The Trump team's strategy on the special counsel's Russia investigation is to foment chaos, throw things at the wall, and worry about the facts later — or not at all.
The New York Times's Maggie Haberman on Friday crystallized this in a CNN interview. “The through line is: They don't care,” she said. “They're not looking to be seen as making this credible argument. They are just looking to get a win.”
Exactly. Regardless of whether Trump or his aides did anything wrong with regards to Robert S. Mueller III's Russia investigation, it's notable just how often they have cast aside logic and reality in defending themselves. Plenty have surmised that this is because the truth is so damning; the alternative is that they just aren't very good at this and/or “don't care.”
But it's worth emphasizing just how seldom their arguments have been made in good faith or with any real logical backbone. The White House has gone further than even most politicians generally go in stretching the bounds of legitimate discourse — including more than once this week.
The most recent example of this strategy is the supposed FBI informant within the Trump campaign. After Trump tweeted about the possibility that the FBI had "implanted" someone in his campaign "for political purposes" -- apparently based on pure speculation -- the New York Times and The Washington Post both reported Friday night that it was actually an American academic who met with multiple members of the Trump campaign, not a "spy."
Below is a recap of five of the most tortured arguments put forward to undermine the Russia investigation.
Mueller's probe is bogus because there's no proof of collusion yet
This is perhaps the most popular talking point among Trump's most vocal supporters. If the investigation is legitimate, they argue, why haven't we seen any demonstrable proof of collusion yet? It has been a whole year!
The answer, of course, is that it's an ongoing investigation, and we probably know only about a tiny fraction of the evidence collected. The only hints we get about what is going on behind closed doors has come from people outside the investigation who have participated in one form or another and from a few court filings that Mueller has been compelled to file. Like any other prosecutor, Mueller has a huge interest in concealing his hand before he absolutely has to reveal it.
In other words: We would never have expected to see evidence of collusion by now. That doesn't mean it does or doesn't exist. And the idea that we haven't seen it rolled out publicly means basically nothing. It's not a serious argument.
The FBI was spying on the Trump campaign
The flavor of the month for Trump and his defenders has to do with an alleged FBI informant who was working for the Trump campaign. This is being used to substantiate the idea that there is a witch hunt with a predetermined outcome.
Trump this week repeatedly seized upon a speculative argument from the National Review's Andrew McCarthy.
He even suggested that the informant was “implanted” by the FBI, “for political purposes.”
Except ... that was based on secondhand reports that were admittedly speculating and drawing inferences. Even Trump's attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani admitted Friday that Trump doesn't know whether someone was “implanted.” And now we find out that it wasn't someone insider the campaign after all. The Times and The Post aren't naming the academic, because the FBI believes it could endanger the source, but both reports describe a decidedly non-controversial arrangement.
And yet, this was being billed by Trump as potentially the “all time biggest political scandal” and, in Giuliani's estimation, something that would require shutting down the Mueller probe.
Obama wiretapped Trump Tower
Speaking of that Giuliani interview, he actually acknowledged in it that a past Trump theory about being surveilled by law enforcement still hasn't been proven. That would be Trump's 14-month-old tweet alleging that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump's offices during the 2016 campaign.
“For a long time, we've been told that there was some kind of infiltration,” Giuliani said. “At one time, the president thought it was a wiretap. There were some FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] applications. We've never been notified that he was on a — on a tap or an intercept.”
Never mind that Trump stated this as fact.
If there is anything this episode should demonstrate, it's that Trump isn't exactly discerning in his conspiracy theories and that his claims of an “implanted” FBI informant probably shouldn't be taken at face value. If Trump knows something, he should say it. Until then, skepticism is more than warranted.
Russia didn't affect the election results
Central to Trump's argument that the Russia investigation is bogus is the idea that Russian interference in the 2016 election either didn't occur or (more often) didn't matter. Trump and those close to him have repeatedly cited nonexistent evidence that Russia didn't affect the election results.
First, it involved pointing to the intelligence community's initial assessment of Russian interference. Then the White House re-upped it when Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein spoke about indicting 13 Russians in February.
Except neither the intelligence assessment nor Rosenstein actually weighed in on this question. The intelligence assessment said explicitly that it wouldn't do so, and Rosenstein said there was “no allegation in the indictment of any effect on the outcome of the election.” That's not even close to saying there was no effect, though; it just means the indictments didn't address such an unknowable thing.
The fact that this bogus talking point has persisted for 16 months now is as much proof as we need that the Trump team isn't operating in good faith.
The unverified Steele dossier formed the basis of the Russia probe
This was the entire purpose of the Nunes memo: to suggest the Russia investigation was predicated on a bogus Steele dossier that was used to justify monitoring Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The problems? The memo's main substantiation of that claim was a contested paraphrase of testimony that top FBI official Andrew McCabe gave behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee — not even a direct quote. And secondly, even the Nunes memo acknowledged that the Russia investigation began months before the Steele dossier was used in a FISA application. The original launching point was apparently Papadopoulos's boozy claim that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton.