The definition that’s letting Trump off the hook
The new round of reporting with insight from members of Robert Mueller’s notoriously tightlipped team offers very strong support to the view that the special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election was more damaging to President Trump — perhaps far more damaging — than the initial impression shaped by Attorney General William Barr.
Mueller may have made the mistake of assuming good faith on the part of an administration where that’s in extremely short supply. Barr’s letter purportedly laying out the special counsel’s principal conclusions now risks looking more like a political whitewash than a genuine effort to inform the people charged with protecting our country and the American people.
It’s been three weeks since Mueller submitted his final report, and all we have seen of it are the roughly 100 words t quoted in Barr’s letter, the most important are actually in a footnote, which defines the terms of Mueller’s criminal “coordination” inquiry. He defined that term as an “agreement — tacit or express — between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference.”
A definition like that has extraordinary power. It draws a bright line between an abuse of power in pursuit of higher office that would almost certainly set the stage for impeachment and what the president has called a “complete and total exoneration.” Furthermore, in Barr’s legal view, if there was no underlying criminal act, then there can be no obstruction of justice, no matter how damning the evidence may be.
But legal conclusions aren’t the only issue at stake — they might not even be the most important. What we may learn is that even if the Trump campaign didn’t meet a strict, legal definition of coordination, it still presented a national security threat. What’s more, it still might be doing so.
The “coordination” part of Mueller’s investigation assessed evidence through a most narrow frame. The shortcoming with this approach is that the interference effort in the 2016 campaign was deliberately designed to hide the Russian government’s role in the affair. If the line Mueller drew was an agreement of some kind with the “Russian government,” then the chance that anyone connected with the Trump campaign would face criminal conspiracy charges over election interference was exceedingly low. Looking for the Russian government’s unseen hand in the murky contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia is bit a like chasing smoke.
Russia’s vaunted intelligence directorate was never going to send its spies to meet Trump campaign officials on a foggy bridge in Berlin. Russia did, however, send use all manner of cutouts and access agents to deliver messages to the Trump campaign to ensure maximum ambiguity and plausible deniability.
One example is the case of Roger Stone. Even if, say, Stone did coordinate the release of Democratic Party emails with Wikileaks, as he proudly hinted during the campaign, that would still fall outside the narrow scope of Mueller’s definition. Wikileaks wasn’t part of the Russian government, although Russia used it, unwittingly or not, as a cutout to publish Democratic Party emails. And Stone wasn’t officially a member of the Trump campaign.
In their prepared statements to Congress, both Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner issued nearly identical, carefully worded denials that they “did not collude with any foreign government” and know of no one who did. But that doesn’t cover the June 2016 meeting both men attended in Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who wasn’t part of the Russian government although an email to the president’s son telling him she was bringing dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of the Russian government’s effort to help his father.
Did Paul Manafort know that the man who ran his Ukraine office, Konstantin Klimnik, had ties to Russian intelligence, as the F.B.I. suspsects? “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer,’” Manafort once said.
And what about the Trump Tower Moscow deal about which Michael Cohen admitted he lied to Congress? That wasn’t related to election interference. Neither were Kushner’s discussions with Russian officials during the campaign about forming a secret back channel. Mike Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about discussing sanctions, not election interference, with the Russian ambassador.
It’s hard enough to figure out what’s really going on in this through-the-looking-glass world famously likened to a “wilderness of mirrors.” The recently released transcript of George Papadopoulos, the young Trump campaign foreign policy aide convicted of lying to the F.B.I., reveals that he was still confused by Joseph Mifsud, the shadowy professor who told him in April 2016 that he had returned from Moscow and that the Russians had thousands of Clinton’s emails. “Why was he lying, or why would he be masquerading as something he’s not?” Papadopoulos asked during his House testimony.
It was Papadopoulos’s conversation with an Australian diplomat that in July 2016 set in motion the FBI counterintelligence investigation into Russian election interference. The job of FBI counterintelligence officials is primarily to neutralize a threat to national security, which may or not end up in criminal court. Mueller inherited the much-maligned investigation into whether the Trump campaign was a threat to national security. It will likely form part of his nearly 400-page report, along with an explanation of why such a tradition-bound prosecutor decided not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment about whether President Trump obstructed justice.
We do know that the Trump campaign not only didn’t say a word about that interference to any American charged with protecting our democracy but actually ennabled it — albeit without making a tacit, express agreement — and subsequently lied about it. That may not be criminal, but it is not exculpatory.
Alarming conduct continues: The blooming congressional investigation into White House security clearances revealed that such threats to national security are routinely disregarded by the Trump White House. More than two dozen individuals were granted access to the nation’s deepest secrets over the objections of security professionals for reasons that include foreign influence. Kushner was granted a security clearance reportedly on the personal order of the president.
All we know, based on the definition quoted in the attorney general’s letter, is that Mueller looked at certain events of the 2016 election through a very narrow lens — surely more narrow than the “links and/or coordination” between the Russian government and “individuals associated with campaign of President Donald Trump” he was charged with investigating.
We still have a lot to learn from the report about what happened to the “links” Mueller was charged with investigating, but there’s little doubt there were plenty of them.
This isn’t the first time a definition has determined the fate of a presidency. The definition of “sexual relations” was critical to whether President Clinton could be accused of perjury and impeached by the House. No one accepted Clinton’s definition of sexual relations, which didn’t apply to his actions with Monica Lewinsky. We shouldn’t be so quick to accept a hastily-written letter that may be using a narrow definition to provide political cover and exonerate the president.