Sen. Harry Reid, have you left no sense of decency?
Pardon my appropriation of Army chief counsel Joseph Welch’s famous retort to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954. But 62 years later this question is relevant again. Reid, the Senate minority leader, is engaging in the same kind of innuendo-laden rumor-mongering as McCarthy.
Last weekend, Reid, D-Nevada, released a letter to FBI director James Comey alleging Comey had told him the FBI possesses “explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government.”
This came after Comey informed Congress about the potential for new Hillary Clinton e-mails that may be found on the laptop of the former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-New York.
It is terrible to pressure the FBI to influence the election. It’s partly why I argued last week that Republicans should be wary of demanding the FBI’s intervention against Clinton. When Reid says this about Trump, he undermines Democrats’ argument that Comey was wrong to inform Congress about a potential development in the Clinton e-mail investigation.
And Reid is an unreliable messenger. Before the 2012 election, he said Mitt Romney was not paying taxes. That turned out to be false. The New York Times reported Tuesday that so far the FBI has not found evidence of coordination between Russia and Trump’s campaign, though it has explored some leads. This is the nature of investigations. They take enough twists and turns that it’s irresponsible to announce them before the prosecuting authority is ready to make a case in court. That is the Democrats’ strongest argument against Comey, or it used to be.
Finally Reid’s stunt is unnecessary. The public has access to lots of information about Trump’s coziness to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump last month lied in a debate about not knowing Putin, after he boasted of his relationship with the autocrat in the primary.
Trump, like Putin, has cast doubt on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. His campaign operatives altered a GOP platform position at the convention to take out a call to arm Ukraine’s government. Trump has praised Putin as a strong leader. For a few months Trump’s campaign manager was Paul Manafort, whose name appeared on a ledger of people paid by Ukraine’s ousted president, who fled his country in 2014 for Russia.
Then there is what Russia has done to benefit Trump’s campaign. The director of national intelligence said the Russians are responsible for hacks against prominent Democrats. E-mails found in those hacks have been distributed by WikiLeaks, whose founder Julian Assange once hosted a talk show distributed by Russian state television. Speaking of Russian state television, its English language arm, RT, has the most pro-Trump election coverage of any network.
Contrary to some critics on the left and right, pointing out all of these connections is not a species of McCarthyism. Publicly stating the FBI is holding on to “explosive” information about Trump’s ties to Russia is. The difference is that Reid is resting his argument on innuendo and an appeal to secret knowledge. This was the hallmark of McCarthy’s own red hunting in the 1950s.
In the end McCarthy’s witch hunts did more damage to anti-communism than to the Soviet Union. Reid’s antics have a similar effect. As the U.S. intelligence community assesses that Russia’s main objective in hacking Democrats’ emails is to sow confusion about the election, the Senate’s ranking Democrat is now sowing confusion about the FBI. The Kremlin couldn’t ask for a better outcome.
Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake was formerly the Daily Beast’s senior national security correspondent.