstein’s idea – named a special counsel to investigate Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
Is it Sunday yet?
“The appointment of an independent special counsel is a necessary first step to figure out what happened to our democracy,” commented Wyden. “… This announcement didn’t happen by accident. It happened because the free press and the American people demanded it.”
Wyden has had a particular interest in Trump and Russian in last year’s campaign.
“We know the president urged the Russians to hack his opponent,” he pointed out, referring to Trump’s publicly encouraging the Russians to dive into Hillary Clinton’s emails. “We know he urged the Russians to attack our democracy.
“The only question is whether that was also done in private.”
To answer these questions, Wyden wants to “follow the money” – looking into any Trump financial ties with Russians, any Russian investments or money laundering, and of course the great white whale of current investigative reporting, Trump’s tax returns. To encourage openness, he pointed out, “I put a hold on a major Treasury appointment.”
By the middle of last week, Democrats and increasingly Republicans from the Senate and House intelligence and judiciary committees were all eager to hear from Comey, seeking his account of his firing, copies of his memos on his conversations with Trump – reports were that there were more than one – and maybe some thoughts on the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, the issue that started everything and got Flynn fired.“ My priority is to get Comey to testify in an open hearing,” declared Wyden, a senior member of the Senate intelligence committee. “I think it needs to be as fast as possible.”
Wyden’s office argued that the appointment of the special counsel didn’t prevent Comey from testifying before Congress, and several Republicans seemed to agree. Four congressional committees may still be interested in testimony likely to be televised.
For any other president, an erupting controversy about his firing of the FBI director, and reports that the president tried to pressure that director to kill an investigation of the president’s already fired national security advisor, would have by themselves comprised a full, rich week. Trump added an episode of giving the Russian foreign minister top secret information provided by Israel that was not to be shared – an act originally denied but later confirmed – just before departing on a presidential trip to the Middle East, accompanied by what Wyden calls “a loss of confidence by allies who definitely have questions.”
Until we hear from the special counsel, we won’t know exactly what kind of effort and financial commitment Russia made in the 2016 election. But considering the chaos immersing the White House and the widening strains between the United States and its allies, it seems a highly profitable investment.
Speaking as commander-in-chief to the graduating class of the Coast Guard Academy, Trump sent them off to battle smugglers by complaining, “No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly.” At a news conference Thursday, Trump said that appointing a special counsel was “a witch hunt,” and cited Rosenstein’s memo proposing Comey’s firing – although Rosenstein told the Senate Thursday morning that when he wrote the memo, he already knew Trump would fire Comey.
Ron Wyden has been on the Senate intelligence committee since before 9/11, but these days, nothing looks familiar.
“This is different from everything I have seen about a president’s contract with the public,” he says. “The role of a president is to build political support for his policies, to build political trust.
“This president just seems to look at it so differently. He sees it as (being) the story of the day in an entertaining way.”
And the week isn’t even over.
Neither is the first year.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 5/21/17.