Donald Trump promised American voters that his keen eye for talent — honed over decades as a mogul in the cut-throat real-estate industry, demonstrated weekly on NBC’s serial documentary The Apprentice — would give him the insight necessary “to hire the best people” once he became president.
On Monday morning, the president argued that Paul Manafort had been a crooked, covert agent of Ukrainian oligarchs long before he hired him to manage his presidential campaign.
An anonymous White House source amplified this narrative, telling CNN that Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates were “bad guys when they started” — and therefore the president had no responsibility to apologize for their misdeeds.
Imagine if Hillary Clinton had campaigned for the presidency on a promise to make superlative hiring decisions — and then the FBI indicted two of the highest-ranking members of her campaign for being undisclosed agents of a hostile foreign regime. Now, imagine that this happened on the same day that a former Clinton campaign adviser confessed that he had tried to score a meeting with the Russian government last year, in hopes of securing stolen copies of Trump’s tax returns. Finally, imagine that, on Earth 2, John Podesta and Robby Mook’s secret work for the Yanukovych regime — and Philippe Reines’s correspondence with “Putin’s niece” — both came to light months after the Hillary Clinton administration’s first national security adviser, Susan Rice, admitted that she had been on the payroll of Turkey’s Islamist government throughout the 2016 campaign.
How would congressional Republicans respond to such a development? Would they reiterate their desire for an independent investigation to explore whether president Clinton had personally colluded with Russian actors? Or would they scream at the top of their lungs that someone who’d hired undisclosed foreign agents to top positions in her campaign and administration was too incompetent and/or un-American to serve as president of the United States?
What if President Hillary Clinton had also fired James Comey after he’d refused to honor her request to drop the FBI’s investigation in Susan Rice?
Without question, the GOP would take door No. 2. If they had possession of undisputed facts this damning, there’s no way congressional Republicans would encourage the public to focus on an elusive, hypothetical smoking gun connecting Putin and Clinton. That would be doing the Democrats a favor by helping them move the goalposts of what constitutes a ruinous scandal for the Clinton White House all the way back to Siberia.
And yet, at various points on Monday, the Democratic leadership did the Trump administration that kindness.
Now look: These are fine sentiments. There is a real risk that Trump will fire Mueller, and it’s important for Democrats to preempt such a move, however they can. The investigation shouldn’t be over until special counsel Bob Mueller says it is.
But it’s a question of emphasis. Right now, the White House is saying that it has no intention of firing Mueller. The risk to the special counsel’s job, for the moment, appears low. Meanwhile, the administration is very much trying to focus public discussion on what hasn’t been proven, rather than on the mountain of damning, undisputed facts already lying in plain sight. When Democrats emphasize the need for further answers, in this context, they make life easier for the White House spin machine.
We already know that Trump hired undisclosed foreign agents as his campaign manager and national security adviser; that he pressured the FBI director to drop an investigation into the latter man; that he then fired said FBI director because he disapproved of the bureau’s handling of the Russia investigation; that members of his campaign knew that Russia possessed stolen Clinton emails and tried to secure them; and that Trump incessantly cast doubt about Russia’s role in the hacking of email accounts aligned with the Clinton campaign, even after multiple members of his team — including his own son — took meetings in 2016 that were premised on the idea of Russian involvement.
Most crucially, we know that Trump has taken no significant action to dissuade Vladimir Putin’s government from intervening in the 2018 or 2020 U.S. elections. In fact, we know that the Trump administration explored the idea of lifting Obama’s sanctions on Russia upon taking office — and that, after Congress passed legislation (with a veto-proof majority) forbidding the president from lifting those sanctions, Trump expressed his displeasure with the law in a bitter signing statement.
Further, we know that Trump came out of his face-to-face meeting with Putin last July entertaining the idea that the U.S. and Russia could collaborate on “an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, [and] many other negative things, will be guarded and safe.”
Does the severity of this scandal really hinge on whether Trump knowingly coordinated with Wikileaks over when to release John Podesta’s emails — or whatever one would consider to be “smoking gun” proof of collusion?
Even if we discovered proof that Trump personally coordinated with Wikileaks, it’s not at all clear that such activity would even be a crime (“collusion” is not an actual, criminal offense). Further, it seems vanishingly unlikely that the congressional GOP would impeach Trump over such a revelation, even if it were illegal. There is never going to be a moment when Mueller puts the final puzzle piece in place, Trump’s election is declared illegitimate, and America is made “already great” again.
Ultimately, it’s unlikely that any piece of evidence will ever render the Trump presidency unacceptable to two-thirds of this Congress. Therefore, Democrats should focus their energy on rendering the president unacceptable to two-thirds (or more) of the public.
And, on that front, Trump and Mueller have already given them more than enough material to work with. What we already know about the Trump-Russia scandal should be enough to destroy a presidency — and do grave collateral damage to the political party complicit in it.
So, while they push for further investigation, Democrats should take pains to ensure that the American public understands every damning, undisputed fact of the Trump-Russia matter just as well as “we” do.