The most interesting and newsworthy portion of Robert Mueller’s six hours of testimony before the House yesterday came in the final two exchanges of the day, long after the narrative was set and the national media had grown bored. In those ten minutes, Mueller confirmed that Russia had blackmail leverage over Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.
The Mueller report states that it was a criminal investigation, not a counterintelligence probe. If Moscow has leverage over a presidential candidate, that is not a crime. Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi opened the line of inquiry by getting Mueller to offer that counterintelligence findings “probably were made in the FBI” and that “the counterintelligence goals of our investigation … were secondary to any criminal wrongdoing that we could find.” Mueller agreed that “the question of whether Russian oligarchs engaged in money laundering through any of the president’s businesses” — a possibility strongly suggested by numerous journalists who have studied Trump’s finances — was “outside his purview.”
But, incidentally to the criminal investigation, Mueller’s criminal probe did turn up at least some counterintelligence findings.
Mueller agreed that, if a candidate lies about his dealings with a foreign country, that country can blackmail him:
KRISHNAMOORTHI: Individuals can be subject to blackmail if they lie about their interactions with foreign countries, correct?
Krishnamoorthi mentioned Michael Flynn, who had lied to the FBI about his interactions with Russia. “Flynn’s false statements could pose a national security risk because the Russians knew the falsity of those statements,” he suggested. Mueller replied, “There are many elements of the FBI that are looking at different aspects of that issue.” “Currently?” asked an apparently surprised Krishnamoorthi. “Currently,” replied Mueller.
Krishnamoorthi then applied the logic to Trump. Trump was lying in public about his dealings with Russia, again subjecting him to blackmail:
KRISHNAMOORTHI: As you noted in volume two of your report, Donald Trump repeated five times in one press conference, Mr. Mueller, in 2016, “I have nothing to do with Russia.” Of course Michael Cohen said Donald Trump was not being truthful, because at this time Trump was attempting to build Trump Tower Moscow. Your report does not address whether Donald Trump was compromised in any way because of any potential false statements that he made about Trump Tower Moscow, correct?
MUELLER: I think that’s right — I think that’s right.
In the next exchange, chairman Adam Schiff picked up the thread. He again first got Mueller to endorse the general principle that the kind of behavior Trump engaged in made him subject to blackmail:
SCHIFF: The need to act in an ethical manner is not just a moral one, but when people act unethically it also exposes them to compromise, particularly in dealing with foreign powers, is that true?
SCHIFF: Because when someone acts unethically in connection with a foreign partner, that foreign partner can expose their wrongdoing and extort them.
SCHIFF: And that conduct — that unethical conduct can be of a financial nature if you have a financial motive or illicit business dealing, am I right?
SCHIFF: It could also just involve deception. If you are lying about something that can be exposed, then you can be blackmailed.
MUELLER: Also true.
Having established the principle, Schiff drew out a concrete example from the report. Michael Cohen was negotiating the Trump Tower deal with Moscow — which Mueller estimated could give Trump several hundred million dollars of profit with no downside risk — while Trump denied it publicly. Mueller confirmed it:
SCHIFF: Well, let’s look at Dmitry Peskov, the spokesperson for the Kremlin, someone that the Trump organization was in contact with to make that deal happen. Your report indicates that Michael Cohen had a long conversation on the phone with someone from Dmitry Peskov’s office. Presumably, the Russians could have tape-recorded that conversation, could they not?
SCHIFF: And so we have candidate Trump who’s saying, “I have no dealings with the Russians,” but if the Russians had a tape recording, they could expose that, could they not?
The media narrative has treated Russian leverage over Trump as a paranoid scenario debunked by the Mueller report. But Mueller was not looking primarily to resolve whether Russia had leverage over Trump. And yet he managed to turn up proof anyway.
To establish that Russia had leverage over Trump is not to say it had control over him. Trump is not a Russian agent. He does not follow orders from Russia. But Russia’s leverage does constrain his independence. If Trump breaks too deeply with Vladimir Putin, he knows Putin had, or has, the means to embarrass him. That blackmail leverage is a constraint normal presidential candidates do not have.
It is also a situation most conservatives have deemed an acceptable price for tax cuts and business self-regulation. The Wall Street Journal editorial page called Schiff’s exchange “the lowest moment” of the hearings. “If you don’t have the facts,” it complained, “obfuscate with a general, content-less smear.”
But Mueller did have the facts. The proof was sitting there in the report all along, and yesterday — in blunt, simple, and chilling terms — he actually confirmed what this all meant.