I was out of the country on vacation with my family, with limited Internet and no TV, when the Mueller report hit.
With apologies to Thomas Jefferson, what’d I miss?
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Bottom line up front, as they say:
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, the special counsel’s report—or more correctly, Bill Barr’s Cliff Notes version of it—has scrambled the political landscape, and represents a big win for Team Trump, at least insofar as the state of partisan play in the short term. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. At the same time, Trump and his minions are—characteristically—vastly misrepresenting what happened, and we can expect that they will continue to do so and only get worse, if they can get away with it.
How all this plays out going forward promises to be very complex, but we must grapple with that new paradigm.
In terms of sheer optics, Trump has been handed a huge victory, if only temporarily, of a magnitude that I suspect even he did not imagine possible, and which—true to form—he is exaggerating and distorting and using to further undermine the very rule of law that gave it to him. Nuance and detail and the actual facts have never mattered when it comes to Trump, and that has never been more true than right now.
How is it that, once again, some of the worst people in America—that is to say, Donald Trump and his inner circle—have been given a massive Christmas gift by the very same democratic institutions that they daily attack and seek to undermine, a gift that they will now use as a cudgel to further batter and enfeeble those institutions to their benefit?
For progressives, centrists, Bill Kristol-style conservatives, and everybody else who doesn’t think Rodrigo Duterte is a good role model, it was the third in a soul-crushing trifecta of awfulness, along with the 2016 election itself and the Kavanaugh confirmation. It wasn’t the worst case scenario for us Trump foes—total exoneration—but it was pretty close: partial exoneration on the central count (or at least a declination to prosecute) that left loads of unanswered questions jealously guarded by the GOP dragon (if the dragon was a bunch of fat old white guys in a dragon suit), allowing Trump to convincingly claim victory and control the narrative, at least for now. Trump was even spared the public scolding Hillary got from a self-righteous James Comey when he cleared her of wrongdoing in the email probe, yet felt compelled to break DOJ policy and hold a press conference slamming her anyway. And as a bonus, in that same span of a few days, the House—as expected—failed to override the veto on the border wall “emergency,” and Michael Avenatti got indicted by the SDNY for trying to extort Nike.
All told, it was the best week Trump had in months, certainly since November 2016, and maybe since that night in Vegas with Stormy. Bob Mueller may have freed Trump of the danger of being indicted for conspiracy with Putin, but someone should look into whether Trump has a pact with Satan.
RETURN OF THE SLOW WHITE BRONCO
So that happened.
For those of us who put intense faith in the idea that the special counsel would uncover presidency-ending wrongdoing—too much faith, as many spoilsports correctly noted—it was a bitter pill. (And I include myself in that, er, indictment.) But as David Frum wrote in the Atlantic way back in May 2017 when Mueller was first appointed (and reiterated again this week):
It’s very possible that Trump himself broke no criminal law in accepting campaign help from Putin. This ultra-legalistic nation expects wrongdoing to take the form of prosecutable crimes—and justice to occur in a courtroom. But many wrongs are not crimes. And many things that are crimes are not prosecutable for one reason or another….
So there it is.
For me, the analogy that immediately leapt to mind was OJ.
Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, I’m not saying we saw a perversion of justice. On the contrary. Irrespective of Trump’s actual guilt or innocence, the justice system operated exactly properly in the Mueller probe—to a fault almost, in its rigor and meticulous adherence to the letter of the law. Even in the Brown/Goldman murders—and notwithstanding Simpson’s undeniable guilt—the system arguably worked in that the prosecution failed to make its case, as the defense successfully put the entire history of racism in the LAPD (and in LA, and the US at large) on trial.
So what I mean by this analogy is that in the same way that the Juice was the least deserving possible beneficiary of the justice system self-correcting for years of wrongly convicting black men, Trump too is the epically undeserving beneficiary of honorable people following the rule of law—a rule of law that Trump himself holds in utter contempt, constantly besieges, and would deny to everyone else.
But as my friend Jim Bernfield replied when I floated this metaphor at him, “True, but it still sucks to be Nicole.”
