interesting times

There Was No Russia Conspiracy. But Trump Is More Dangerous Than Ever.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Yes, it was worth waiting for. The merit of the Mueller report is that it gives us the whole narrative again, a chance to review the last three years with new perspective and fresh eyes, to get above the daily drizzle of short-attention-span disinformation and lies. First of all, it lays out a foreign government’s extraordinary attempt to corrupt our democratic system — in very close and damning detail. At the same time, the report comes very close to destroying the notion that Donald J. Trump was and is a Russian agent, that his campaign was actively conspiring with a foreign government to hack and defeat his opponent in 2016, that Putin had (and still has) something that could be used to blackmail Trump, and that his foreign policy since has been dictated by the Kremlin. The much more believable truth, in fact, is a large-scale version of that infamous “I love it!” Donald Jr. email. The Trump campaign had no problem with foreign interference if it could help them, were eager and hopeful it would occur, publicly encouraged it … but never initiated this or followed through. The scale of Moscow’s operation is as remarkable as the lack of evidence that the Trump campaign was actively in on it.

As for Putin’s deep enmeshment with Trump, I found the following anecdote from the report rather apposite: “As soon as news broke that Trump had been elected President, Russian government officials and prominent Russian businessmen began trying to make inroads into the new Administration. They appeared not to have preexisting contacts and struggled to connect with senior officials around the President-Elect.” More: “Putin spoke of the difficulty faced by the Russian government in getting in touch with the incoming Trump Administration. According to Aven, Putin indicated that he did not know with whom formally to speak and generally did not know the people around the President-Elect.” I’m afraid this makes speculation that Trump has been a Soviet and Russian asset for decades or those who still insist on a conspiracy … well, not exactly in touch with reality. It renders several thousand hours of Rachel Maddow moot, if not shameful. MSNBC’s Malcolm Nance recently reiterated that the president is “an agent of the enemy of the United States,” making this “the single most serious scandal in the history of the United States.” Nope. More disturbingly, a former CIA director, John Brennan, was predicting new indictments as recently as last month.

Michael Cohen never went to Prague. Trump did not coordinate a change in the GOP platform with Moscow. The pee tape was fake — even to those Russians who at one point touted it. The Trump Tower meeting was a bit of a bore, and nothing came of it. Conversations between Sessions and Kislyak were anodyne (Sessions comes out of all this looking pretty good, especially compared with Barr). Manafort did not conspire with Kilimnik. As for Carter Page: “The investigation did not establish that Page coordinated with the Russian government in its efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.” Putin’s press secretary deemed Page someone too peripheral to be worth reaching out to. Yes, the Mueller team regarded Page’s trip to Moscow as not fully explained, and were not fully able to explore George Papadopoulos’s interactions. If you want to insist that it was Mueller’s job to prove a negative, I suppose you can. But an extremely competent, politically diverse team of star investigators with huge resources nonetheless concluded that there was insufficient evidence that “any member of the Trump campaign” conspired with the Russians. And indeed not a single U.S. citizen has been indicted.

Why the mutual love between Trump and Russia? The answer is overdetermined. Trump is an authoritarian; he reveres thugs and bullies and murderers and mobsters; he believes in an economy based on fossil fuels; he has a thing, believe it or not, for cult-worshipping kleptocracies. From Trump’s point of view, what’s not to like? Trump prefers Kim Jong-un to democratic leaders; and Bolsonaro and Duterte over May or Merkel. Putin has said nice things about him; and the CIA worried Trump might be compromised. Of course Trump prefers Putin to his own intelligence services. The idea that Trump could only be pro-Putin because Putin has some dirt on him is silly.

But to my mind, the conspiracy question is far less important than what Mueller discovered on obstruction of justice. Mueller quite rightly notes that obstruction of justice can easily occur even without an underlying crime. And his report, quite simply, is devastating. To be fair to the conspiracy believers, the lies and obstruction and abuse of power would, in most cases, suggest that the president is guilty of something criminal — and was obviously trying to cover it up. But this is not most cases and Trump is different. He needed no fear of being found guilty of treason to obstruct justice. He merely had to believe that the investigation would cloud his presidency and subject him to an authority beyond his control. This is something we now know his psyche cannot tolerate. In a contest between his own diseased ego and the rule of law, there has never been any contest.

