by Garry Kasparov
The Mueller investigation is over, but the arguments about what it says, and what it means, are just beginning. Everyone is racing to spin Mueller’s conclusions as presented by President Trump’s recently appointed Attorney General Bill Barr, who took 48 hours to write a four-page letter announcing the conclusions of a report alleged to be over 300 pages long.
Considering the Trump administration’s typical communication practices, we’re lucky to get four whole pages and not just a triumphant presidential tweet. Trump’s boasting arrived on schedule a day later, claiming complete exoneration from two years of accusations of collusion with Russia.
Until the full report comes out, and it must, all we know for sure is that Special Counsel Mueller didn’t believe he had enough evidence to charge Trump himself with the principal wrongdoing he was authorized to determine, that of actively conspiring with the government of Russia in its campaign to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. It was always going to be difficult to reach the high bar required to prove beyond doubt that Trump himself was criminally culpable, even as many of his closest advisers were convicted.
Not being indicted for the unethical and illicit acts everyone already knows you and your subordinates committed is a precarious platform from which to declare victory, but of course that’s what Trump and his supporters are doing.
It’s a strange claim coming from someone whose campaign manager, personal attorney and national security adviser were all indicted by the Russia probe. They, like Trump himself, spent years lying about their contacts with Russian operatives. Had all those charges come out at once last week, along with those against two dozen Russians and other Trump team members, it’s hard to imagine anyone calling it any kind of victory for the president. It would be considered, and still should be, the greatest scandal in the history of the US government.
Even more surprising, Mueller also declined to charge Trump with obstructing the investigation, something he has done publicly nearly every day, from threatening witnesses to blatantly lying about what and when he and his team knew about meetings with Russians.
Barr provided a logical fallacy when he said there couldn’t be an obstruction charge without proof of an underlying crime to obstruct, and, since there was no collusion charge, there could be no charge for obstructing the investigation of collusion. But what if the goal of the obstruction was to prevent discovery of the crime that was therefore not discovered? He’s essentially saying that obstruction of justice cannot exist if it’s successful.
This circular absurdity reminded me of Polonius pondering the cause and effect of Hamlet’s madness:
That we find out the cause of this effect, Or rather say, the cause of this defect, For this effect defective comes by cause: Thus it remains, and the remainder thus.
Legal experts seem mystified as to why Mueller stopped short of charging Trump with obstruction, calling it a “cop-out.” I suggest that it’s because making a criminal charge against a sitting president is still a grave act with historic and historical implications. To a man like Mueller — thoughtful, patriotic, a Marine, FBI director, and life-long public servant — it may seem like he is showing the respect for the American presidency that Trump himself has never shown.
Many hoped that those same qualities would lead Mueller in the other direction, to contempt and disgust at someone like Trump befouling the office once held by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. And while I admit it would have been satisfying to see Trump held personally accountable for his eager cooperation with Putin’s attack on the U.S. electoral system, and all the lies that came after, I also respect Mueller’s reticence.
I feel this way because, as bad as Trump is, Trumpism is worse. Prosecuting Trump would be just, but it would also be divisive and a distraction from the bigger issues facing the country, and the world, heading into the 2020 election cycle.
You’re right to wonder how anything could be bigger than a U.S. president and his team collaborating with Putin’s hostile dictatorship. Since I’ve spent over a decade warning about Putin’s threat, I’m the last person to minimize what it means to have the American president literally and figuratively in the debt of a KGB dictator dedicated to weakening the U.S. and its allies in the free world.
That part isn’t up for debate, by the way. Russians had leverage over Trump. Trump asked for and received help in the campaign from Russians. Trump has remained steadfastly loyal to Vladimir Putin. Those are facts. The Mueller report, just with what has already been released, puts to rest years of Trump whining about “witch hunts” and “hoaxes” by documenting Russia’s multi-faceted influence campaign. Nearly every part of his campaign had extensive contacts with Russians, from his family to his campaign director to big donors like the NRA.
Note I say “Russians,” and not “Russia,” a key distinction. The Barr letter refers to failing to find collusion with the “Russian government,” a major clue in explaining why there was no indictment. Putin’s mafia structure is designed to give “Russia” deniability. It’s like going to war using mercenaries instead of conscripts in uniforms, another favorite Putin tactic. Putin uses his billionaire oligarchs as emissaries to corrupt, cultivate, and compromise foreign business people and politicians. But they aren’t officially state actors with government titles, and so aren’t deemed “state actors,” although that is exactly what they are.
So Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort sharing polling data with a Ukrainian citizen loyal to the Kremlin, or with a billionaire buddy of Putin, isn’t “conspiring with the Russia government” only in the most technical, least accurate sense. It’s likely Mueller was not allowed to construe someone like Putin crony Oleg Deripaska as serving “Russia” when he had Manafort on his payroll.
This exploitation of gray areas is another dangerous aspect of Trumpism, another technique first honed by Putin and other modern autocracies. They find the undefined spaces between public and private, legal and illegal, media and propaganda, and they exploit every gap. The private-state nature of corrupt criminal dictatorships like Putin’s Russia confounds law enforcement the way hybrid war and terrorism confound traditional military response. The U.S. badly needs greater systemic transparency for banking and campaign finance reform, and more ways to fight back against the spread of corruption from within and from abroad.
Mueller was obliged to play by the rules, as befits an independent justice system, but he was like a boxer going up against an opponent who is allowed to kick, scratch and bite. Free world legal systems (and news organizations) are simply not equipped to deal with a wealthy nation-state like Russia being run for private gain by people acting as private citizens. This is also how most Middle East autocracies are run — like Saudi Arabia, another Trump favorite — and China has few borders between its business might and its political leadership. It’s a role Trump was born for, having no sense of national interest or concept of serving anything but himself. This is why he’s Putin’s dream counterpart, regardless of how badly he may be compromised.
It’s unlikely that the debate will end even when the entire Mueller report is released, regardless of what it says. This is part of the spreading poison of Trumpism, the immediate tribalistic divide on every issue. When news and politics move at Twitter speed, with reaction meeting overreaction meeting backlash in just hours, that’s a victory for the forces of ignorance and emotion over information and reason. That’s Trumpism’s home turf.
I’m concerned that the Democrats will learn the wrong lessons and look for their own Trump, and their own brand of Trumpism by embracing radical rhetoric and candidates at the expense of serious policy and rebuilding the integrity of the political system. Trump and the Republicans who enable him remain the clear and present danger, but if the Democrats become what they hate, they may end up with four more years of hating Trump. This is an unacceptable risk, because Putin is now going to be even bolder in his attacks.
Congress should not be cowed by Trump’s celebration without exoneration. The House must keep looking into Trump’s conflicts of interest and dubious loyalties while also hardening the U.S.’s defenses, knowing that the Republican-controlled Senate will do nothing to help. The GOP has become not just the party of whatever Trump says, but whatever Trump says today. Tomorrow there will be a whole new list of lies they will accept as the truth.
In this they side with Hamlet when he said, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” This is how the poison of fake news and moral relativism spreads. There is right, there is wrong. There is good, there is evil. We would do well to remember that before following Hamlet to the end, where everyone dies by poison.