Mueller’s indictment on Friday of Russia’s cyberwarfare against the 2016 election was a tactical and investigative masterstroke. President Donald Trump is now cornered. Mueller’s report makes a total liar out of Trump for his repeated claims that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin when Putin says Russia had nothing to do with it, that the hacking could have been “some guy in New Jersey.”
The indictments do not quite connect the Russian operation to Putin personally, but that’s beside the point. No serious person believes that an operation as sensitive as deliberate disruption of the U.S. election could go forward without Putin’s full knowledge and support in a state as authoritarian as his.
Trump, having repeatedly denied Russian involvement, has now shifted gears and is insisting that the proper test of wrongdoing is “collusion.” But this is a straw man.
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly and publicly urged the Russians to come forward with dirt on Hillary Clinton. His top advisers met with Russian operatives to see what they had. That part of Mueller’s investigation is still open.
What we already know is plenty damning. A conspiracy of interest does not have to include an explicit tit-for-tat deal. It can be based on signaling.
In this case, Trump and his family relied on massive bailouts of his failing business enterprises from Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin. When he became a presidential candidate, the Russians treated him as an asset ― a useful idiot, as Stalinists used to put it. And when the campaign finalists turned out to be Trump versus the hard-line Clinton, the Russians sought to destroy her and elect Trump. Trump, meanwhile, became the most pro-Russia president in U.S. history, refusing to breathe a word of criticism of Putin, behaving like the head of a client state. This much of the story is hidden in plain view.
The details ― of Russian financing of Trump’s businesses, and of more campaign contacts ― are likely to be spelled out in further indictments, almost surely including members of Trump’s family, and in Mueller’s final report, which will look very much like a bill of impeachment.
What’s astonishing ― and devastating ― is that this detailed report on Russian manipulation of a U.S. presidential election had to come from a special counsel. Under a normal administration, evidence of a foreign power meddling in a U.S. election would have prompted a presidential order for a full investigation. Instead, Trump mocked the whole idea and used his influence to block such inquiries by House and Senate panels.
Rather than looking deeply into Russian interference, the president appointed a commission on election integrity, headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state best known for voter suppression, based on the premise that massive voter fraud by immigrants and others not qualified to vote had helped Clinton win the national popular vote. This was so preposterous that the commission collapsed of its own weight.