So of course he lied when he didn’t have to. And of course he tried to kill an investigation that might have embarrassed him, even if it would not convict him of a crime. Mueller spells it all out in agonizing detail. He kept pressuring his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to curtail or end the inquiry; he asked James Comey to be personally loyal and to go easy on his first national security adviser; he then fired the FBI director because he wouldn’t preemptively exonerate the president and because of the “Russia thing.” Once the investigation began, and Trump realized he could be vulnerable on obstruction of justice, he stepped up the obstruction! Of course he did. He instructed White House counsel Don McGahn to get Mueller fired; he engaged in character assassination of potential witnesses; he “launched public attacks on the investigation and individuals involved in it who could possess evidence adverse to [him], while in private, [he] engaged in a series of targeted efforts to control the investigation.” Mueller cites ten separate cases of obstruction. In six of them, he establishes an obstructive act; a link with an official proceeding; and a corrupt intent. Which is to say there is no doubt that this is what Trump did six times. In another case, Mueller found substantial evidence of obstruction.

He dangled pardons for anyone who might incriminate him. His initial blandishments toward Michael Cohen shifted to calling him a “rat” as soon as he started cooperating with legal authorities. Donald McGahn’s recollection under oath of being told by Trump to get Mueller fired was met with Trump’s attempt to get McGahn to “do a correction” and lie to Mueller and the press. (Trump was amazed, like any criminal, that McGahn took notes.) He tried to identify someone “on the team” at the DOJ who could replace Sessions. He told his press secretary to lie to the public. Then there was a relentless, outrageous attempt to accuse the FBI of spying on Trump for partisan reasons, the CIA of trying to oust him, and to promote the Roy Cohn tactic of arguing that the only Russia conspiracy was actually that of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. He continuously described the investigation as a “hoax”, a witch hunt, entirely staffed by partisan Democrats, and is now angling to get his docile attorney general to initiate an investigation of public servants doing their job. All of this is outside the boundaries of any previous president, including Nixon. It’s appalling.

And then there is Trump’s persistent claim that a president is effectively above the rule of law. This is attorney general William Barr’s belief — that a president has total executive control over the administration of justice and can direct it away from himself for any reason with complete impunity. Yesterday Trump tweeted that “I had the right to end the whole Witch Hunt if I wanted to. I could have fired everyone, including Mueller, if I wanted to.” Worth noting this claim for the future, don’t you think? The only reason he didn’t get rid of Mueller was because a handful of his underlings — Priebus, McGahn, and Sessions among them — resisted him. And so this is not just about past obstruction; it is about the very high likelihood of future obstruction. It’s about recrafting the rule of law into one where one man controls everything and can do anything he pleases.

All of this is an unprecedented series of impeachable offenses. It is a textbook definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” It is the story of a president assaulting the rule of law, attempting to manipulate the justice system, dangling pardons to induce perjury, and reflexively putting his own personal interests — or simply ego — before any interest of the country as a whole. Mueller openly states that his own investigation was thwarted by the president to the extent that the “the justice system’s integrity [was] threatened.” When a president openly threatens the integrity of the justice system, and says he has unlimited power to do so in the future, he not only can be impeached, he must be impeached.

I understand the prudential concerns about this. I share them. I worry about pushing Trump into outright insanity. And I worry that the contemporary GOP is all too happy to create a presidency — as long as it’s theirs — beyond the rule of law. Even though no previous impeachment process has ever engaged in the kind of assault on our entire system of government that we see now before us, the GOP will protect their cult leader. They are far gone. There will never be enough Republican votes to convict Trump in the Senate. But after this report’s summary and backup for what we have been witnessing in public for two years now, there is another consideration. What are the consequences of not impeaching?

