Mueller, Russiagate, and the 2020 Elections

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In horror movies, the monster can usually be dispatched in only one way. A werewolf requires a silver bullet. A vampire will only stay dead with a stake through the heart. The Blob shrivels in contact with the icy cold.

For many opponents of Donald Trump, the report by special counsel Robert Mueller was supposed to be the magic method of taking down the president.

After all, like a movie monster, Trump seemed to be impervious to all other weapons. Charges of sexual harassment, of adultery, of outrageously sexist comments — these didn’t destroy his political career. Accusations of racism only seemed to solidify his base. He has faced any number of allegations of economic malfeasance, from money laundering to tax evasion, but these have only seemed to burnish his reputation for breaking the rules and getting away with it.

Tying the president to the Russian manipulation of the 2016 presidential elections, on the other hand, promised to push the president beyond the pale. Collusion with a foreign government to subvert American democracy? Even the Donald couldn’t survive such a blow. Impeachment would be the least of his worries. He would be looking at spending the rest of his days in prison.

In this respect, Mueller has not delivered. In the report he delivered at the end of last week, the special counsel concluded that there was no proof that the Trump election team colluded with the Russians to hijack the elections. Attorney General William Barr’s summary includes this direct quote from the report: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

The president has declared, unsurprisingly, that he has been cleared of all charges. His congressional lapdog Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has also concluded that “the cloud hanging over President Trump has been removed.” The Democrats have stopped talking about impeachment.

The summary of the report also indicates that Mueller will not issue any more indictments, nor are there any sealed indictments that will be later revealed to the public. The full report, if it’s ever made public, might include some interesting details. But it appears that Mueller will not be sending anyone else to jail, including the president, as a result of his investigations.

In Other News

This news coincides with some rather sobering political forecasting. Despite anemic favorability ratings, Trump has a very good chance of getting reelected. And by a large margin.

According to a report in Politico that came out just before the Mueller report dropped, if elections were held today, Trump would…

likely ride to a second term in a huge landslide, according to multiple economic models with strong track records of picking presidential winners and losses. Credit a strong U.S. economy featuring low unemployment, rising wages and low gas prices — along with the historic advantage held by incumbent presidents.

Even if the economy is only doing fairly well, rather than gangbusters, Trump could still coast to a 54 percent to 46 percent win in the popular vote. This according to Yale economist Ray Fair, who also predicted Trump’s 2016 win.

Of course, the economy could go south, and then all bets are off.

But as all horror movie fans know, the first attempt to get rid of the monster always fails. Otherwise there’s no opportunity to deliver on the story’s true theme — the ingenuity and resilience of the resistance.

So, let’s take another look at the Mueller magic bullet to see if it can be repurposed.

Revisiting Mueller

The Mueller investigation concluded that there was no collusion between the Trump team and Russia.

However, the summary reinforces the central elements of the Russiagate narrative: Russia interfered in the 2016 elections in two principle ways. It did so through social media operations such as its targeted Facebook ad purchases. Also, the “Special Counsel found that Russian government actors successfully hacked into computers and obtained emails from persons associated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks.”

First of all, let’s restate the seemingly obvious for all those who believe that Russiagate is some the liberal version of 9-11 Truthers or the Bush administration’s WMD claims about Iraq. Russia attempted to swing the 2016 election in favor of Trump. Full stop.

Second, although the Mueller report couldn’t substantiate claims that the Trump team colluded with the Russian government, collusion may still have happened. Mueller just didn’t turn up any proof of it. Collusion is a difficult charge to pin on a group of actors, particularly if they conduct their business in backroom meetings and the top dog threatens underlings with massive retaliation if they squeal. Also, Mueller might have gathered evidence that Trump colluded with Russian non-state actors around election interference. A lesser charge, perhaps, but still damning.

The key link, meanwhile, between the Russian hack, Wikileaks, and the Trump campaign was Roger Stone. He has denied being an intermediary. But Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen has testified that he was present at a meeting in July 2016 when…

Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Stone’s trial won’t take place until November. So, this strand of the narrative may take some time to unravel.

The other Russia-related question is obstruction of justice. Bear in mind that what’s currently available is not Mueller’s report but William Barr’s short summary of it. And its Barr’s assessment in the summary (along with his deputy Rod Rosenstein) that there is no evidence of obstruction of justice. Three weeks earlier, Mueller had informed the FBI that he wasn’t going to conclude one way or the other on this issue, so Barr had plenty of time to come up with his own interpretation.

But he probably didn’t even need that head’s up. Last year, Barr had already determined that Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey did not constitute obstruction of justice. So, he’s not exactly assessing the evidence without prejudice.

The Trump administration itself seems like one huge obstruction of justice. Surely this is still a profitable seam to mine. The question, of course, is whether Trump can be accused of obstructing an inquiry that didn’t turn up the key piece of incriminating evidence. But, then, there are other obstructions and injustices that could fit the bill.

Let a Thousand Investigations Bloom

Trump is not, of course, in the clear after the Mueller report. But he probably believes that his presidency can survive the other criminal investigations.

In the Southern District of New York, for instance, prosecutors will be looking into whether Michael Cohen’s payments to Stormy Daniels constituted a violation of campaign finance laws as well as various irregularities — wire fraud, money laundering — connected to Trump’s inaugural committee. Investigators will have greater leeway than Mueller did to pursue all sorts of interesting leads and expose Trump’s enormous walk-in closet of dirty linen. But even if these charge stick, they might not be enough to sink his reelection prospects.

Perhaps critics like Matthew Yglesias are right when they conclude that Congress, no longer constrained by the Mueller investigation and Republican control of both chambers, can focus on the dirt-digging that matters. Here’s how Russell Berman lays out the possible trajectories for congressional investigation in The Atlantic:

The president promotes his corporate brands regularly and in plain sight, while a hotel he owns mere blocks from the White House rakes in profits from patrons, including foreign leaders, with business before the federal government. Cabinet secretaries reportedly violate ethical guidelines and conflict-of-interest rules left and right by spending lavishly on office furniture and official travel, or by failing to properly divest their business holdings. The president’s son-in-law obtains a security clearance over the objections of senior officials, and then — along with other top White House aides — conducts official government business using personal, unsecured devices and accounts. The president himself refuses to relinquish his personal cellphone, raising concerns that he is having conversations vulnerable to interception by hackers or foreign governments.

The first item on the list, the violations of the emoluments clause of the constitution, is worth a thorough congressional vetting. Last year, a federal district court allowed a suit brought by the attorneys general of DC and Maryland to proceed, over the Justice Department’s objections, with a case against Trump for personally profiting from his presidency. To say the least, Trump and his lawyers are not happy about this suit moving forward.

Delving into Trump’s tax records, untangling his banking relationship with Deutsche Bank (which was also fined for Russian money-laundering), investigating his business dealings with Russia and Azerbaijan and China: all of this will be enormously illuminating.

But will it be enough to dent Trump’s reelection chances, absent a downturn in the economy?

Trump and Treason

It’s one thing for Trump to act in his own pecuniary interests. It’s what his supporters expect of him. They love his displays of ostentatious wealth. They seem unfazed by all the reports that he inherited over $400 million from his father, that he built his fortune in corrupt ways, that he systematically lied about his financial assets. Trump is a larger-than-life outlaw figure — think Jesse James or Bonnie and Clyde — that somehow captures the imagination of (some) Americans.

Further investigations into the president’s self-serving ways are welcome but they may do little to keep his supporters away from the polls. Furthermore, these investigations will probably stretch out for many months and not have the kind of electoral impact that the anti-Trump crowd so desperately wants.

Treason, on the other hand, is a game-changer. Trump has put America first, he hugs the flag, he has practically established himself as the brand image for the country. If it can be proved that he worked on behalf of other countries to undermine fundamental American institutions, this is a stigma that can’t easily be washed off.

Trump, in fact, understands this fact all too well. That’s why he has turned the tables and promised to retaliate against his enemies for having done “evil” and “treasonous” things. Needless to say, Trump has defined treason rather loosely to include, for instance, Democrats who didn’t clap for him during the State of the Union address.

To be precise, treason as defined by the U.S. constitution only happens during wartime and consists of providing “aid and comfort” to an enemy. So, unless Trump were found to have funneled secrets to the Taliban or the Islamic State, there’s technically no chance of a treason charge sticking to the president.

But if it can be proved that Trump acted “treasonously” — a lower bar than the “treason” designation — it could seriously jeopardize his political career. That would include Trump simply knowing that Russia was interfering in the 2016 elections to help him (which falls short of actual collusion). It would include some of his further interactions with Russia (such as that famous press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki). It might include evidence that the economic interests of the Trump family dictated the president’s policies toward Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Putting Trump first doesn’t seem to harm the president’s political fortunes. Putting America last, however, might.

The Mueller report has been the dominant story of the first act of Trump’s tragic presidency. The special counsel has taken down a number of shady characters, like Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. But this magic bullet turned out to be only half-magical.

As we enter the second act of this horror story, it’s going to take a lot more to stop Trump — and, more importantly, Trumpism. Investigations will help. A compelling charge of “acting treasonously” could do the trick. But ultimately the only true magic bullet in this case is the collective determination of all Americans who still believe in decency and democracy.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and author of the dystopian novel Frostlands.