In the days and months to come, we cannot let Trump succeed in distorting Mueller’s conclusions, and we cannot bow to his crowing that he has been cleared of all wrongdoing. We need to fight for public release of the full SCO report, which may yet upend the landscape again. Whatever details emerge, however, they will likely be complex and lack the useful simplicity of screaming, sloppy headlines like “Mueller finds no collusion!”, which will make our task even more difficult. (Indeed, that may have been the very heart of the GOP strategy for handling the release of the report.) And we will have to do it all in a new political reality unlike the one to which we have grown accustomed since May 2017, which is to say, for almost the entire Trump presidency.
The good news is that, just one week in, we are already seeing the narrative shifting—at least in the reality-based world—as Democrats recover from their shock and we begin to understand just how little we really know, and how carefully that information has been cherrypicked and controlled and crafted by William Barr. The pushback is beginning, and while a fight is surely in the cards, I suspect the administration will be unable to keep the report under wraps forever. Yes, with each precious day their version of events hardens, but only within Fox Nation, where Trump’s lies set like Krazy Glue immediately on contact anyway.
For the rest of us, it remains to be seen how accurate Barr’s—and Trump’s—initial take on Mueller’s findings are, if the current interpretation will hold, or if we are actually witnessing a slow-motion coverup. Releasing the full report would go a long way toward settling that question, if Republicans really are so confident that it clears their boy. If they balk, it will really start to look fishy.
So having acknowledged all that like the grownups we aspire to be, let us now get into the weeds and look at the underlying truths in play, irrespective of spin. (Republicans: you can skip this part. I know that, ultimately, you will anyway.)
COLLUSION IS AS COLLUSION DOES
Regardless of party affiliation, we should of course all be glad to learn that the President of the United States did not obtain his position by colluding with a foreign power.
Except that’s not what the Mueller report said.
It said that the Special Counsel’s Office did not establish sufficient evidence to charge Trump or his team with the crime that is technically described as conspiracy to defraud the United States. (And even that was a truncated mid-sentence pull quote, the context of which we don’t yet know.) “Collusion,” as Trump’s amen corner loved to remind us, has no legal meaning, and therefore is not itself a crime, even as they claimed there was no collusion anyway.
That declination to prosecute is not the same thing as exoneration; it’s more like a “get out of jail free” card. From the very beginning Trump himself set the bar at this all-but-impossible height in a binary formulation—felony indictment or absolute exoneration. It was the savvy move of a veteran con man, and it worked.
Seen in that light, the idea that Trump may have conspired but can’t be nailed for it is actually even MORE maddening.
Now, before you accuse me of being a left wing deadender in eternal search of mythical proof of Trumpian guilt, let me clarify:
All I am pointing out is that Trump and his supporters are falsely claiming “complete and total exoneration” when in fact all that’s been concluded is that he won’t be prosecuted for this one specific crime. Writing in New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait neatly summarizes the paradox:
It is bizarre…..to spend two years insisting collusion is not a crime and then turn around and call the absence of crimes proof that there was no collusion. Of course Trump colluded with Russia. He literally went on camera and asked Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, promising that Russia would be rewarded by the American media, and Russia responded to this request by attempting a hack to steal Clinton’s emails that very day. Trump’s campaign aides repeatedly welcomed and sought out Russian assistance. His campaign manager passed on 75 pages of intricate polling data to a Russian operative during the campaign. And he did all this while secretly pursuing a lucrative business deal with Russia. To define this nexus of communication and shared mission as something other than “collusion” is to define the term in a way that nobody would have accepted before this scandal began.
(H)undreds of pages of legal filings and independent reporting since Mueller was appointed nearly two years ago have painted a striking portrayal of a presidential campaign that appeared untroubled by a foreign adversary’s attack on the US political system—and eager to accept the help. When Trump’s eldest son was offered dirt about Hillary Clinton that he was told was part of a Russian government effort to help his father, he responded, “I love it.” When longtime Trump friend Roger Stone was told a Russian national wanted to sell damaging information about Clinton, he took the meeting. When the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks published documents that the Democratic National Committee said had been stolen by Russian operatives, Trump’s campaign quickly used the information to its advantage. Rather than condemn the Kremlin, Trump famously asked Russia to steal more.
