President Trump has benefited enormously from the frog-in-hot-water nature of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into his campaign and possible overlap with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.
Imagine if, instead of Mueller releasing new public indictments as he went along, leveraging criminal charges to obtain more information from the targets of his probe, he instead had kept his information private. Imagine if he and his lawyers had been working in quiet for 20 months, submitting expenses to the Department of Justice and suffering the president’s tweeted ferocity.
And then, after all of that, they suddenly produced a dozen indictments and plea deals running into hundreds of pages, detailing former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s illegal and questionable financial dealings, those of his deputy Rick Gates, full details of Russia’s alleged efforts to influence social media and to steal electronic information from Democratic targets and detailed a half-dozen people who admitted to lying to federal investigators.
Imagine if that had landed with a thud on the attorney general’s desk.
America has been waiting for Mueller to present a document that ties all of this together — eager, in part, for evidence proving the president’s guilt, or exonerating him, on charges that he and his campaign worked with the Russians. As people have awaited the outcome, the slow accretion of malfeasance that Mueller has already uncovered has faded into background noise. It has allowed Trump to lump every new revelation into a big snowball labeled “no collusion,” parroting the same refrain as the snowball grows. Meanwhile his opponents, waiting for a smoking gun, are happy to keep looking forward as well.
There’s a lot that Mueller knows and which we don’t, certainly. But we know a lot more than we did when he was appointed.
Last December, journalist Marcy Wheeler responded to questions about what Mueller would ultimately present at the end of his probe by making the point above: So much of what he has found is already out there. How much is there? Well, this much:
That’s about 290 pages of documents detailing alleged and admitted illegal behavior, including, in most cases, broad context for the actions. (Many of those pages, particularly as they relate to Manafort, are carried over between documents.) It’s dozens of criminal charges, some rolled into plea agreements. It’s dozens of people, including a number of named Russian actors. It’s a handful of people who have served time in prison, been sentenced or who will be sentenced shortly.
It’s a broad description of criminal activity that overlaps at only one point: Involvement in the 2016 election.
It is absolutely true that little of the activity undertaken by the Americans on that list involved criminal activity directly related to the campaign. But Manafort’s and Gates’s involvement in the campaign meant they got looped into Mueller’s probe, to their detriment. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s involvement in the campaign led him to work on Trump’s transition team, about which he later lied to authorities. Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen lied to Congress about how far into the campaign his conversations about a project in Moscow had continued. Former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos lied about his contacts with Russians while serving on the campaign. Trump adviser Roger Stone lied about his interactions with people as he sought out a back channel to WikiLeaks — which was in the process of releasing documents allegedly stolen by the Russian nationals working for the country’s military intelligence agency, the GRU.
The Mueller report that is sitting in plain sight above does not show that Trump himself actively conspired with Russian actors to influence the election. It does show, though, that his campaign and campaign team were a locus of suspicious activity and suspicious actors.
That this network has been fleshed out slowly over the course of 16 months has made it easy to overlook what we’ve already learned. Mueller’s report is, to some significant degree, already out.