Will the Russia scandal actually end up helping Trump?

Matryoshkas, traditional Russian wooden dolls, including a doll of U.S. President Donald Trump, top, are displayed for sale in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 2, 2017. Trump has repeatedly said that he aims to improve relations with Russia, but Moscow appears frustrated by the lack of visible progress as well as by support from Trump Administration officials for continuing sanctions imposed on Russia for its interference in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

I've essentially said this in a couple of other recent posts, but when it comes to the smoldering scandal involving President Trump, some of his inner circle, and their contacts with Russians while Russia was meddling in our election, I'm very much of two minds. I think there's enough evidence, both proven and circumstantial, to merit a full-blown and independent (if such a thing is possible in 2017) investigation. On the other hand, as I wrote earlier this week, both the Russia story and all the drama, tweeted and otherwise, that surrounds it have distracted attention from the bigger story: A massive and already partially successful effort by Team Trump to demolish our current government for the benefit of Big Business and billionaire investors.

I also worry -- and I'm not alone on this -- that the Russia story may not ultimately become Watergate, and that could be bad news for the folks who've promised that it is.

I've read almost all the stories, and here's the two sides of it. On one hand, Trump and his inner circle certainly had more meetings and phone calls with Russian officials and intermediaries than anyone would normally expect. They did so at a time when damaging hacked material -- i.e., stolen -- about Hillary Clinton and her allies was being leaked to the press, with intelligence agencies blaming Russia for the hacks. Meanwhile, you had Trump not only praising Vladimir Putin but, bizarrely, asking Russia to find Clinton's deleted emails in a televised news conference. And signs point to Russian influence in getting Trump and the GOP to soften the party's stance on Ukraine, which is a big deal for Putin's expansionist dreams. Except that...

When did anyone care about a political party's platform? Likewise, for all the talk about the material that was hacked and released through Wikileaks, did it actually influence the election?....I mean, can you remember one thing that was in the John Podesta emails (I can't, without Googling)? Isn't it normal for a campaign, as it transitions into a government, to have a foreign policy team that talks to people, including foreigners? Trump's pro-Putin tilt may be a dumb policy, but is it illegal? Look, I'm playing devil's advocate here with these questions. But other folks who are smarter than I am are also beginning to worry that Russia talk is turning into a kind of hysteria that could backfire against those making the allegations.

No writer is more revered on the left these days than Matt Taibbi. Here's an excerpt from his take:

Thus we are now witnessing the extremely unusual development of intelligence sources that normally wouldn't tell a reporter the time of day litigating a matter of supreme importance in the media. What does this mean?

Hypothesize for a moment that the "scandal" here is real, but in a limited sense: Trump's surrogates have not colluded with Russians, but have had “contacts,” and recognize their political liability, and lie about them. Investigators then leak the true details of these contacts, leaving the wild speculations to the media and the Internet. Trump is enough of a pig and a menace that it's easy to imagine doing this and not feeling terribly sorry that your leaks have been over-interpreted.

If that's the case, there are big dangers for the press. If we engage in Times-style gilding of every lily the leakers throw our way, and in doing so build up a fever of expectations for a bombshell reveal, but there turns out to be no conspiracy – Trump will be pre-inoculated against all criticism for the foreseeable future.

The press has to cover this subject. But it can't do it with glibness and excitement, laughing along to SNL routines, before it knows for sure what it's dealing with. Reporters should be scared to their marrow by this story. This is a high-wire act and it is a very long way down. We might want to leave the jokes and the nicknames be, until we get to the other side – wherever that is. 

Taibbi -- no friend of Trump, having just published a book called Insane Clown President -- is hardly alone in this. Also this week, the writer Masha Gessen -- a fierce Putin critic who ultimately left her native Russia because of her issues with its strongman ruler -- published almost a companion piece to Taibbi, also warning that over-the-top conspiracy theories about Trump and the Russians pose a risk:

The backbone of the rapidly yet endlessly developing Trump-Putin story is leaks from intelligence agencies, and this is its most troublesome aspect. Virtually none of the information can be independently corroborated. The context, sequence, and timing of the leaks is determined by people unknown to the public, which is expected to accept anonymous stories on faith; nor have we yet been given any hard evidence of active collusion by Trump officials.

Gessen wrote a piece in the dark days after Trump's victory about surviving authoritarian rule that became a kind of guidebook for what has become The Resistance -- yet she, too, worries that the current frenzy will strengthen not only Trump but Putin.

Look, subtract every story about Russia, and Trump and his top people are still the worst people to ever take control in Washington. Take today for example. We had the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for cryin' out loud, disputing the established science on climate change. And we had Trump and Paul Ryan using Glengarry Glen Ross high-pressure grifter tactics to try and sell a plan that will destroy our health care. This was just today, people. We don't need Russia to know we need to man the barricades.

Investigate the heck out of Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page...the whole lot of them, until there's no doubt whether this was really Watergate II, or just some third-rate diplomacy. But let's not lose sight of the big picture. These con men would be selling America up the river even if Vladimir Putin had become a house painter in St. Petersburg instead of a spy.