Robert Mueller’s investigation found that none of Donald Trump’s illicit campaign contacts with Russia amounted to a prosecutable crime. And while this is a highly significant finding, the immediate response has gone far beyond this legalistic conclusion. News stories have trumpeted the verdict that Trump’s campaign did not collude with Russia — which is at best unproven, and at worst simply false — and have been forced into a defensive crouch for having the temerity to devote two and a half years to uncovering the broad web of secret financial and political contacts between Trump and Russia.
“The end of the collusion illusion should also cause the media to do some soul-searching about rushes to judgment,” editorializes the Wall Street Journal. “With few exceptions they went well beyond First Amendment oversight into anti-Trump advocacy.” The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway giddily demands, “There needs to be a reckoning.” Left-wing skeptics of the Russia scandal like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald have indulged in paroxysms of schadenfreude. For his part, Trump reportedly plans to “call for organizations to fire members of the media and former government officials who he believes made false accusations about him.”
Trump’s football-spikers all take as a starting point the premise that Barr’s four-page summary conclusively puts to rest any serious questions about Trump’s illicit relationship with Russia. That is an oddly credulous approach from people who have treated previous government investigations with withering skepticism. Taibbi dismissed the intelligence community’s finding that the Russian government directed the hacking as “head scratching” and “bold assessments based on little to no obvious evidence.” Greenwald ridiculed reports that Russia hacked Democratic emails as a neo-McCarthyist smear, and cast doubt on the validity of Mueller’s indictment of Russian hackers. Hemingway and the Journal editorial page have uncritically transmitted Devin Nunes’s series of fever dreams that Mueller sat atop a deep state conspiracy, all of which disintegrated immediately upon contact with the outside world.
After treating nonpartisan intelligence and law enforcement officials as an untrustworthy cabal, Trump’s defenders now assign complete credibility and good faith to William Barr. Not only is Barr far more partisan than the malefactors of the deep state, he auditioned for his job by writing a highly Trump-friendly memo that was meant to remain secret. One could make the case to trust all these officials, or to trust none of them. But the idea that Barr has more inherent credibility than the intelligence community or the FBI stretches all bounds of plausibility.
Taibbi compares the mainstream media’s Russia reporting to the Iraq weapons of mass destruction fiasco. That was my worst moment as columnist, and I have tried to learn from it. Yet I find it hard to understand why Taibbi’s takeaway from that bitter experience is that the media should fall in line behind the president’s demand to rush to judgment on the basis of a vaguely worded, unsourced government document.
One need not dismiss Barr’s memo completely to recognize that its claims do not go nearly as far as they might appear on the surface. William Saletan dissects the weasel words in the four-page summary. Its language appears to define collusion in the narrowest sense, ruling out the possibility of conspiracy through cutouts and intermediaries. Barr reports Mueller “did not find that any U.S. person or Trump campaign official or associate conspired or knowingly coordinated with the IRA [a Russian troll farm]” or “coordinated with the Russian government.” But Mueller did find that Trump’s campaign manager passed detailed polling information to Konstantin Kilimnik, whom Mueller also believes has “ties to Russian intelligence.”
Of course, it’s not necessarily a crime to pass polling data to a Russian spy. Barr’s memo appears to limit its findings to crimes that can be charged in court. It does not even allude to Trump’s business dealings with Russia, nor the effect they might have had upon the policy positions he took. Taking pro-Russian positions because you’re hoping to cut a lucrative deal with Russia is of course also not a crime.
The media is a big place, and obviously plenty of cable news commentators and Twitter personalities have made bad predictions about the Russia scandal. But the predominant center-left analysis of the scandal has never taken for granted that Mueller would produce criminal charges against the president for collusion.
The legal blog Just Security made this point as early as 2017 (headline: “Collusion Doesn’t Have to be Criminal to be an Ongoing Threat.”) As Lawfare points out now, Barr’s summary is consistent with “a report that finds lots of ‘evidence of collusion’ that for one reason or another falls short of criminal conduct.”
Greenwald has been periodically railing against my story last year outlining what the worst-case scenario for a Russian compromise operation against Trump would look like. None of the possibilities in that story, not even the ones at the tail end of the bell curve of possibilities, describe necessarily chargeable crimes. The sources it relies on are public reporting, which has detailed a very wide array of links between Trump and Russia.
Obviously, many people, including me, considered the possibility that Mueller would identify specific crimes in Trump’s collusion with Russia. But that possibility was never the foundational assumption. The foundation was the broad swath of corruption, lies, and secret contacts.
Some of the events took place on live television (Trump imploring Russia to hack more Clinton emails). Other disclosures came through Mueller himself (the fact Russia responded to Trump’s request that same day by attempting another hack). But, yes, reporting in the mainstream media did supply the factual basis for my analysis, as well as the larger suspicion that Trump has concealed an untoward relationship with Russia.
The Russiagate skeptics are presuming that Barr’s letter has refuted three years of devastating reports that paint an unmistakably sordid picture. Their goal now is to bully the media into placing the entire topic, a political scandal of gigantic proportions, out of bounds of discussion. After two years, everybody agreed collusion is not per se a crime, but Trump’s defenders now illogically insist the absence of a crime means the absence of collusion. We should accept the verdict that there is no crime, and demand to see all the evidence of the corruption that is already beyond all dispute.