the national interest

The Peculiar Logic of the Trump-Russia Scandal Deniers

Protesters outside the Washington, D.C., courtroom where Roger Stone pleaded not guilty. Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Six Trump campaign associates so far have been indicted for or pleaded guilty to a wide array of federal crimes. And this is before some of the best-known episodes in the Russia scandal, like the Trump Tower meeting and the president’s efforts to dictate false statements about it, have faced any legal sanction. Yet even as the legal net has widened, a devoted band of defenders has promoted an energetic defense of the president that has never wavered in its conviction of his essential innocence in the Russia matter.

The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberly Strassel, the Washington Examiner’s Byron York, the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, and the National Review’s Andrew McCarthy have confidently explained that every new indictment or revelation of malfeasance does not seriously indict the president or is not a revelation at all. These analysts represent the best and the brightest of the Trumpian vanguard, sitting atop an extensive food chain of talk-show hosts and rage-tweeters.

Their method for dismissing every incremental advance in the investigation is the same. First, they examine every new charge in isolation, ignoring the broader pattern of behavior in which it is contained. Then they assume the most innocent possible interpretation for each isolated fact, further assuming that no other incriminating evidence will emerge. It is not clear whether they have decided to act like lawyers for Trump, presenting the most plausible defense they can muster, or if they simply trust he would never do something like collude with Russia, and are working backward from their heartfelt presumption of innocence. Either way, they have developed a method that allows them to acknowledge every new piece of incriminating evidence without in any way altering their confidence that the investigation is going nowhere.

The indictment of Roger Stone for lying to Congress about his efforts to reach out to WikiLeaks during the campaign, and of intimidating a witness into lying, followed this script. Like many previous indictments, this one largely tracked to public news reports but contained a few unreported, eyebrow-raising details, such as the charge that “a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact” Stone about WikiLeaks’ plans to release additional emails. The indictment, characteristically, was tightly drawn. As former federal prosecutor Joyce White Vance points out, Mueller had good reason to limit the charges he brought against Stone and other targets. If he charged him with conspiracy, Stone and other conspiracy defendants would have to be given access to Mueller’s evidence of this crime.

And so the Stone indictment, like other indictments, left many dangling threads. The most obvious was, who directed the senior campaign official to use Stone as a point of contact with WikiLeaks? A previous draft statement of offense against Jerome Corsi, who had cooperated with Stone during the campaign, noted that he “understood [Stone] to be in regular contact with senior members of the Trump Campaign, including with then-candidate Donald J. Trump.” When asked if that person was Donald Trump — one of the few people (and perhaps the only one) who could give an order to senior campaign officials — White House press secretary Sarah Sanders conspicuously declined to answer.

Trump’s defenders have instead reprised their familiar defenses. The Stone indictment doesn’t contain “any evidence that Trump campaign was colluding with Russia,” argues Strassel. It’s just a person, who happened to be in regular contact with Trump, reaching out to a Russian front group, to coordinate political messaging. No collusion!

McCarthy argues, bizarrely, that the mere fact Stone had to reach out to contact WikiLeaks proves he was not working with WikiLeaks. “The Trump campaign had to ask Stone because it was in the dark. Plainly, the campaign was not involved in the hacking, so it did not know what the Russians gave Assange,” he argues. Therefore, “the indictment is just the latest blatant demonstration that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office, the Department of Justice, and the FBI have known for many months that there was no such conspiracy.”

McCarthy’s arguing that, if you exclude the fact that the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia through Roger Stone and WikiLeaks, there was no coordination between Trump and Russia. Well, sure. They were in the dark about what the hacking yielded, which is why they used Stone to get information, so that the Trump campaign could coordinate its messaging with WikiLeaks. Indeed, Trump did use this connection, by finding out that WikiLeaks planned to release emails casting doubt on Hillary Clinton’s health and laying the groundwork by calling her physically unfit.

Even this oddly tautological defense is not true. As former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade points out, “Mueller has already charged 12 Russian intelligence officers in the GRU with conspiracy to defraud the United States by hacking, stealing and, importantly, staging the release of email messages. That means that even if members of the Trump campaign were not involved in the hacking and stealing of emails, they could still be implicated if they were involved in staging their release.”

The conspiracy between Trump and Russia had multiple nodes, some of which have been hinted at in indictments, and others — including the famous Trump Tower meeting — have not. The Trump campaign had over 100 known contacts with Russians. Some of these meetings involved clandestine business deals. Others involved the transfer of political data. There’s not much question about whether there was a conspiracy between Trump and Russia, but exactly what form did it take, and what laws were broken, and by whom.

York’s attempt to minimize Stone’s crimes encapsulates the innocent spirit with which the Trump defenders have approached this scandal. Stone is just a self-promoting windbag, he argues. “The problem came when Stone was asked under oath about his statements,” York writes. “It is one thing to hype and punk and promote and posture and bluff when talking to the press, but another to hype and punk and promote and posture and bluff when testifying under oath to a congressional committee. Roger Stone knows that now.”

Except Stone wasn’t charged with hyping his connection to WikiLeaks; he was charged with minimizing it, which is the opposite. And the fact that lying to Congress is a federal crime is probably something Stone knew at the time he was doing it, not just something he knows now.

The Trump defenders’ ability to disregard the lying may be their greatest act of credulity. In every twist and turn of the Russia investigation, Trump and his associates have been found to have lied — to Congress, to the FBI, and to the public. Somehow this pattern of behavior has not registered on the right as suspicious in any way. It is just a disconnected sequence of events, the same thing that keeps happening for no apparent reason.

The Peculiar Logic of the Trump-Russia Scandal Deniers