On Friday night, the New York Times published a bombshell report that the FBI has been investigating whether President Trump “had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.” The story reframes the focus and purpose of the investigation now headed by Robert Mueller. The probe is not just about Russian election interference, or about Trump’s obstruction of the probe — it is about the secret relationship between Trump and Russia that appears to be causing both these things to happen.
The first question to ask yourself when absorbing this story is, what does it mean for a president to be working for Russia, and against the United States? Trump frequently says the United States would be better off if it got along better with Russia — and that position, right or wrong, is certainly not criminally suspect. Presidents obviously have the right to change American foreign policy, and to forge friendships with countries that had been previously hostile. Nixon’s overtures to China, or Obama’s opening of relations with Cuba, did not set off criminal investigations. The FBI would not investigate a president simply for harboring friendly views of a rival state.
The potential that Trump is working on behalf of Russia, therefore, by definition posits some kind of corrupt secret relationship. That is to say, it’s an investigation into whether Trump is a Russian asset.
When I wrote about this last summer, much of the pushback centered on the imagined accusation that Trump is a Russian “agent.” He is obviously not. An agent is not the same thing as an asset. An asset can describe a wide range of relationships, but in Trump’s case, it would mean that he is subject to sexual or financial blackmail, along with possibly some form of back-channel propaganda. We know for a fact that Trump is vulnerable to sexual blackmail, but that kind of leverage, if it exists, would be difficult for Mueller to obtain. (Sexual blackmail is only useful if you keep it locked up tightly.) It’s far more likely that Trump’s financial vulnerability opened him up to Russian leverage. And that is the kind of information American investigators can access.
A somewhat related issue is the question of whether Russia has some kind of backchannel to shape Trump’s thinking. Trump has met with Russian officials since 1987. It was after his first trip to Moscow that he first contemplated running for president. It is well within the realm of possibility that Russians used blackmail, bribes, or perhaps just simple flattery to help shape his thinking on world affairs.
It is hard to understand how else some of the idiosyncratic and bizarrely Russpohillic ideas he routinely spouts have found their way into Trump’s brain. His warning that tiny Montenegro is a threat to attack Russia, or his claim that the Soviet Union was right to invade Afghanistan in 1979, are not notions Trump would pick up from his normal routine of binge-watching Fox News.
Much of the public focus on the Mueller investigation has centered on campaign collusion. Russia worked to help elect Trump, and Trump and his campaign at minimum welcomed its help, and at maximum, actively participated. (Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort gave polling data to a Russian oligarch, the most likely use for which would have been guiding Russian social media efforts.) But campaign collusion is a relationship with a fixed endpoint: November 8, 2016. After Trump won presidency, any secretive or suspicious mutual interest between him and Vladimir Putin would conclude. Having succeeded in helping to elect the friendly Trump (and block the unfriendly Clinton), Putin could now operate with his chosen candidate on a normal president-to-president basis.
The Times report tells us that collusion is only part of the story. The relationship between Trump and Putin did not merely rest on their mutual interest in the Trump campaign defeating Clinton, but indicates some deeper connection. From the very beginning of this story, pundits have underestimated the full extent of Trump’s ties to Russia and how much deeper the story might yet go. Now we already know Mueller is not merely looking into crimes, but trying to ascertain the foundational loyalties of the President of the United States.