Looking for someone to make sense of the Washington scandals? It’s always smart to turn to a senator from Maine.
In the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is looking at Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election, Maine’s Susan Collins is the Republican most likely to speak up for bipartisan common sense. The most thoughtful interrogator of all has been the state’s other senator, Angus King, an independent who usually votes with Democrats.
Wisdom and fortitude are Maine traditions. In 1950, Republican Margaret Chase Smith of Maine was among the first senators to take on her party’s red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. A couple of decades later, Representative Bill Cohen, another in the state’s line of Republican moderates, was a profile in courage during Watergate before serving three Senate terms. In 1987, Senator George Mitchell, a Democrat, punctured the pious patriotism of Iran-contra culprit Oliver North.
In almost 60 years, tiny Maine has not had one undistinguished senator, something few, if any, other states can claim. If there are political genes, perhaps they’re traceable to Joshua Chamberlain, a Civil War hero at the Battle of Gettysburg, for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He later served four terms as governor of Maine.
Late last week, I chatted with King about the Russia probe and some of the key players: President Donald Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kusher, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former FBI Director James Comey, special counsel Robert Mueller and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Here’s some of the conversation, edited for syntax and readability.
Q: Where are we right now?
KING: We are at this moment where what concerns me is that we’re all so caught up in Trump, Comey, and Kushner, and Flynn, that it’s in danger of overwhelming the real story, which is what the Russians did and tried to do. I contend that it was the most serious attack on our country since September 11, 2001. It was deliberate, it was sophisticated, it was conscious, and it was in some ways successful.
The second piece is what’s been very little reported, their efforts to infiltrate state election systems, which by all accounts from the intelligence community were unsuccessful in terms of changing votes. They were practicing and experimenting.
Q: Even in your hearings, there was some partisan sniping, talking about what movies you watch, which tended to overshadow the larger point.
KING: That’s because of everything the public interest and the media interest is focused on: What did the president know and when did he know it? Whether there was cooperation with the Russians. I don’t mean to say that’s a distraction or we shouldn’t follow it up. But the underlying story of the Russians trying to subvert our democracy, both through propaganda, planted stories, manipulation of social media and through direct efforts to infiltrate our state election system, is really an enormously significant event. And it’s not over.
Q: Who will address that? The Senate and the House intelligence committees? Bob Mueller?
KING: It should be the president. Comey had nine interactions with him after the election. And in none of those, Comey testified, did he express any interest, concern, about what the Russians did, how they did it, how do we prevent it. He continuously has in fact denigrated the whole idea and dismissed that it was the Russians, and apparently hasn’t yet accepted the 100-percent consensus of everybody that knows about this that this was a conscious and deliberate effort on their part to attack our democracy.
And then to Jeff Sessions I said, did you ever get any briefings on this? He said no. All he knew is what he read in the papers. This is the chief law-enforcement officer of the United States, with no interest in the most serious attack on our country.
As (Sen.) Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) keeps saying, next time it could be us. And we don’t have to speculate on it. They do it, they’ve been doing it in Eastern Europe for years.
Q: They were more sophisticated here?
KING: Oh, I think so.
Q: Does that lead you to believe there’s at least circumstantial evidence of collusion?
KING: I’m not prepared to conclude that.
Q: Sessions wouldn’t answer a lot of questions, in essence claiming that he didn’t want to pre-empt the president on executive privilege. Should the committee ask the White House to waive that and let Sessions answer the questions?
KING: That’s an option. Whether the committee will do that and what form that would take, and whether it would require just the chair and the vice chair, or would it require the whole committee to vote, is unclear.
Q: Is there at least probable cause for the special counsel to look into the question of obstruction?
KING: Well, No. 1, that’s the special counsel’s lane.
KING: I don’t think the special counsel can avoid that question based upon the president’s own statements. But I’m not charging obstruction of justice.
Q: Some of your colleagues on the Republican side keep raising the point that on three different occasions, Comey told Donald Trump, you are not a subject, a target in the investigation.
KING: This is about a campaign organization and whether U.S. citizens were cooperating with Russians to subvert our electoral system. Either wittingly or unwittingly. And that may or may not involve Mr. Trump. And I think Comey, he said unequivocally that as of the time he left office there was — Mr. Trump was not a subject of — of investigation.
Q: As of that time.
KING: As of that time. I think what’s getting a little confusing is this question of what was Mr. Trump’s role in the firing of Comey, and what was the motivation? And that occurred after Comey gave him those reassurances.
Q: There seems to have been an unusual number of Russian contacts with Trump associates: Kushner, Flynn, the attorney general, the campaign advisers Carter Page and Paul Manafort.
KING: It would be easy to say yes to that question; it’s getting an unusual level of scrutiny. To be fair, I’ve been arguing in the Intelligence and Armed Services Committee for several years that there should be an opportunity for common cause with the Russians in Syria.
So the idea of some contact with the Russians to try to find areas of common ground is not irrational or unusual. The question is: Were you doing it in an appropriate way and through proper channels?
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.