For a man with a lot of serious issues he needs to address every day, President Trump plainly spends a lot of time thinking about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. If you’re one of his supporters, it can be a challenge just to keep up with the shifting defenses he offers for the things he and people working for him did during the campaign, so today we’re going to focus on this rather extraordinary outburst from yesterday afternoon:
This is like someone on trial for bank robbery saying, “That bank wasn’t even robbed! Somebody else robbed it! And what we should really be asking is why the cops didn’t stop the bank from being robbed!”
Last week I wrote a piece arguing that we need to stop chasing Trump down the absurd rabbit holes that he digs for us, where we pretend that some ridiculous lie he tosses out is worthy of serious consideration. So I want to tread carefully here, because the question isn’t whether Trump’s specific allegations have any merit. This is worth discussing, however, because it’s part of a broader campaign on the part of the president and his allies to create a fog around the truth of what happened in 2016. It’s plain that he desperately wants us to forget those events, particularly his own actions and those of people around him.
We should say there’s a case to be made that President Barack Obama did not act aggressively enough to counter Russian meddling in our election. All the reports we have gotten suggest Obama was extremely reluctant to do anything that would suggest he was trying to use the resources of the federal government to help Hillary Clinton. For instance, at one point, then-FBI Director James B. Comey suggested that he could write an op-ed explaining what Russia was doing, but Obama “replied that going public would play right into Russia’s hands by sowing doubts about the election’s legitimacy,” according to the New York Times.
So there may have been more aggressive moves Obama could have made, even if any public statements he had offered would have been unlikely to change the outcome of the election. But here’s what’s important now: Whatever you think of Obama’s decision-making, it changes nothing about what Trump and his campaign did.
And because the president is trying so hard to obscure the actual history of 2016, let’s review some facts about the Trump campaign and Russia that are not in dispute:
- Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is under indictment for a series of crimes, some of which are connected to his relationships with a Kremlin-allied Ukrainian leader and a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin. His deputy, Rick Gates, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI, and is cooperating with the Mueller investigation.
- In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. was approached by an acquaintance with an offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton from a group of Russians, which the acquaintance characterized as follows: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Don Jr. replied “I love it” and gathered Manafort and Jared Kushner to meet with the Russians.
- When the story of that meeting broke about a year later, President Trump himself reportedly dictated a false story to be given to the press, claiming that the meeting took place to discuss adoption of Russian children.
- In July 2016, Trump publicly encouraged Russia to hack into Clinton’s email.
- In 2015, Michael Flynn, who would go on to become Trump’s national security adviser, was paid $45,000 plus travel expenses to deliver a speech in Moscow at an event honoring RT, a television network that acts as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. He sat with Putin at the dinner.
- Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI investigators about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.
- George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, got the FBI counterintelligence investigation rolling when he told an Australian diplomat that the campaign had been offered dirt on Clinton from Russia in the form of hacked emails. (The diplomat passed the information along to the U.S. government.) Papadopoulos also pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and is cooperating with Mueller.
- Carter Page, another Trump foreign policy adviser, had been on the FBI radar for years before the campaign because they suspected that Russian intelligence agents were attempting to recruit him. In 2016 the FBI became concerned enough about his contacts with people connected to the Russian government that it obtained a FISA warrant to monitor him.
- Both in his confirmation hearing and on a security clearance questionnaire in preparation for becoming attorney general, Jeff Sessions claimed that he had no contact with Russian officials during the campaign. He later admitted that this was false and that he did have multiple meetings with the Russian ambassador.
- During the presidential transition, the Russian ambassador was picked up on surveillance telling his superiors that Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, had suggested they set up a secret communications channel, perhaps within the Russian Embassy or consulate, so that Trump aides could speak to the Russians without U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring the communications. Even the Russians found this suggestion completely bonkers.
To repeat, none of that is in dispute. And it’s only part of the full picture of the Russia investigation, which has expanded to include other potential crimes. We can argue about the significance of any one piece of that puzzle; some pieces are very significant, and others may be trivial. We can also argue about whether Trump is innocent or guilty of particular crimes such as obstruction of justice. But the connections between the Trump campaign and Russia were so copious that it would be positively bizarre for there not to be a serious, thorough investigation, especially considering that we know Russia carried out a comprehensive effort to manipulate our election.
Yet that is exactly what Trump is trying to persuade people to believe: not just that he’s innocent, but that he and everyone around him are so obviously innocent that there should never have been an investigation in the first place. Of all his crazy claims about Russia, that may be the craziest.
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