Needless to say, Trump’s repeated attempts to shut down the Russia inquiry—from firing Jim Comey in the first place for that very reason (as he told Lester Holt on national television), to attempting to fire Mueller himself, to railing against the investigation almost every day—also bespeak funny business.
For that matter, the collusion is ongoing. The US intelligence community has stated unequivocally that Russian interference in our elections is continuing and will only increase as 2020 approaches…..yet Trump and the GOP have lifted not a finger to stop it, as they know it benefits them. Indeed, they have actively refused to take the measures that freaked-out cyberwar experts have pleaded with them to put in place to hinder these foreign attacks, nor spent any of the money allocated to harden our defenses against hostile penetration and manipulation. These sins of omission cannot properly be described as anything other than collaboration with a foreign power by means of negligence, all in the interest of skewing elections and retaining power, not to mention a violation of Trump’s oath to protect and defend the Constitution. That is a flat-out treasonous outrage that goes far beyond hanky panky with Putin, WikiLeaks, and Cambridge Analytica. It is an act that ought to infuriate patriotic Americans of every ideological persuasion.
So who’s the one wallowing in delusions here? People like me, for calling attention to this shameless Republican disinformation campaign and the behavior it protects? Or Trump and the GOP for standing in front of a still-raging housefire and saying, “Nothing to see here, folks, move along.”
TINKER TAILOR GRIFTER SPY
So Trump, retaining his title of luckiest mofo on the planet, has managed to dodge one bullet. But he wants us to think he has dodged them all, when in fact a Gatling gun’s worth of further allegations still await.
“Collusion” was always only one small—albeit baroque—piece of the larger picture of Trumpian corruption…..a fact that, yes, we progressives should have kept front and center in the national conversation even as we put high hopes in the special counsel probe. But myriad other sins uncovered by the Mueller team (and others) are still in play: some criminal, many of which were passed off to other legal entities like the Southern District of New York; others not necessarily illegal but still potentially impeachable offenses; and still others indisputably alarming national security matters outside the legal realm altogether.
Here’s Michelle Goldberg writing in the New York Times, with her brow firmly arched:
The Mueller investigation is over, and the only people close to Donald Trump who have been criminally charged are his former campaign chairman, former deputy campaign chairman, former personal lawyer, former national security adviser, former campaign foreign policy adviser and Roger Stone, the president’s longtime friend and strategist.
For you may recall that there was a second part to the Mueller probe in addition to its criminal dimension, which is a counterintelligence investigation. That went completely unmentioned in Barr’s summary, perhaps because it is classified. But if so, that makes it more relevant than ever.
We already know that the past two years have uncovered dozens of contacts between Russian assets and members of Trump’s circle, to include immediate family members, despite their denials to high heaven that there were any contacts whatsoever. And why did Trump and his associates relentlessly lie through their bonded teeth about that? The answer—as provided by the special counsel, as well as other investigators (and, important to note, journalists)—is because he is in massive debt to Russian money (see Eric Trump, and Deutsche Bank)…..because he is likely complicit in extensive moneylaundering for Russian oligarchs who are by definition connected to the Kremlin….and, most gobsmacking of all amid his howling insistence that he had no business interests in Russia of any kind, because he was trying to build a Trump Tower in Moscow well into the 2016 campaign, even going so far as to offer Putin himself a $50 million dollar bribe in the process. That lie—uncovered by the Mueller probe through its interrogation of Michael Cohen, in a case now referred to the SDNY—is one that left him stunningly vulnerable to Russian blackmail, which ought to be a world-rocking crisis all by itself. And we don’t even know what other counterintelligence implications the special counsel found because, obviously, we haven’t yet seen his report.
None of these counterintelligence matters are crimes per se, but they are very definitely scathing reflections on Trump and severe threats to national security. Which may be the understatement of the year. Frum again:
For all its many dark secrets, there have never been any real mysteries about the Trump-Russia story. The president of the United States was helped into his job by clandestine Russian attacks on the American political process. That core truth is surrounded by other disturbing probabilities, such as the likelihood that Putin even now is exerting leverage over Trump in some way.
