On Jan. 9, U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, established that he is willing to say just about anything to divert attention from the multiple investigations into possible Russian collusion with the Donald Trump campaign and that passing campaign data to alleged Russian agents is nothing to worry about.
A slipshod redaction job on one of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s defense filings revealed that Manafort passed internal polling data to a former pro-Russia client in the Ukraine, Konstantin Kilimnik, who was allegedly tasked with passing it to the Kremlin. On CNN’s New Day morning show, John Berman asked Lankford if the newly revealed and previously redacted information constituted a “smoking gun.”
“No, it doesn’t, and we’re going to get through the rest of the information and more of that will come out,” Lankford told Berman. “Obviously, that was redacted previously and then it was actually put out yesterday. This is an ongoing relationship that Manafort had for one and a half decades. He had Ukrainian clients. This was a Ukrainian client. He was a representative of Ukraine, worked for the Ukrainian government and was trying to be able to work for a peace proposal. I don’t see this as deliberate contact with Russia.”
So because Manafort knew Konstantin Kilimnik really well, everything’s just peachy — nothing to see here. My familiarity with prosecutorial techniques is somewhat limited, but I certainly understand that a defendant’s 15-year relationship with an oligarch who has close ties to fellow oligarch/Vladimir Putin best bud Oleg Deripaska is not exculpatory. That is what a prosecutor delivers to a jury with a smile and a “Bon appetit!”
With this statement, Lankford finally fulfilled his promise and transformed into the dog in the burning house from the “This is fine” meme. This willingness to set course for the far reaches of reason and deny that someone passing protected data from a U.S. presidential election to individuals with demonstrated bad intentions toward our country calls into question Lankford’s ability to legislate and investigate with fairness.
No one can be certain what Lankford thinks in his heart of hearts other than himself, but I sincerely hope that what he told Berman was a boilerplate “alternative fact” churned out for the Trump team’s proposed “rebuttal” to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. For the sake of our state and our nation, I hope it was a dodge. But given the fury level his statement generated on social media, my sense is that it did not go well for Lankford. It could live on in suspended YouTube animation so future generations can point and laugh at the man who couldn’t smell the gun smoke.
We often confer maturity, seriousness and erudition on the people we send to Washington, D.C., because it seems right and it makes us feel good about our voting decisions. We as citizens don’t want to believe that we would elect someone to represent us who is either not up to the task or wields brazen duplicity as a rhetorical weapon (aka lies a lot). In short, we want to believe that our representatives and leaders are clear-eyed and on point, regardless of ideology.
But that’s not what we’re getting. Following Trump’s Jan. 8 Oval Office speech, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said, “This is the most presidential I have seen President Trump. It was compelling and everything he said was true.”
In his contemporaneous fact check of the speech, Salvador Rizzo of The Washington Post found 12 provable lies.
Graham used to frequently criticize Trump’s policies and behavior on the campaign trail in 2016, but then he went golfing with Trump on Oct. 16, 2017, at Trump National Golf Club in Virginia, and that other guy has not been seen since. Last year, Graham told CNN that we should never know what Trump and Putin discussed during their July 2018 meeting in Helsinki, Finland, and that Marina Gross, the interpreter who sat in on the meetings, should not have to testify before Congress.
“Absolutely not,” Graham said. “That will be the last time you ever have a foreign leader meet with a president of the United States privately.”
Trump allegedly took Gross’ notes from her after the meeting, so now the only people who know anything about that meeting are Trump, Gross, Putin and the Federal’naya Aluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii (FSB), the post-Soviet successor to the KGB. Graham does not want the discussion revealed only because it might cast a pall over future meetings? In this case, there is smoke, but we’re not allowed to smell it.
Like Graham’s constituents in South Carolina, Oklahomans deserve better than Lankford’s knee-jerk belief that it is fine to take a quick break from being campaign chairman for a U.S. presidential candidate to pass along to Russian oligarchs through Russia-affiliated Ukrainian oligarchs some great numbers on how the campaign is going.
But even if we deserve better, the majority of Oklahoma voters did not ask for better. Lankford is exactly what you think he is: a theologian who earned a master’s degree in divinity from Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and then promptly went to work for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. Before he represented Oklahoma’s 5th congressional district, he directed youth programming at Falls Creek in Davis. I don’t cite those facts to disparage Lankford, except that if your entire adult experience is spent with people who are pretty much exactly like you, it’s hard to build a frame of reference for the rest of this state’s citizens, much less the world at large. He went directly from the BGC to Washington, D.C., and that’s how you get a congressman and, later, a senator who has no problem telling gay constituents that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice and they do not qualify for protection against workplace discrimination.
But what Lankford told Berman on CNN is not based on the ideology Lankford studied at seminary. This is a different ideology based on total fealty to a president with such sketchy relationships with known enemies that the FBI opened an investigation on whether he was working on behalf of Russia in 2017.
Oklahomans need to make better choices, and so does Lankford. There will likely come a time when people who vigorously defended Trump will try to deny that they ever thought he was worth standing behind. They will paint themselves as rugged individualists, independent-minded conservatives who are agents of change.
But we’ll know who sat in the burning room and said, “This is fine.” They’ll wear those scorch marks for the rest of their political careers.
George Lang is editor-in-chief of Oklahoma Gazette and began his career at Gazette in 1994. He is married to Laura Lang, which greatly improves his likeability. | Photo Nazarene HarrisOpinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.