The anticipated conclusion of Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia has given way to a broad sense of anticlimax. Media coverage has fixated on the potential that Mueller will produce new revelations of impeachable conduct, emphasizing heavily the expectation he will not. This belief simply shows how the case has already been proven and it simply has not registered.
A great many intelligent people who hold no brief for Trump have nonetheless refused to believe that he is hiding some deep, dark secrets regarding Russia. As more and more evidence has appeared over the last two and a half years, that bloc of skeptics has melted away but failed to disappear completely.
The cause of this incredulity, I have come to suspect, lies in the vast distance the mind must travel between the normal patterns of American politics and the fantastical crimes being alleged. The Russia scandal seems to hint at a reality of fiction or paranoia, a baroque conspiracy in which the leader of the free world has been compromised by a mafiocracy with an economy smaller than South Korea’s.
The flaw lies in the assumption about what constitutes “normal.” In this case, the baseline should not be previous American elections, but other foreign elections in which Russia has intervened. There are several, and they follow a pattern. Moscow has cultivated right-wing parties overseas through a combination of covert payments to their leaders (often disguised as legitimate business transactions), illegal campaign donations, and propaganda support through traditional and social media. Russian election corruption scandals pop up in Europe all the time. Russia secretly and illegally funded Ukraine’s “Party of Regions”; France’s National Front party got a secret 2014 election loan from a Russian bank; the Brexit vote benefited from a huge donation from a British businessman who has secretly met with Russian officials dangling lucrative business deals. Just last month, Italian journalists discovered the leader of a right-wing party had negotiated a lucrative secret transaction with a Russian firm.
When you bear these events in mind, it no longer seems strange to believe that Vladimir Putin formed a corrupt alliance with Trump. Given all the outward signs of their relationship, it would be curious if he didn’t.
The fact that the same person who managed the campaign for the pro-Russian candidate in Ukraine next turned up (after a brief disappearance) to run the campaign of the pro-Russian candidate in the United States is merely one of an overwhelmingly long list of clues placing Trump in the pattern. Trump’s defenders have invested enormous energy into parsing the term “collusion,” which they note is not the name for a discrete crime. So let’s say instead that Trump, like many other right-wing politicians, has been corruptly influenced by Russia and elected knowingly with its aid. Some of the clues establishing this pattern lie in the carefully redacted indictments that Mueller has already filed; others sit before us in plain sight.
First, Trump developed financial ties with Russia, an effort that dates back to the 1980s. Within the last decade, it accounted for a significant, if not dominant, share of his income. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” said Donald Trump Jr. in 2008; “We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia,” Eric Trump reportedly boasted in 2014. Trump spent the campaign negotiating a deal to build a massive tower in Moscow, the existence and extent of which he dissembled about at the time and for years afterward, but which offered a payday in the hundreds of millions of dollars, reported Michael Cohen, who negotiated it.
He has concealed the extent of these ties by refusing to publish his tax returns, but a lot of Russian financing of his business over the last decade and a half is a matter of public record. Unlike open-market states with reliable rule of law, Russia is a crony capitalist economy in which large business interests routinely serve Putin’s. The scope of Russia’s financial leverage over Trump remains hidden, but the basic fact of it is undeniable. Trump had, at minimum, a strong financial incentive to stay in Putin’s good graces that precluded him from devising a Russia policy based solely on the national interest.
Second, Trump and Russia cooperated actively. During the campaign, 17 campaign officials and advisers had 100 contacts with Russians between them. They attempted to cover up these contacts by lying about them repeatedly, frequently risking perjury charges by doing so before Congress or the FBI. The breadth and the depth of their commitment in refusing to acknowledge their Russian contacts is striking, and impossible to square with any innocent explanation.
Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos met in April 2016 with Joseph Mifsud, who told Papadopoulos he had returned from Moscow and had learned “dirt” about Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos later said he “couldn’t guarantee” he didn’t share this information with fellow campaign staffers. Donald Trump Jr. set up a meeting in Trump Tower premised on what was pitched to him as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” and invited the campaign manager and the president’s influential son-in-law to attend.
While Russia was exerting itself on Trump’s behalf through emails hacks and social media messaging, Trump did nothing to disavow the help, and several things to enable it. He frequently denied Russians had stolen Democratic emails, even after U.S. intelligence agencies had fingered them. He publicly implored Russia to steal more emails (“Russia, if you’re listening…”), an invitation Russian hackers accepted and tried to act upon hours later. And he did everything in his power to magnify their impact, touting the importance of WikiLeaks some 164 times in the last month of the campaign alone.
The basic fact of this cooperative relationship is not in question. All that remains to be established, again, is its extent, and any laws that may have been broken in the process. Mueller has revealed a few tantalizing hints. During the campaign, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort passed campaign data on to Konstantin Kilimnik, his former business partner and an active Russian intelligence agent. This was not political gossip, but “very detailed” data running to 75 pages in length.
Trump also clearly used Roger Stone as an intermediary to WikiLeaks. The indictment of Stone notes “a senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information” the organization had. (Who but Trump can “direct” senior officials?) Michael Cohen has testified to Congress that he overheard a conversation between Trump and Stone about WikiLeaks.
Another Trump campaign operative, Peter W. Smith, working under Michael Flynn, attempted to acquire more Clinton emails by reaching out to Russian hackers.
The unanswered questions here center on how much deeper this cooperation goes, and what laws might have been tripped. Trump campaign officials, and possibly Trump himself, could potentially be charged for conspiracy to defraud the United States, the crime for which Mueller indicted Russian hackers. What we know already is that Trump was not the passive beneficiary of Russian assistance, but welcomed it and took at least some steps to encourage more of it.
