Short and late Mueller thoughts

I know Mueller report this week and I’ve been unusually busy plus laid up with a stomach bug.  Damn do I hate the Norovirus.  Once Alex was the initial vector, his poor vomiting aim probably pretty much ensured the rest of us all were eventually doomed.  Though, on a scientific level, really interesting the difference in incubation times and the severity of symptoms.  Okay, TMI.  Moving on…

A few thoughts miscellaneous thoughts…

Damn did Trump/Barr totally play the media on this.  Absence of evidence to the level required to prosecute a criminal conspiracy sure as hell is not the same as absence of evidence wrong-doing and bad-acting.  Among my favorite takes is Will Saletan (which if you should totally read in full) who goes hard after Barr and I think this is the most relevant point:

“Absence of such evidence.” One reason to be suspicious of Barr’s conclusions is that in the course of the letter, he tweaks Mueller’s opinion to look more like his own. Mueller’s report, as excerpted by Barr, says “the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.” Barr quotes that line and then, in the same sentence, concludes that “the absence of such evidence bears upon the President’s intent with respect to obstruction.” But the excerpt from Mueller’s report doesn’t refer to an absence of evidence. It refers to a presence of evidence, and it says this evidence isn’t enough to prove a crime. Throughout the investigation, this has been a standard Republican maneuver: misrepresenting an absence of proof as an absence of evidence. Barr’s use of this maneuver in his letter is a red flag that he’s writing partisan spin.

And, OMG, the way the media is letting Trump– and his Republican enablers!— get away with all the “total exoneration” “vindication” stuff despite all the stuff that we know.  Andrew Prokop:

But in charging documents and court filings over the past year and a half, the special counsel has made a great many factual findings and allegations about Russian interference and Trump associates. Here are those findings.

  • The Russian government did try to interfere in the 2016 election to hurt Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and benefit Trump.
  • It did so through a social media propaganda operation, and by hacking and leakingleading Democrats’ emails.
  • Some Trump associates seem to have had some advance knowledge of the email leaks — but Mueller did not find that they conspired with Russian government officials about the leaks.
  • The Trump Organization was secretly in talks for a potentially very lucrative Moscow real estate deal during the campaign, and Russian government officials were involved. Trump and members of his family were briefed several times on the project.
  • Before the 2016 campaign, Paul Manafort organized an extensive unregistered lobbying and PR operation to benefit Ukraine’s government, involving a top US law firm and two major lobbying firms. He also laundered tens of millions of dollars from Ukrainian interests into the US, and didn’t pay taxes on it. Then, once he joined Trump’s campaign, Manafort allegedly handed over Trump polling data to a Russian intelligence-tied associate.
  • Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos lied to the FBI about when he’d heard that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton in the form of emails.
  • Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn lied to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador regarding sanctions.
  • Trump lawyer Michael Cohen lied to Congress about the timing of the Trump Tower Moscow talks.
  • Longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone allegedly lied to Congress about his efforts to get in touch with WikiLeaks to try to obtain hacked Democratic emails.
  • Several actions from President Trump raised obstruction of justice concerns, and Mueller’s team laid out evidence about them but declined to say whether they were criminal.

That’s just damning, anyway you look at it.

And, heck, of all the good stuff written, why not go with George Conway, “Trump is guilty — of being unfit for office.”

Let’s start with question of “collusion.” It was never precisely clear what that nonlegal concept meant. If it means what Mueller reasonably took it to mean — an “agreement,” “tacit or express,” with the Russians to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, or, in effect, a conspiracy with the Russians — then it was always virtually unimaginable that collusion, so defined, would ever be found. Russian agents didn’t need Americans to help them do what they were doing — hacking and posting disinformation. If anything, involving Americans, including some apparently blockish ones, could only have fouled up their plans. “Collusion” — or, rather, “no collusion” — was bound to become a straw man for President Trump and his supporters to knock down with glee.

Yet that hardly means that the investigation (which, thanks to Paul Manafort’s largesse, actually turned a neat profit) was either a “witch hunt” or a waste of time. After all, it was a counterintelligence investigation as well as a criminal probe. A core objective — the overarching one, really — was to find out exactly what the Russians were doing. Another was to find out whether there were “links” between the Trump campaign and Russia’s activities. As matters turned out, and quite surprisingly, we now know from public sources that there were links aplenty. So who knows what we might learn on these subjects from Mueller’s still-unreleased report? As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday, “Russia’s ongoing efforts to interfere with our democracy are dangerous and disturbing.” He added that he would “welcome” the special counsel’s contributions toward understanding them…

On the facts, obstruction turns on what’s in a defendant’s mind — often a difficult thing to determine, and especially difficult with a mind as twisted as Trump’s. And complicating things even more, paradoxically, is the fact that some of Trump’s arguably obstructionist conduct took place in full public view — something that, with a normal person with normal moral inhibitions, would have indicated a lack of criminal intent. But in the head of Donald J. Trump, who knows?

So it should have come as no surprise that the obstruction case was difficult, and inconclusive. But Barr’s letter revealed something unexpected about the obstruction issue: that Mueller said his “report does not conclude that the President committed a crime” but that “it also does not exonerate him.” The report does not exonerate the president? That’s a stunning thing for a prosecutor to say. Mueller didn’t have to say that. Indeed, making that very point, the president’s outside counsel, Rudolph W. Giuliani, called the statement a “cheap shot.”…

But whether the Mueller report ever sees the light of day, there is one charge that can be resolved now. Americans should expect far more from a president than merely that he not be provably a criminal. They should expect a president to comport himself in accordance with the high duties of his office. As all presidents must, Trump swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, and to faithfully execute his office and the laws in accordance with the Constitution. That oath requires putting the national interests above his personal interests.

