Anything But Witch Hunt

March 28, 2019

Let’s be clear on what the Mueller report reportedly says and doesn’t say about President Donald Trump’s relationship to Russia. Hint: Although there were no new legal charges, the president was not, as he claims, “completely exonerated.” Robert Mueller found no smoking gun to prove that Trump or his campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government.” Yet the four-page summary put forward by Attorney General William Barr effectively makes clear why this investigation was so necessary — and rebuffs the president’s claims that it was an “illegal takedown.” My four takeaways: ■ No formal collusion, but still a series of suspicious dealings with Russia by senior Trump campaign officials. The special counsel found insufficient evidence of conspiracy, according to the strict standards of criminal law, which demand proof of an “agreement — tacit or express — between members of the Trump campaign and the Russian government on election interference.” In other words, there would have to have been concrete evidence that the Trump team and Russians actually plotted together. That does not mean an absence of extremely questionable behavior. The Russia-related activities of campaign chief Paul Manafort, national security adviser Michael Flynn, Donald Jr., and others aides — which included suspicious meetings with Russians and possible KGB cutouts even before the Trump nomination —were more than enough to provoke legitimate concerns by the FBI. (And let’s not forget that Trump himself triggered the Mueller investigation by firing FBI chief James Comey whom he criticized for the FBI investigation of Russian meddling). ■ The investigation was anything but a “witch hunt” as Mueller proves with his details of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mueller reminds us that “there were two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election:” the first, a Russian disinformation campaign via social media and the second, a series of computer hacking operations. It further reminds us that the special counsel “brought criminal charges against a number of Russian nationals and entities in connection with these activities.” Yet, despite all the evidence, Trump repeatedly and consistently has rejected the charge that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. He does so despite the consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies to the contrary. Most infamously, at the July 2018 Helsinki summit he stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin and insisted he believed the Russian leader’s denials over his U.S. intelligence chiefs. So much for America First. ■ Trump continues to help the Kremlin. The president’s obsequious behavior toward Putin is the gift that keeps giving to Moscow. From asking Russia to “find” Hillary Clinton’s missing emails (at a time when Moscow was handing hacked emails to WikiLeaks) to his constant flattery of Putin, Trump has shown a bizarre affinity for the Russian leader. I’ve argued that such behavior is more likely the result of Trump’s overt fondness for, and perhaps envy of autocrats who don’t need to deal with the messy processes of democracy. He shows the same fondness for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, China’s Xi Jinping and other authoritarian rulers. But whatever the cause of Trump’s coddling of Putin, it undermines U.S. interests. By attacking U.S. intelligence agencies and NATO and by dissing the European Union and leaders of America’s close allies, the president plays into Putin’s plans to undercut Western democracies. By refusing to coordinate an all-of-government response to Russian cyberespionage — led from the White House — Trump leaves the door open to more interference. This has deeply disturbed top U.S. security officials. The Soviets used to call unwitting collaborators “useful idiots.” That may not equate with collusion but the term certainly fits Trump’s behavior. ■ Trump owes Mueller an apology, and owes the U.S. public the full report. The special counsel’s handling of the report (with no leaks) and his rigorous conclusions speak to the highest standards. Neither he nor his team deserved the constant litany of insults delivered by the president. Asked Monday if Mueller acted honorably, Trump now says “he did” and claims it wouldn’t bother him if the report was released in total. Anything less would be a further stain on a president who still refuses to admit his own bizarre behavior toward Russia provoked the Mueller report. TRUDY RUBIN is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.