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Democrats move the Russia goalposts

Jeff Sessions, U.S. attorney general, speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 13, 2017.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Jeff Sessions, U.S. attorney general, speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 13, 2017.

Attorney General Jeff Session's impassioned denial that he was involved in colluding with Russia during the 2016 campaign was the most memorable quote from Tuesday's Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

But if Senate Democrats seeking to bait and interrogate him weren't particularly interested in his profession of innocence, it was hardly surprising. As was made plain by their questioning of former FBI director James Comey and the three intelligence chiefs last week, Democrats have moved the goalposts on the Russia investigation.

They've all but given up on their quest to prove the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to influence the 2016 election — the charge at the heart of the ongoing congressional investigations. They are now solely focused on pinning a charge on President Trump and ultimately forcing him from office. With the collapse of the collusion narrative, they've seized upon "obstruction of justice" as the accusation that will, they hope, get Trump impeached.

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That doesn't mean Democrats weren't willing to throw some more mud on Sessions. And they did so energetically, with allegations that he hadn't told the truth about meeting the Russian ambassador. They were happy to make a smoking gun of what appears to have been, at best, a brief public encounter in a crowded hotel ballroom during a Trump campaign speech last year.

But even there, Democrats' appetite for the charge was limited to questioning Session's truthfulness about the encounter rather than suggesting he had knowledge of any Trump–Russia collusion. As even Comey stated last week, Trump is not a target of any investigation about Russia's alleged role in the election.

Nor has anyone produced any evidence whatsoever of proof of collusion on the part of anyone in the Trump camp. Mueller might come up with something Russia-related that sticks to the Trump administration.

"While it has become an axiom of American politics since Watergate that the cover-up is always worse than the crime, the fact remains that — in contrast to the break-in that ultimately led to Richard Nixon's resignation — there is still no proof of the underlying crime of collusion. "

But if there were anything damning that investigators had found during the course of an investigation that dates back at least to last summer, someone in the Justice Department would almost certainly have leaked it by now — the way that leakers have disclosed anything else that makes Trump look bad.

For all of the pious sermons Democrats are spouting about Putin's attempts to subvert American democracy, the hearings telegraphed to the country that they've largely given up on pinning that charge to anyone around Trump. (And recall that just a few years ago Democrats were applauding Obama for deriding GOP concerns about Russia.) Some individuals associated with Trump may wind up getting indicted on unrelated charges.

Former national-security adviser Michael Flynn will be made to pay for his failure to disclose payments from foreign governments and for lying about it. But while most liberals will, to their dying breath, cling to the idea that the 2016 election was stolen from Hillary Clinton by a Russian–Trump cabal, that conspiracy theory is unlikely to ever be tested in a court of law or backed up by evidence.

But as most conservatives — including those who never had any use for the president — have sensed throughout this controversy, the Democrats' main goal has always been to topple Trump, not to expose Russian hacking, which in any case played no real role in the outcome last year.

That their main and perhaps only ally in this endeavor has been Trump himself is an irony that will probably puzzle future historians as much as it does contemporary Republicans. Yet it is a fact that must drive White House strategists crazy even as they seek to remind Americans that the Intelligence Committee hearings have done nothing to advance the wild charges about collusion.

Trump was, as we've been told by Comey and by leakers inside the White House, enraged by Democratic efforts to delegitimize his victory with their talk of Russian collusion. But when Comey refused to publicly exonerate him (despite his private assurances to Trump that he was not under investigation) or ease up on Flynn, Trump fired him. For the anti-Trump resistance, that is evidence of wrongdoing on the president's part. Instead of a ham-handed cover-up, Trump's anger-management and impulse-control problems probably motivated the Comey firing. But it still looks like the behavior of a guilty man.

Can a president be convicted in a court of law for obstruction of justice for firing Comey, even though it was something he had a constitutional right to do and even though Comey's behavior during the 2016 campaign merited his dismissal? Probably not. But the White House would be foolish not to realize that Trump can be convicted of obstruction in the court of public opinion.

That's especially true given that Trump told the public in a TV interview with Lester Holt that "this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story" and that he had been thinking of that when he decided to fire Comey. Trump also allegedly told the Russians foreign minister during a subsequent meeting that he had "faced great pressure because of Russia," which had been "taken off" by firing Comey, whom he describes as a "nut job." (This conversation was leaked to the New York Times by two anonymous sources who were not in the room but who were basing their leaks on a "document summarizing the meeting.")

Digging the president out of the mess he has dug for himself with his own intemperate comments is not going to be easy. But while it has become an axiom of American politics since Watergate that the cover-up is always worse than the crime, the fact remains that — in contrast to the break-in that ultimately led to Richard Nixon's resignation — there is still no proof of the underlying crime of collusion.

That doesn't matter much to liberals whose sole purpose is to reverse the verdict of the Electoral College and drive from the White House a man they consider unfit for high office. The shifting focus of their accusations signals where the real battle to save Trump from impeachment will be fought. (It's a given that Democrats will try to impeach Trump if they win control of Congress next year.) For all of Trump's unpresidential behavior and foolishness, Democrats will be hard-pressed to justify their efforts without finding proof of collusion — and they seem to already have given up on that.

Commentary by Jonathan S. Tobin, the opinion editor at JNS.org and a contributor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.

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©2017 National Review. Used with permission.