Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report details the multiple contacts between Trump campaign associates and Russian operatives and cutouts. Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort met with Russians to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr. exchanged messages with WikiLeaks. Manafort gave campaign polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik. President Trump called for Russia to hack Clinton’s emails and was in constant touch through most of the campaign with Michael Cohen in pursuit of a Trump Tower in Moscow. Carter Page spoke to Russians in Moscow, and George Papadopoulos, a campaign foreign policy adviser, met with London-based professor Joseph Mifsud, who told him the Russians had dirt on Clinton. And the list goes on.
We have gotten so hung up on whether Trump officials conspired with Russia (or maybe “just” WikiLeaks?) and whether soliciting help from a hostile foreign power violated any laws that we have skipped past a fundamental question: Why did none of these people report Russian contacts to the FBI, especially after the campaign was warned about Russian interference in our election?
“What makes the breadth and depth of the contacts so shocking is that Trump and his campaign knew. They knew that the Russians were engaged in a ‘sweeping and systemic’ interference campaign and instead of calling the FBI, or simply staying away, his campaign ran toward the crime,” says Max Bergmann, head of the Moscow Project. “They set up back channels to Russian cut-outs, they gave sensitive campaign data to operatives linked to Russian intelligence, and they sought to deflect and protect the Russians from criticism, pointing to a mythical 400-pound hacker.” He observes, “Just as after Watergate, the Congress passed significant reforms to address [President Richard M.] Nixon’s abuse of power, Congress will need to take action to ensure that no campaign can act in such a corrupt and treasonous manner.” He concludes, “That starts with holding Trump accountable.”
Former prosecutor Renato Mariotti agrees that while criminal conduct is hard to prove, “when intent or knowledge must be proven” there are other possible guardrails we can erect. He offers that with regard to foreign contacts with a presidential campaign, “A law requiring reporting, which would impose civil penalties, would be a good start.”
And remember, the campaign not only failed to report the Russia outreach, but also many (e.g. Page, Manafort) initiated contact and many more lied about it. Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare blog summarizes the evidence:
Trump was willing to do business with and seek favors from the Russian state even as it was attacking the country for whose presidency he was running—and he was willing to lie about doing so.
His campaign’s senior leadership was eager to benefit from that country’s efforts to dish dirt on his opponent and was willing to meet with people it knew to represent that country in order to receive such information.
Multiple campaign staff and advisers engaged in conduct in relation to that country that legitimately gave rise to counterintelligence scrutiny; and
Multiple campaign staff and advisers lied to investigators about their dealings with Russian officials or intermediaries to such officials in a fashion that gave rise to criminal charges or other actions.
While we might bemoan a political culture in which it is necessary to codify what amounts to self-evident decent conduct, it’s essential to thwart future campaigns (including Trump’s 2020 operation) that might consider assisting a foreign power’s intervention in our presidential election.
On the day the redacted Mueller report was released, former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin discussed this very point in an NPR interview:
MCLAUGHLIN: It’s pretty clearly stated in the report — that I’m still going through, of course — that the campaign knew Russia was trying to help them, and they welcomed that. So I think the reason was that they thought they would benefit from it. Apparently, that did not rise, for whatever legal reason, to the level of conspiracy crime in the Mueller report, but it’s pretty clear that they welcomed the support.
AILSA CHANG: Even though it didn’t give rise to conspiracy charges, does it trouble you as a former intelligence officer to see that kind of receptiveness to offers of assistance?
MCLAUGHLIN: Yes, I think the minimum thing that needs to come out of this is that Congress needs to make a law. If the law does not — it does not currently, I assume, prohibit such contacts. And it should, at very minimum, require those who receive such contacts in the future to report them to the FBI, which, in this case, did not happen.
CHANG: Let's talk about the actual Russian strategy. What new things have you learned reading through at least portions of this report that strike you as important about how Russia interfered with our elections?
MCLAUGHLIN: You know, I think the main impression that comes through to me, Ailsa, is how open we were to this, how vulnerable we were. We were an open target. The fact that Russians could come here in 2014, do this research and get away with it unnoticed is astonishing. The other thing that comes through is the astonishing detail of what they did — everything from engaging social media to actually engaging certain Americans, unwitting, posing as Americans and getting away with it and getting them to do things for them, including staged rallies, a number of things like that.
So, you know, we should’ve had, after we discovered this, a 9/11 Commission-type report to figure out what went on here and what we need to do about it. The Mueller report is the closest thing we’re going to get to that. And I think that may be, ultimately, the most important part of this report — that it gives us the data now to think about how to avoid this in 2020. ...
I think the Russians actually succeeded well beyond what they imagined they could here. And that’s the other big impression that comes out of this — is how fragile we were. We thought our democracy and our cohesiveness as a nation — I did — were stronger than they turned out to be in the face of this.
The lesson here is twofold.
First, in order to prevent normalizing this conduct — seeking out and eagerly accepting a hostile foreign government’s help — there must be consequences for Trump, be it through impeachment, censure, defeat at the ballot box in 2020 and/or prosecution for obstruction of justice after he leaves office. No one should stand for election after encouraging and benefiting from help from the United States’ enemies — and then lying and encouraging others to lie about it.
Second, character actually does matter. The Republican apologists who have continued making excuses for Trump’s amoral, corrupt and anti-democratic conduct because at least Trump is their amoral, corrupt and anti-democratic champion (or “Because tax cuts” or “Because Gorsuch”) have created an environment in which democracy itself is expendable. If it injures your opponents and helps elect your side, why not allow a foreign government to put its finger on the scale? This is tribalism verging on moral nihilism, not to mention evidence of the intellectual rot that has destroyed the conservative movement’s credibility.
The character of the president we choose in 2020 must be such that his or her election will mark a return to common decency and respect for constitutional values. As for the faux intellectuals who have adopted a gangster mentality in defense of Trump, we should recognize that they are neither wise nor patriots. They have earned our utter disdain.