Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would like to close the book on the Russia investigation.
After all, he argued from the Senate floor on Tuesday morning, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation has been complete for six weeks and the (redacted) report outlining his conclusions public for nearly two. With that information in hand, he wondered rhetorically, “would the country finally unify to confront the real challenges before us?"
“Would we finally be able to move on from partisan paralysis and breathless conspiracy theorizing,” he asked, “or would we remain consumed by unhinged partisanship and keep dividing ourselves to the point that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his agents need only stand on the sidelines and watch us as their job is actually done for them?"
“Regrettably,” he said, “the answer is pretty obvious.” So, with his speech, he hoped to “finally end this ‘Groundhog Day’ spectacle.” To that end, he offered a two-word summary, so potent in his view that his staff sent around a tease highlighting it beforehand.
“Two years of exhaustive investigation and nothing to establish the fanciful conspiracy theory that Democratic politicians and TV talking heads had treated like a foregone conclusion. They told everyone there had been a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign,” McConnell said. “Yet on this central question, the special counsel’s finding is clear. Case closed.”
He repeated that phrase for emphasis: “Case closed.”
But that’s actually the less important part of McConnell’s phrasing. What’s more important is how he sets it up. The case that’s closed, he says, is this claim that Democrats and those talking heads had made about a “conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign.”
Let’s work backward from that. It’s true that the special counsel’s report states flatly that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” That’s the sentence fragment that Attorney General William P. Barr included in his four-page summary of Mueller’s findings in March.
But it’s important to recognize what Mueller actually determined. It is not a blanket exoneration of Trump and his campaign, as Trump likes to present it, but instead a failure to build a provable case. Two paragraphs later, the report makes this clear: “A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts.”
What’s more, when considering the question of conspiracy, Mueller’s team applied a tightly bound standard for coordination, one that would “require an agreement — tacit or express — between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference.” It’s a standard that “requires more than the two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests.”
If one were to apply a term to describe the looser interactions suggested by that latter sentence, one might use the term “collusion.” The special counsel’s report is explicit that it wasn’t assessing collusion specifically because it’s a loosely defined term that has been used in a variety of ways as it pertains to the Russia probe. That McConnell points to “conspiracy” rather than “collusion” is intentional: It lets him make the claim that “on that central question,” the case is closed. But he also claims that this is the standard that was in broad use by Democrats and TV talking heads when, instead, they were much more likely to use that more loosely defined phrase, collusion.
McConnell’s not making a mistake here. He’s intentionally claiming that people on TV and on the other side of the aisle broadly made a claim that they didn’t make to state that the claim was already specifically rejected.
This isn’t an academic exercise. There was certainly hyperventilating about Trump, treason and Putin. There were allegations that Trump was a willing puppet working with Russia’s interference efforts. Generally, though, the question of collusion between the campaign and Russia often focused on something less than a tacit agreement between the Trump campaign and the Russian government on election interference — with three strictly identified components of Mueller’s investigation highlighted for emphasis.
At other points in the report, Mueller’s team is explicit that its efforts to find evidence that would prove that criminal activity had occurred were stymied by a lack of candor from witnesses, an inability to obtain documents or witnesses who asserted Fifth Amendment protections that investigators thought were unwarranted. Take Konstantin Kilimnik, the business associate of Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The report isn’t clear on whether Kilimnik was an agent of the Russian government, a question that would potentially flesh out the importance of Manafort’s giving him campaign polling data. It’s a question that Mueller, with all of his resources, couldn’t answer.
There are likely no perfect investigations, but it’s worth noting how this erodes the “case closed” point: Mueller says his team couldn’t establish coordination on the boundaries set above, that a failure to establish that coordination doesn’t mean that there was no evidence of coordination and that it was unable to obtain other evidence that might have been important.
All of this, of course, is why President Trump doesn’t want Mueller testifying on Capitol Hill. It’s probably why Barr’s March letter included only that one line from the question of coordination. The executive branch’s message, echoed by McConnell, is that every loose end has been tidily dealt with. Mueller would likely point out that this is not exactly true, that the scope of what his team considered was narrower than what the public probably assumes. He would almost certainly undercut Trump’s claims that he was exonerated on both “collusion” and the question of whether any attempts to obstruct the investigation occurred.
That’s the flip side to this, of course. McConnell is declaring a very specific and less commonly made case to be closed while ignoring that the obstruction question is very much open, given Mueller’s pointed declaration that Trump wasn’t exonerated on the point and a broad outcry that Barr’s after-the-fact exoneration of the president on that point was flawed. Not to mention the various other issues that still exist, as our Aaron Blake pointed out: the various investigations mentioned in the report that are still hidden from public view, questions about Trump’s business activity and taxes, the campaign-finance charges in which Trump was implicated by his former attorney. All of these cases are still open.
It’s absolutely true that Democrats see political value in pressing on this point. Trump’s political opponents are not much more pure in their search for truth than Trump is in his. But that’s beside the point. There still exist — and there will probably always exist — questions about how Trump’s campaign team interacted with Russian interests and what Trump’s role was, if any, in those interactions. (Trump’s only contribution to Mueller’s probe was a set of written responses to questions, which were overwhelmingly declarations that he didn’t recall certain events.)
McConnell wants to dismiss Democrats as sore losers who can’t accept the reality of the situation. The reality of the situation, though, is much more complicated than the one McConnell presents. His attempt to brand the case as closed is an attempt to curtail everything, not just questions about provable coordination between the campaign and the Russian government. It’s an attempt to say, for example, that there’s no need to hear from Mueller — the case is closed!
Here’s how this works: On Tuesday morning, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was interviewed by ABC News about a subpoena issued by House Democrats for documents from former White House counsel Donald McGahn. She didn’t think McGahn would turn them over.
“We consider this to be a case closed,” she said, “and we’re moving forward to do the work of the American people.”
Every case on every question is now closed, McConnell’s argument goes, because Mueller with the evidence at hand couldn’t prove a particular type of coordination between Russia’s government and Trump’s campaign. All water under the bridge, except for the streams that branched off several yards back and are now causing severe flooding.