Third, Trump gave Russia a return on its investment. A few weeks after announcing his candidacy, Trump appeared at a public forum, where — of all people — Russian operative Maria Butina asked him about his position toward Moscow. Unlike his customary instinct of catering to the crowd (a Republican base that had been trained to mock Obama for surrendering to Russia), Trump went the other way by promising to get along better. And also in contrast to his default posture of getting tough with other countries and seizing more leverage, Trump instead called the sanctions unnecessary.
Given the staunchly anti-Russian orientation of the party Trump took over, his Russophillic agenda was bound to face opposition in Congress and his own foreign policy bureaucracy. That tension has merely served to highlight the depths of Trump’s commitment to placating Russia. In contrast to his rapid capitulation on so many of his other heterodox stances — universal health insurance, closing the carried interest loophole, allowing reimportation of prescription drugs, pulling out of NAFTA — the tenacity with which Trump has fought for his idiosyncratic Russia policy is striking.
The Trump campaign’s sole intervention in the 2016 Republican platform debate was to beat back an amendment that would have endorsed arming Ukraine, which was facing slow dismemberment by Russia. During the campaign, Manafort and Kilimnik discussed a plan to recognize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a version of which Michael Cohen hand-delivered to Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, in early 2017.
Russia’s primary policy objective, winning relief from Obama-era sanctions, was thwarted, when veto-proof supermajorities in both chambers of Congress voted to escalate sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s election interference. Trump was reportedly “apoplectic” over the bill, delayed signing it for four days, and has dawdled on implementation, but has been unable to roll it back.
Trump has managed to wrest control of his personal diplomacy with Putin, meeting the Russian dictator repeatedly without aides present to record the discussions. The discussions seem to have left a deep impression. After his most public meeting with Putin, in Helsinki last summer, Trump praised his counterpart’s plan to allow Russian intelligence to interrogate various American critics of the regime. Trump has, at various times, described NATO ally Montenegro as aggressive and a threat to Russia, defended the 1980 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, disbelieved U.S. intelligence reports of a North Korean missile launch because Putin had assured him Kim Jong-un had no such capability, and halted American military exercises with South Korea at Putin’s suggestion. Trump has likewise tangled with the leaders of Canada, Britain, France, and Germany while frequently calling into question the American commitment to NATO.
There will almost certainly never be proof of any direct quid pro quo agreement for Putin to support Trump’s candidacy in return for policy outcomes. But while the pro remains conjecture, both the quid and the quo are abundantly evident.
And finally, Trump has obstructed the investigation. Trump has employed precious little artifice in his obstruction. This is largely because he does not understand obstruction of justice as a crime, but rather as his natural and proper right as head of the Executive branch. Trump has repeatedly expressed his view that obstruction of justice simply means “fighting back.” He does not believe obstructing justice is improper, let alone criminal. And he acted on this view from the beginning of his presidency.
Trump’s obstruction efforts began almost immediately into his presidency, when he pulled FBI Director James Comey aside, and (according to Comey) tried to create a patronage relationship while leaning on Comey to let Michael Flynn — then the primary known link to the Russia investigation — off without charges. After firing Comey, Trump ordered the draft of a memo stating he was fired over the Russia investigation, settled for a memo creating a cover story for the firing, before blurting out his real reason in a television interview with Lester Holt (“when I decided to just do it, I said to myself — you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story”), and in an Oval Office meeting with Russian officials (“He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”).
He has stated, also publicly, his belief that covering up presidential crimes is the attorney general’s proper role:
Holder protected President Obama … when you look at all of the tremendous, ah, real problems they had, not made-up problems like Russian collusion, these were real problems. When you look at the things that they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.
And he has followed through on this vision. Trump raged against his attorney general for following ethical guidelines and recusing himself, tried to get him to violate those guidelines by un-recusing himself, and then fired him. He instructed Michael Cohen to falsely testify about his dealings with Russia during the campaign, according to Cohen, by prompting him, before his testimony, with what both men knew were lies. His lawyer dangled pardons before key witnesses, even while Trump was heavily hinting at the same in public (i.e., Trump tweeted, “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. ‘Justice’ took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to “break” — make up stories in order to get a “deal.” Such respect for a brave man!”)
There is a reasonable argument that a president can legally use a pardon in a case involving himself, because doing so shifts responsibility in the public mind to the president. But there is no case for floating a pardon in advance, which obscures the president from any accountability and which absolutely qualifies as obstruction of justice.
Most recently, Trump was overheard thanking Matt Gaetz, a sycophantic congressional Republican who crudely attempted to intimidate Cohen before his public testimony.
Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice have been so persistent and flagrant that his supporters have hardly bothered to deny it. Instead they have presented obstruction as a “process crime,” a runner-up prize sought by Mueller in lieu of finding proof of true wrongdoing.
But the real wrongdoing is rampant and sitting in front of our faces. And the obstruction is the reason no conclusion Mueller reaches can clear Trump of all suspicion. If the president were innocent, or if he wanted his critics to concede his relationship with Russia broke no laws, he could have encouraged his allies to cooperate with the investigation. But obstructing the investigation, while making it harder to produce evidence of criminality, makes it impossible to produce exoneration. Trump, using his pardon power, persuaded the two campaign staffers in closest touch with Russia’s campaign operations, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, to shut their mouths.
Trump has prevailed upon his underlings to lie and lie and lie about every aspect of his financial and political dealings with Russia. They have conceded nothing voluntarily, admitting only that which has been proven (and sometimes not even that), replacing old lies with new ones. They are hiding a corrupt relationship with Vladimir Putin’s gangster state. All that remains to be learned is details.