So let me correct some sloppy and inaccurate reporting that I am seeing even in legitimate news outlets. The Mueller report did not absolve Trump on the question of his puzzling fealty to Moscow. His compromise by Russia is an indisputable fact that requires no action on his part, given that the target of blackmail is by definition passive. You don’t agree to be blackmailed: it just happens to you and you behave accordingly.
As a former intelligence officer, I can tell you that one only has to look at the trail of evidence to conclude that Trump is carrying water for the Kremlin, a pattern that requires no “collusion,” no “conspiracy,” not even any overt instructions by your tormentor. Trump simply knows that he must do Moscow’s bidding, and he has proven as much by doing it time and time again.
Why else did the Trump campaign—inexplicably at the time of the Republican convention—push through a 180 on the GOP platform on Ukraine to suit the Kremlin’s wishes? Why else has Trump consistently kowtowed to Putin, even publicly taking his word over that of the entire US intelligence community? Why else has he denigrated NATO, lifted sanctions on Moscow in defiance of even conservative wishes, abandoned Syria to the Russian sphere, handed over top secret intel to Lavrov and Kislyak on a silver platter, and on and on?
That the President of the United States is in thrall to a foreign power is far more damning than even electoral conspiracy. Indeed, as I and many others have written ad nauseam, it is a jawdropping scandal (or would be in any previous era). More to the point, it is a national security emergency that Congress is duty bound to address. That the current political climate precludes the obvious remedy—impeachment—should not prevent us from daily shouting from the rooftops to remind the American public of this absolutely shocking and unacceptable state of affairs.
And the front lines of that fight, now more than ever, is the 2020 election.
TEAM TRUMP’S SELECTIVE RESPECT FOR THE RULE OF LAW
As alluded to above, since the Mueller report dropped there has been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking accusing the left of playing into Donny’s hands by putting all its hopes on that probe. But it is not really a fair accusation.
Yes, like many many people, I found it an appealing “magic bullet” scenario that might eject this cretin from office before he can do any more damage, even as numerous smart observers have cautioned that proving conspiracy was always a long shot. But it was not a total pipe dream.
Like many many people, I found it completely plausible that Trump would collude with Russia because there ample circumstantial evidence to that end, because he was already in bed with Moscow on other matters even if it was under duress, and because the sheer number of lies that his circle had told about their contacts with Russians and Trump’s own frantic denials suggested a very guilty man. And I truly thought that the special counsel investigation would confirm it.
But it did not, at least not at the level of a prosecutable crime. Lots of people get away with crimes because their guilt can’t be proved, not even by the best prosecutors in the land. Or maybe Trump really didn’t conspire by the DOJ definition of the term. In any event, as a believer in the rule of law and a resident of the reality-based world, I accept that….unlike Trump and MAGA Nation, which habitually insist on calling defeat victory (see the government shutdown), or pretending something bad didn’t happen (like getting hoodwinked by North Korea), or just wasn’t a big deal (like Charlottesville).
Indeed, the hypocrisy of the current Republican gloating is neck deep. For twenty-some months Trump and his followers viciously decried the special counsel probe as “phony” and a “witchhunt.” Now they celebrate it as vindication? Needless to say, they can’t have it both ways.
According to Dana Milbank in the Washington Post, Trump himself used the term “witchhunt” 261 times, often in tweets rife with ALL CAPS. But if it was a witchhunt, why didn’t Mueller just make up evidence to implicate Trump? Could it be because his inquiry was in reality a perfectly legitimate, meticulously-run, utterly thorough investigation by top-drawer prosecutors of absolute integrity (unimpeachable, one might say) who followed the rule of law….something the right wing accepts only when it benefits them? Recall Trump’s depiction of the election itself, which was “rigged” until suddenly it wasn’t, and which even now he can’t shut up about, still bragging to the press and showing foreign dignitaries maps of the Electoral College. Keep that in mind as a model for how he will treat the Mueller report between now and November 2020. How can Trump now go on claiming there is a “deep state” conspiracy against him when the very people he savagely attacked STILL did their job honorably, even when it meant bringing no charges against him? I dunno, but he will, of course, and already is.
