Why the Comey Hearing Was Frightening to a Russian
(Bloomberg – bloomberg.com – Leonid Bershidsky – March 21, 2017)
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Monday’s hearing on Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election and the alleged contacts between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin yielded inspiring news for Trump opponents: The Federal Bureau of Investigation is officially looking into the matter. I wasn’t inspired, though; I was a little scared.
What frightened me was this exchange:
Rep. Jackie Speier (D., Ca): Do you know anything about #Gazprom, Director?
FBI Director James Comey: I don’t.
Speier: Well, it’s a — it’s an oil company.
Gazprom, of course, is Russia’s biggest company. It does own an oil business called Gazpromneft, but mainly it sells natural gas, of which it is by far the biggest producer in the world. It covers 34 percent of the European Union’s gas needs. Everyone who has read more than five newspaper articles about Russia must have stumbled upon a reference to Gazprom. I imagined the Russian parliament conducting a U.S.-themed investigation and a legislator asking the director of the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, whether he knew anything about Exxon Mobil.
There was another weird moment, when Comey, asked whether to his knowledge Putin preferred businesspeople as foreign political leaders, cited the example of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a socialist lawyer who had no business experience when he went into politics. Perhaps Comey was thinking that Putin prized Schroeder’s experience on Volkswagen’s supervisory board back when he was state premier in Lower Saxony. But it’s also possible Comey, as domestic intelligence chief, doesn’t feel he needs much knowledge about foreign countries.
That is a problem, because the key question for any investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election is what Russians were involved and how they were connected to the Russian government or intelligence services. On that matter, the FBI investigation, which, according to Comey, began in July, hasn’t gotten far. Even assuming the U.S. intelligence agencies have good evidence tying the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and the email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta to some Russian group or groups — and no such evidence has been publicly released by the agencies — there’s no clarity on how the spoils of the hacks fell into the hands of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Asked about it, Comey could only say this about “the Russians”: “We assessed they used some kind of cutout. They didn’t deal directly with WikiLeaks.”
Comey was equally vague when asked about the grounds on which the FBI’s Russia investigation was started:
“The standard is, I think there’s a couple different at play. A credible allegation of wrongdoing or reasonable basis to believe that an American may be acting as an agent of a foreign power.”
Presumably, saying more could have compromised the investigation; to prevent that, Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers also refused to answer questions about specific Trump allies. But can someone who knows next to nothing about Russia make a qualified judgment about whether a meeting or an email exchange with a certain Russian constitutes that “reasonable basis”?
Some of the legislators who participated in the hearing appear to set a low threshold for suspicion. Meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is suspect because, as Representative Adam Schiff put it, Kislyak “presides over a Russian Embassy in which diplomatic personnel would later be expelled as likely spies.” Dealings with any Russian are questionable because, as Speier put it,
“I think of a spider web, with a tarantula in the middle. And the tarantula, in my view, is Vladimir Putin, who is entrapping many people to do his bidding and to engage with him. And I would include those like Roger Stone and Carter Page and Michael Caputo and Wilbur Ross and Paul Manafort and Rex Tillerson.”
Schiff referred to Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company, as a “gas giant.”. Representative Jim Hines spoke of Ukrainian industrialist Rinat Akhmetov as a “strong Putin ally,” though Akhmetov is not known for Putin sympathies and some of his industrial assets in eastern Ukraine have just been taken over by pro-Russian separatists, almost certainly with the Kremlin’s consent.
A shortage of knowledge accompanied by a desire to generalize as broadly as possible are the basic ingredients of a witch-hunt. What I fear is that Comey, no Russia expert, may be susceptible to the mood Trump’s opponents are trying to whip up, and that results of all the different investigations will be affected by it. As Representative Brad Wenstrup put it:
“There’s a lot of conjecture about any relationship with Russians in general and questions from me and others about, can I meet with the Russian ambassador? Does that get me investigated? Business ties here and there, you know, I mean currently we share a space station with Russians. We buy engines from the Russians for — for our rockets and in the ’90s we had joint military exercises with the Russians. It gets a little bit tough.”
To a certain extent, we Russians deserve the toxicity conferred on us by Putin’s policies. Even those of us who never supported him have failed to stop him from representing Russia the way he does. But the current scandal is going beyond that justifiable stigma. The noise around it is giving Americans a visceral suspicion of Russians. It introduces an element of distrust into potential business deals, cultural exchanges and even personal relationships. It’s poisonous and potentially as hard and slow to fix as the Cold War-era distrust was.
There’s only one way to limit the damage: It’s for the Americans investigating the scandal to seek to understand how Putin’s Russia works, and the complex web of relationships around the Kremlin. That’s necessary for a clearer idea of what happened, and for a more sober view of what one Russian or another may represent.
A campaign against all things Russian, however, would merely hand a victory to Putin and his men. They’d chuckle about the primitive American minds trying to understand a complex country’s secretive workings, and they’d be tempted to amplify the confusion in any way they can. Precision, specificity and informed conclusions on the investigators’ part would reduce that temptation.
©2017 Bloomberg L.P. All Rights Reserved. Article also appeared at bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-03-21/why-the-comey-hearing-was-frightening-to-a-russian