I genuinely don't know if there was collusion. I don't know if President Trump technically, legally obstructed justice. I'm not sure if Michael Cohen, as doomed as he seems to be personally, actually has anything damning on Trump. And it's anybody's guess as to whether Robert S. Mueller III even thinks he has the ability to charge Trump with crimes.
What I can say right now, though, is this: This won't end well. None of it.
For all the talk about Trump's actions triggering a constitutional crisis or even a war, the most likely crisis is the one that will arise from the political purgatory we'll find ourselves in once Mueller and other officials are finished investigating. And the Carter Page situation both exacerbates and epitomizes it.
Over the weekend, we got our first look at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court application that federal investigators obtained to monitor the former Trump campaign adviser. This application, you'll recall, was at the heart of the memo by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that laid the groundwork for Trump and his allies' claims of persecution at the hands of the so-called “deep state.”
The application itself doesn't contain many surprises, but as The Post's Philip Bump wrote this weekend, it does undercut some of the central claims of the Nunes memo — claims that were already dubious or at least misleadingly packaged. To wit:
- The memo suggested a Yahoo news story failed to corroborate the allegations contained in the Steele dossier. But the application — or at least the unredacted part we can see — presents the story not as corroboration, but to disclose Page's denial of being a Russian agent.
- The Nunes memo suggested that the application hid the Steele dossier's political bias by not disclosing the fact that the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign paid for the information. But a lengthy section of footnotes details the political backing of the dossier — without specifically naming the individuals and the campaigns (which is also avoided in the rest of the application).
At the same time, the memo does dwell upon the Steele dossier — and at length. The Nunes memo alleges that the Steele dossier was vital to the application. It even says then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe testified behind closed doors to that effect (while for some reason not directly quoting him), and anybody looking at this document will conclude that it was at least central. The application is not an indictment, of course — it is about probable cause — but there is a reason that Nunes, the White House and their allies were keen to publicize it. Whether the Nunes memo's claims are overblown or not, it allows some people — those who are anxious to believe that the “deep state” used Democrats' information to go after Trump -- to connect some very convenient and self-reinforcing dots.
In that way, it's a lot like Peter Strzok. The FBI agent testified two weeks ago about his anti-Trump text messages, in which he mused about impeachment and stopping Trump from winning the 2016 election. Strzok, who was removed from the case by Mueller, testified under oath that he took no official actions that were biased, but his texts also allow plenty of people to draw the kinds of conclusions they badly want to draw.
And even before these last couple weeks, it was evident that the GOP base had decided this was all much ado about nothing. A Fox News survey conducted just before Strzok's testimony showed support for Mueller's probe dropping below 50 percent. Others have shown Mueller's approval rating dropping.
Still other polls hint at a more conspiratorial version of events that Trump has pushed for months. A Quinnipiac poll last month found that Republicans said Mueller's probe was a “witch hunt” by a margin of 81 percent to 12 percent. Another poll showed that Republicans think Mueller is setting Trump up, by a 61-17 margin. A May CBS news poll even showed that more Americans thought the probe was “politically motivated” (53 percent) than “justified” (44 percent).
We now have an investigation, for all intents and purposes, that around half of the most reliable voters regard as suspect. And a very strong majority of Republicans regard it not just as questionable, but as conspiratorial. The Nunes memo, the Strzok testimony and the Page warrant application all provide them something to latch on to, regardless of how accurately those things are being interpreted and portrayed. The messy and imperfect nature of investigations is being laid bare thanks to the fact that Republicans are in charge and thanks to the fact that we have a president who is willing to push the bounds of acceptable discourse and lodge any conspiracy theory he feels at any given point.
If Mueller finds anything but a smoking gun, Republicans will be hard-pressed to convince their base that Trump did anything wrong, much less that his offenses are worthy of impeachment or removal from office. If he tries to charge Trump, Republicans will justifiably point out that this isn't how things are usually done, and it will feed their sense of persecution. And if Mueller exonerates or clears Trump, we'll have a whole other side of the political debate that had been counting on him to carry out its own predetermined version of justice — a side convinced that collusion and obstruction of justice are already completely apparent, based upon publicly available evidence.
It's not a recipe for a resolution, especially not a tidy one. In fact, it's a recipe for the kind of destabilization that Russia and Vladimir Putin sought in the first place.