Committee members on both sides of the aisle will have to contend with an inescapable conclusion from a fair reading of the report: The Russian attack would not have worked — and perhaps would have been over before it really got started — if not for Donald Trump’s enthusiastic encouragement and amplification of it.
While much will be made about the legal standard to prove specific conspiracies beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s clear that every step of the way, Russia was looking for green lights, and at every step of the way, the Trump campaign provided them. An unequivocal bipartisan rejection of Russian outreach and attacks in 2016 might have left Russian President Vladimir Putin with no incentive to go forward. But, as the Mueller report shows, Trump encouraged the interference: The Trump campaign “welcomed” it and “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
Even beyond that, had both candidates and both parties agreed to banish from the campaign trail material illegally hacked by a foreign adversary, especially after its Russian origins were confirmed, coverage of and interest in the hacked material certainly would have taken on a different tenor. Instead, Trump himself mentioned “WikiLeaks” 164 times
in the last month of the campaign, even after the U.S. intelligence community publicly identified the hacks and leaks as a Russian active-measures operation. All along, Trump deflected blame from Russia and excused the hacking, making a unified American response all but impossible.
The Mueller report represents the most damning portrayal of unpatriotic behavior ever compiled about an American candidate for president — and only then does it go on to detail a shocking pattern of obstruction of justice that more than 1,000 former prosecutors say would have led to the indictment of anybody not holding the office of the president.
While this full accounting of the past is important, the most profound urgency of the Mueller report and his testimony concerns the present and the future.
Just a few weeks ago, at the Group of 20 meeting in Osaka, Japan, the world watched as Trump joked about Putin’s attack on American democracy, mock-scolding the Russian leader not to do it again. It was the sort of display that has become familiar, going back to 2015, when Trump appeared to excuse the murder of journalists critical of the Putin regime (“Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too”). Then there was Trump’s humiliating joint news conference with Putin in Helsinki in 2018 that left even his most reliable defenders disgusted. When Trump said last month that if a foreign government offered dirt on his 2020 opponent he would “take it,” that was a green light for Putin and other potential malefactors.
Yet only weeks earlier, the president’s own Pentagon leadership had approved for public release a sobering report, “Russian Strategic Intentions,” that amounts to a postscript to the Mueller report.
In what can only be read as a scathing indictment of Trump’s behavior over the past three years, the report condemns “the unwillingness of Western experts and governments to confront the ideological — as well as political and military — aspects of our rivalry with Putinism.” The report also says that “Putin’s worldview is zero-sum, so it’s hard to imagine a win-win scenario. For Putin to win — to look ‘great,’ the U.S. has to lose.”
Putin himself confirmed that outlook in his own words last month, crowing in an interview with the Financial Times that Western democracy has become “obsolete” and “outlived its purpose.”
Putin’s actions in 2016, exposed in great detail by the Mueller report and the indictments of Russian operatives, were an attack on American democracy — and not just in the sense that Russia’s illegal hacking of Trump’s opponents and social media disinformation campaign were meant to alter the outcome. They were an attack on democracy as a concept, an attempt to destroy the American public’s faith in fair elections that had served, on the world stage, as an implicit rebuke to Putin’s autocratic rule.
That attack is not over. In April, Trump’s FBI director, Christopher A. Wray
, described Russian cyber-aggression as “not just in an election-cycle threat. It is pretty much a 365-day-a-year threat.”
That’s why Mueller’s testimony is so vital. He can provide guidance on how Russia operates and how to prevent further attacks. But Americans must face the truth: Trump, in broad daylight, has encouraged the destruction of the nation’s fundamental democratic institutions, and he continues to do so.