They are, it seems to me, real and immediate. Trump now has a Justice Department run by a loyalist who believes in total executive supremacy, and who has just revealed himself as a man willing to lie and deceive and distort to please his master. Every official who might have restrained this president is gone. There are almost no heads of agencies, and no dissent in the Cabinet. The country is effectively being ruled by a monarch and his court. Foreign policy has been given to family members. The Fed is being rigged to remove professionals and install loyal toadies. The judiciary is being filled with judges who defer to presidential power in every circumstance. We have a president who only last week told his new acting DHS secretary, Kevin McAleenan, to break the law if necessary to stop asylum seekers from entering the country, and that he’d have his back and pardon him if he got into trouble. In any other time, that alone would demand impeachment. We know now, however, that this is just one instance of a clear pattern of lawlessness.

We also know that the president will put his personal ego above even an investigation of an assault by a foreign power against our democracy — a threat far graver than lying under oath about an affair or passively covering up a two-bit robbery (the cause of the last two impeachments). It is a declaration that this president will not stop that foreign meddling from happening again, and will be happy if it helps reelect him. This is, quite simply, intolerable. We have a president who is an instinctual criminal and liar, who threatens the integrity of our justice system and of our democratic elections, who is incapable of understanding the rule of law, backed by an attorney general who just outright distorted the findings of the special counsel.

What more do we need to know? To refuse to use the one weapon the Founders gave us to remove such a character from office is more than cowardice. It is complicity. It is a surrender to forces which aim to make the world safe for authoritarianism. It may not work. But if we acquiesce, pretend it isn’t happening, or look away, it cannot work. This disgusting man is not just a cancer in the presidency. His presidency is a cancer in our Constitution and way of life. How long do we let this metastasize even further? How long before we take a stand? Mueller has given us the road map. He has done his duty. Now it’s our turn to do ours: “to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

There is no qualification in that oath of citizenship.

Impeach Trump now.

How Homophobic Is Mike Pence?

The answer is pretty much fixed for almost all of those in the LGBTQ parts of woke world. He’s the most powerful virulently bigoted politician in America. And when such views harden, it’s always worth asking for clear evidence. What slurs has this man used? What policies, rooted in nothing but bigotry, has he endorsed? When has he interacted with gay people so as to demonstrate his fear and loathing?

Slurs? None that is in the public record. Visceral discomfort? Again I haven’t seen it on tape, and haven’t heard any first-person accounts. So we are left with his policy views. How bigoted — as opposed to simply being Evangelically orthodox — are they? Well the one policy that I have heard of is that Pence favors conversion therapy for gay people. And I do think such therapy is an appalling attempt, especially for the young, to demonize and pathologize what is a perfectly normal sexual orientation, using techniques that do nothing but impose misery and self-hatred on the vulnerable. Here is CNN reporting what has become the conventional wisdom: “[Pence] signaled support for federal funds to be allocated for gay ‘conversion therapy’ on his 2000 US House campaign website, where it said ‘resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.’”

That’s pretty definitive. But when the Post’s fact-checker Glenn Kessler tried to flesh it out, he couldn’t. The evidence for Pence’s bigotry is a generic list of GOP goals in 2000 cited by Pence’s campaign of that year. Here’s the money quote: “Congress should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” It seems pretty obvious from the context that “sexual behavior” means unsafe sex. Not sexual orientation. Another segment of the platform page refers to “the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus.” This was in the context of the Ryan White Act’s approval of funds to combat HIV and AIDS.

When explicitly asked about whether Pence supports conversion therapy, his spokesperson told the Post in 2018: “The vice president has never supported conversion therapy and doesn’t support it now. Any reports to the contrary are patently false. He’s been abundantly clear on the matter.” That’s a big relief and would actually place Pence on the left side of the Christianist right. And I have to say nothing I have heard him say suggests hate for gay people. What I hear him offer is standard Evangelical orthodoxy, which bars any legal or moral standing for gay people on a couple of Biblical texts.