Okay, not that I’m going, I’ve also got to include Dahlia Lithwick:

Robert Mueller was never going to save us from Donald Trump. He was certainly never going to indict a sitting president of the United States. Indeed, given the narrow scope of Mueller’s charge—to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and any “matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation”—uncovering evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of an underlying crime was always a long shot. It was extraordinarily unlikely that he would find that Trump or high-ranking members of his presidential campaign “colluded”—or, to use the better and more precise legal term, conspired—with the Russian government to fix the 2016 election.

The improbability of success on “collusion,” narrowly construed, had nothing to do with the inherent morality of Trump and his handlers. After all, Trump chose as his campaign chairman Paul Manafort, a man so sleazy that even before his recent convictions had been cast out of American politics to practice his black arts on behalf of thugs and tyrants in the developing world and aspiring autocrats on the fringes of the former Soviet empire. Apart from thoroughly corrupt newcomers like Manafort and lightweight wannabe grifters like Rick Gates, Trump’s campaign was a family affair. Which meant that a chip off the old block like Donald Jr. was empowered to gleefully accept meetings with obviously dodgy Russian intermediaries offering obviously stolen dirt on candidate Hillary Clinton…

The first problem with proving that Trump conspired in the legal sense with the Russians is identifying the criminal objective of the conspiracy. The second and equally daunting obstacle is proving an agreement to commit the object crime.

What we know of Russian activities in 2016 establishes that they did two basic things to help Trump and hurt Clinton—they certainly conducted a social media disinformation campaign that favored Trump and they almost certainly hacked Clinton campaign emails and fed them to the media through WikiLeaks.

As to the first, one might construe the millions of rubles expended on the Russian social media effort as an illegal foreign campaign contribution, but I am aware of no evidence suggesting that the Trump campaign had any more advance knowledge of the Russian efforts on this score than anyone else. Indeed, there is no reason to think the Russians would have said anything to Trump’s people about their work in this realm. They didn’t need Trump’s help to do what they were doing, and telling Trump—that famously indiscreet man—would have risked disclosure that would have nullified the whole point of the exercise…

n any case, I strongly suspect that when the details of Mueller’s investigation finally emerge, they will reveal no evidence of prior communication between Trump’s people and the Russians about the Clinton email hack or the feeding of the material to WikiLeaks. An expression of interest in the emails by Donald Jr. at the Trump Tower meeting, yes. Loud public encouragement of the release from Trump, yes. Some advance word given to Roger Stone by Julian Assange (not the Russians) of the impending release of the material by WikiLeaks, perhaps. But no Trump-Russian cooperation in either obtaining or disseminating the material.

It was therefore always vanishingly improbable that the Russians would connect themselves directly and provably to the campaign of a weak, imprudent huckster, thus exposing Russia to the wrath of what the Russians surely assumed to be the incoming Clinton administration. Without such connections, there can have been no criminal conspiracy…

For me, the most important question about the Mueller report is the issues it will leave unaddressed. For example, I have long thought that the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia during the election were a mere secondary issue. The real question about Russia is why Trump has become a reliable, even obsequious, apologist for Vladimir Putin and has—so far as he has been able, against the resistance of Congress and the intelligence and defense establishments—regularly aligned himself with Russian interests. That requires explanation, and I strongly suspect Mueller did not read his charge as extending to an inquiry that would demand a deep historical analysis of Trump’s personal and business history running many years into the past. If the mystery of Trump’s open affinity for Putin is to be solved, congressional Democrats will have to solve it…

Second, the very narrowness of the Mueller inquiry should remind us that the problem with Donald Trump has never been one misdeed or misjudgment, or even one extended disgraceful episode. Nor is it the things we do not know about him (unless he really is compromised by Russia). The already-obvious challenge he presents to American democracy is his endless, staggering, mind-numbing array of completely public assaults on communal decency, competent governance, and bedrock constitutional norms. We don’t need Bob Mueller to tell us what the problem is. And almost nothing Mueller was ever likely to discover would have added very much to our understanding of that problem.

Bob Mueller’s legal investigation was never going to solve our national political crisis. And by not trying to solve it, by simply doing the job the Constitution and the laws asked him to do, he has paid the American system of government and his fellow citizens the great compliment of trusting us to solve it for ourselves.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

4 Responses to Short and late Mueller thoughts

  1. Jim Danielson says:

    The Norovirus is a real pain, we don’t gain immunity so it can keep coming back with family members reinfecting each another, trading it back and forth like an unwanted joke Christmas gift.

    • Steve Greene says:

      That happened to us about 5 years ago. Worst winter ever.

      • Mika says:

        The ward where my father was until yesterday was full of rooms with elderly norovirus patients. They had come to hospital for another reason but were infected in there. Luckily my father didn’t get it and he is recovering at home from luckily pretty mild pneumonia.

        While I was once visiting him a nurse came to check his oxygen saturation levels. She talked English with a noticeable American accent. I asked her something and she answered that she doesn’t know since she’s a student. Americans are infiltrating Finnish health care system!

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