To that end, maybe the funniest thing I read this whole year was a news report last week that noted, “Trump aides cautioned him against triumphalism.” Talk about a thankless job. (After a brief and uncharacteristic interval of radio silence, Trump’s first tweet—“Complete and Total EXONERATION”—was actually the least annoying part, because it was exactly what we expected him to say no matter what.) Soon after, he wasted no time in calling for a banana republic-style purge and punishment of those he holds responsible for the appointment of a special counsel in the first place (Democratic leaders, principally), using words like “treasonous” and “evil,” which—apropos of the central point of this longwinded essay—speaks to his fundamental failure to understand the rule of law, and worse, his sheer contempt for it.
This reaction perfectly epitomizes the raging ball of anger and resentment that Trump seems to be 24/7, even when he wins. Genuine joy is not really in Trump’s emotional quiver, even in the best of times: only grim, sadistic, short-lived satisfaction before his anger locks onto a new target. Even his gloating is tinged more with bile than any sense of real gratification. (You know, like the kind non-sociopaths have.) Fury and lust for revenge—not relief that this particular threat has passed, or pleasure that he feels vindicated—seem to be the defining emotions in the White House since the submission of the SCO report, which really should not come as a surprise to anyone who has observed Trump for even a moment over his entire public life.
CAPTAIN QUEEG IN SEARCH OF HIS STRAWBERRIES
So where do we go from here?
To cop from Churchill, truly this is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning.
The actual Mueller report, we’re told, runs in excess of 300 pages. Bill Barr’s sketchy four-page summary is a laughably insufficient substitute, like a C-minus student’s flimsy book report on Great Expectations. (So to speak.) The fight to see the full report—even a redacted version—and all its underlying data is already telling in its intensity, and the longer Barr delays the more it reeks of coverup. After the House—in a stunning display of old-fashioned bipartisanship—voted 420-0 that the full report should be released to the public, Mitch McConnell has refused even to bring the measure to the Senate floor. So what are the Republicans afraid of? By hiding the report, they step on their own moment of glory by raising unsettling questions about what they don’t want the public to see and just how legitimate this quasi-“exoneration” really is. Trump’s own claim that he’s fine with the public seeing the full report is as worthless as his insistence to Chuck Schumer that he wouldn’t blame the Democrats for the shutdown.
Meanwhile, going forward toward November 3, 2020, Trump will continue to crow and raise the specter of the Mueller report to dismiss every other allegation and criticism as leftist fantasy. His base will love it. The other investigations—at least those conducted in public, like the Congressional ones, less so than those in the courts—will have to swim upstream against that, at least until the worm turns again. So be it.
What else? It’s hard to know. A giddy Trump, feeling both untouchable and furious, might overplay his hand, which he can usually be counted on to do. (A pardon for Manafort or Stone, perhaps? Or maybe going after Obamacare again, or the Special Olympics? Naw, that’s crazy!) Or he might run the table, win again in 2020, and successfully drag us further down the road to red-hatted, cult-of-personality authoritarianism. I wouldn’t rule out either scenario. Life has a way of turning around both victories and defeats in unexpected, O. Henry-like ways.
With Bob Mueller fading back into private life, Trump will be deprived of one of his favorite villains, but he’ll find a new one of course. It will be Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler for a while, then whomever becomes the Democratic frontrunner. Barring new bombshells, impeachment is probably off the menu, which might turn out be a blessing for Democrats, who will now be forced to campaign on the issues as they did to great success during the midterms, and a blow to Republicans who will be denied a favorite scare tactic. Or the details of the report might bring the prospect of Trump’s early dismissal roaring back to life, depending on how damning they are (and if we ever see them).
More liberal wishful thinking? Maybe. But declination to prosecute or not, I doubt it’s 300 pages of glowing praise for what a great guy Donald Trump is. Let’s see it and find out, shall we?
In short, the Mueller probe worked the way the rule of law is supposed to, even for people like Trump who are the undeserving beneficiaries of democratic mechanisms that they scorn. It’s already clear that he hasn’t learned that lesson…..but he’ll have plenty of opportunities in the dozens of other criminal investigations he still faces.
For let us not forget: even though he got the legal break that the Scottsboro Boys, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the Central Park Five, and countless other innocent African-American men deserved, OJ eventually did go to prison.
Next week on The King’s Necktie, more of this discussion, including Bill Barr’s own obstruction on obstruction, and what the future may hold…..