How about Pence’s support for religious freedom, in particular the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana? Mayor Pete argued at the time that the law would allow open discrimination by businesses against gay people. Pence denied that, and the law was adjusted to rule that out. Pence also made clear his personal view: “If I saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, I wouldn’t eat there anymore.” Have there been any instances of businesses firing gay people on religious freedom grounds since the law passed? None that I can find.

Look: I disagree with Pence, both in terms of Christianity and in terms of public policy. I was campaigning for marriage equality 21 years before Pence signed the RFRA. I dissent from the teaching of the Catholic Church on this and believe deeply that if other minorities are protected from workplace discrimination, including religious people, opposing such rights for gay and trans people is wrong. But it may not spring from bigotry or hatred — but from sincere religious conviction. Saying that Pence is wrong both theologically and politically is not the same as calling him a hateful, nasty homophobe — as opposed to an orthodox Evangelical. More to the point, calling Pence a hateful bigot when his public statements and affect are anything but can be counterproductive. Buttigieg solidified his gay and liberal backing with his anti-Pence rhetoric (which was, however, far more restrained than others’) but came off as a little ungracious. It’s fine to mock Pence or make fun of him; it isn’t fair to equate him to foul bigots.

If we are to live in a free society, other people can have very different views on certain subjects, including religious views on homosexuality. We should, in my view, combat the exhausted arguments of the Christianist right against full gay and trans integration and equality. But we shouldn’t demonize those who are arguing in good faith; and we cannot make every orthodox Christian into a gay-hating bigot. Don’t condemn; engage. Don’t demonize; explain. Using those tactics we won historic gains and rightly claimed the higher ground. We can do better — and so can Pete Buttigieg.

Could We Still Build Something as Beautiful as Notre-Dame?

Along with so many others, I found the images of the destruction of Notre-Dame close to unbearable. For some, it represented a simply appalling loss for global culture. For others, a kind of torment for the idea of France, its history, its soul — even in thoroughly post-Christian times. I could not stop myself from seeing it as a metaphor — for the near-extinction of Christianity, the metaphysics that underpins so much of the West’s distinctiveness and coherence: its defense of the individual soul as inviolate, for example. It remains an open question whether liberalism, broadly understood, can survive the loss of its metaphysical foundations. And as we see liberal democracy struggle to articulate its truth against the ocean of nihilism, the lure of tribalism, the cult of the strongman, and the left’s contempt for the Enlightenment and religion — the burning of this symbol of Christian devotion cut me to the quick.

But it also reminded me of the question of beauty in modernity. By which I mean: Can our civilization ever create anything of comparable beauty to Notre-Dame, or indeed the archipelago of cathedrals across Europe, stemming from the middle ages? I can’t see it. The core criteria for creating modern architecture — even if it is not brutally ugly or mediocre — are usefulness and cost. Beauty — even if it is formally considered in architecture — is usually subordinate. Even if you survey modern cathedrals, there is a lack of detail, and an absence of the kind of skill that enabled the twelfth century to construct marvels beyond our capacity. We have technique in abundance; we have technology that would have appeared as magic to the designers of Notre-Dame; we have wealth beyond measure in comparison. But even the architectural baubles of our new religion — think of Apple’s new headquarters, for example — contain nothing as complex or as overwhelming or as awe-inspiring as the rose stained glass window of an eleventh century masterpiece.

I’m not saying I want to go back to the Middle Ages. We have gained a staggering amount of peace, security, freedom, health and knowledge. Theocracy is no longer an option. But they had something we don’t, didn’t they? A unifying vision of the whole of life and death, a common, metaphysically rooted faith, and an enchantment modernity has banished. I think of these cathedrals as they must have appeared at the time to peasants on a pilgrimage, looming on the horizon like a spaceship compared to the misery and brutality of life in that era, overwhelming the senses, commanding awe and devotion, reifying faith in an almost unanswerable way. When we see Notre-Dame burn, we see the reality of our time: that this exquisite kind of architectural beauty is never going to be summoned up again, nor the souls who imagined it, nor the human beings who crafted every inch of it with love.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Impeach Trump Now!