For me, the turning point was Trump’s decision to hire Paul Manafort, who I knew had spent several previous years supporting pro-Russian political leaders in Ukraine. Manafort was famous for using polarizing campaign tactics and dirty tricks to help his clients win; he helped form the corrupt and lawless world of Ukrainian politics, one in which anything goes — and where, on Sunday, a television comedian is probably going to be elected president. I predicted that Manafort would help Ukrainianize U.S. politics. And he did. The role played in the 2016 campaign by conspiracy theories, disinformation, online troll and bot campaigns, as well as hacked emails — all tactics previously tested by the Russian government in Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe — was enormous.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III did not, as we know, find a moment when the Trump campaign sat down with representatives of the Russian state so that they could coordinate their tactics in a manner that could be described as illegal. I am not surprised by that finding: I have never thought that Trump functioned as a Russian “agent,” and I have always thought that Trump’s public behavior — things we all could see and hear — was sufficient to disqualify him for the presidency. But if what the president did was not illegal, it was certainly immoral. As David Frum has written, “It’s not a theory but a matter of historical record that Vladimir Putin’s Russia hacked American emails and used them to help elect Trump to the presidency.” It’s also a matter of historical record that Trump campaign officials approved of this interference; indeed, they cheered it on.
There is a lot inside the Mueller report, and it will all take many weeks to digest. But two things remain unexplained. One is the question of messaging. Why was Trump, all through the latter part of the 2016 campaign, repeating and using slogans that were conceived on Russian state media? Obama “founded ISIS” and Hillary Clinton will cause World War III : These were slogans first used by Sputnik and other Russian sources. We still don’t know how Trump and his campaign happened to use the same conspiracy theories that the Russians were using, or happened to be promoting the same conspiracy theories online. I speculated, at one point, that campaign data might have been shared. And, indeed, Mueller did find exactly that: Manafort and deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates were sharing data with Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the FBI believes to be a Russian intelligence operative: “Gates periodically sent such polling data to Kilimnik during the campaign.” But there is no further information about how that data might have been used — and no explanation of why the online tactics used by the Russian military intelligence agency and the Trump campaign were so similar.
The second, bigger question concerns Trump’s longer-term, and indeed present-day, relationship with Russia. The president’s business and personal links to Russia and Russians go back many decades, to the Mikhail Gorbachev era, including the Russian money “pouring in,” as Donald Trump Jr. put it, to the family’s U.S. properties. Trump Sr. was praising Putin on CNN as far back as 2013. Trump was working on business deals in Russia — which he lied about, repeatedly — through most of the 2016 campaign, as the Mueller report explains in great detail. Trump’s performance when standing next to the Russian president in Helsinki last July was bizarre: The sight of the U.S. president cringing before the Russian president was shocking. (Watch it again if you’ve forgotten.) His repeated attempts to hold secret talks with Putin, with no U.S. officials present, might not be illegal. But neither are they normal, or acceptable, or comparable to the behavior of any previous American president.
Trump’s evident fear of Mueller’s investigation and his attempts to obstruct it are now a matter of record. But why was he so afraid, and why did he try to obstruct? Which piece of his past relationship with Russia, or Russians, did he fear might emerge? We still don’t know. And now, it seems, we might never know.