Ronald A. Klain, a Post contributing columnist, served as a senior White House aide to Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and was a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign.
On Nov. 22, 2016 — a few weeks after winning the presidency — Donald Trump announced a stunning reversal. After months of "lock her up," Trump said that he opposed further investigation of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, as it would be "very, very divisive" for the country and Clinton had already "suffered greatly in many different ways." Trump confidant Rudolph W. Giuliani said that "there's a tradition in American politics that after you win an election, you sort of put things behind you."
A year later, Trump is no longer "putting it behind" him. He has all but ordered his Justice Department to reopen the investigation into Clinton's emails, and to explore the fantabulous theory that the Clinton Foundation somehow got nine federal agencies to tamper with the review of a commercial uranium transaction. This week, he called for jailing a former Clinton aide and prosecuting former FBI director James B. Comey. If that weren't enough, Trump's allies are calling for an investigation of "high ranking Obama government officials who might have colluded to prevent" Trump's election.
What is going on here?
Perhaps it is an effort to confuse and deflect from the rising tide of accusations against Trump and his cohorts — including sensational new charges from former aide and ally Stephen K. Bannon. Perhaps it is just another reflection of Trump's lack of discipline and erratic nature.
But I suspect that there is another reason Trumpland has reversed course just as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's inquiry into Trump's actions appears to be reaching a critical point. Trump and his allies are proposing a bargain, with a not-so-subtle message to Democrats: "If you don't want your people to be investigated, remain quiet as we shut down the congressional investigations and undercut the special counsel. If my people are going to be investigated, then so will yours."
This indecent proposal needs to be considered against the backdrop of what we do know — and don't — about the Trump-Russia mess.
First, we learned last year that Trump's narrow 2016 victory was indelibly stained by Russian help. It has been shown that millions of Americans were subjected to deceptive Russian propaganda on social media. We know that a lesser but still significant number — given the narrowness of Trump's win — were subjected to advertisements bought by Russian sources, paid for in rubles. We know that a Russian-allied intelligence operation stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign officials, and then facilitated their release to maximize their influence — forcing out the DNC chair on the eve of the party's convention, counteracting the "Access Hollywood" tape by dumping many stolen emails the day that revelation came out. Trump's narrow victory — so small, just 80,000 votes in three states — will be forever marked in the history books with an asterisk as having been aided by Russian intervention.
Second, we know that Trump both sought help from Russia and made active use of Russian interventions in this campaign. We know that Trump's son and campaign manager took a June 2016 meeting with Russian operatives to learn what help they could offer in the campaign. We know that Trump himself publicly called on Russia to steal and disseminate Clinton emails. Trump also made active use of the Russian-backed stolen email operation, publicly urging voters — more than 160 times in the final weeks of the campaign — to look at what WikiLeaks had released. Trump and his top advisers were distributors of the Russian social media propaganda, retweeting and distributing it widely. And much of this happened after Trump was briefed in July by top U.S. professional counterintelligence officers who warned him of a Russian effort to infiltrate the 2016 campaign.
And third, among the things that point toward the possibility that Trump and his people were engaged in as-yet undisclosed explicit collusion with Russia is the intensity of their efforts to shut down investigations into what happened. Nothing points to this more than Trump's own bizarre actions: saying that the FBI investigation of Russian influence was "tainted," admitting that he was thinking of "this Russia thing" when firing Comey, mobilizing surrogates to attack Mueller. Are these the acts of an innocent person?
The calls for investigations of Clinton and Obama allies are just the most recent, and most despicable, iterations of this tactic. I know Hillary Clinton; I know Barack Obama. They will not be intimidated by Trump's threats.
Of course, we do not know whether there was some explicit agreement between the Russians and the Trump campaign — or whether both sides pursued mutually beneficial steps out of a commonality of interests. We cannot know what Mueller will find. But the actions of Trump and his allies tell us a lot about what they fear could be found. And even if nothing more turns up from this point forward, the Trump presidency will be permanently marked by what we already, irrefutably, learned in 2017.
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