Over the last few days there seems to be increasing concern that the Mueller investigation will basically end with a whimper instead of a bang and we may never have a satisfactory answer for what happened between Russia and the Trump campaign. What’s remarkable about this concern is how it manages to ignore so much of the information that we already know that not only clearly illustrates a conspiracy between senior members of the Trump campaign and foreign interests as well as brazen attempts to obstruct the subsequent investigation.
Jeffrey Toobin writes, “The Watergate scandal was like Shakespeare — a drama that built to a satisfying climax. The Russia story is more like Beckett — a mystifying tragicomedy that may drift into irresolution. Did Trump collude, and did he obstruct justice? Mueller may never have the answers”. Shimon Prokupecz worries “Everybody is breathlessly waiting for the Mueller report, and I’m not sure that one is even coming.” His concern is that Mueller will submit his report to the DOJ where it will just languish, with the only tangible results of his probe being the criminal cases he brought. What Mueller did not find or what he did find that was determined not to reach the threshold for prosecution will never be known. Southpaw has similar concerns, tweeting “We remember the climactic last act of Watergate, but we forget how Iran-Contra ended. There’s a grim list of the forgotten stretching back into history: Thousands of citizens died in Hurricane Maria, with no investigation (yet); a global archipelago of black sites, with the Senate report on the torture practiced within them locked up forever; etc;”
This worry is compounded by this NBC News report that states that the Senate Intelligence Committee (SSCI) is getting near the end of its investigation and “has uncovered no direct evidence of conspiracy between Trump campaign and Russia”. Republican Chairman Richard Burr hinted as much last week when he said, “If we write a report based upon the facts that we have, then we don’t have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia”. However, as Natasha Bertrand elaborates, Democrats on the Committee believe that “the word ‘direct’ is doing a lot of work here”. According to those Democrats, “there is a common set of facts” but “a disagreement about what those facts mean”.
Frankly, Burr’s interpretation of the evidence is preposterous. Apparently the SSCI was unaware that Paul Manafort had passed private polling information to foreign interests when that news broke, news which ranking Democrat Mark Warner described as “damning evidence of a senior Trump campaign official providing information to individuals tied to Russian intelligence in the midst of the Kremlin’s effort to undermine our election”. That certainly does not provide a lot of confidence that the SSCI has gathered all the information it needs to make any determination about collusion. Moreover, that information alone makes a mockery of Burr’s statement.
Paul Manafort was the Trump campaign manager when he met with Konstantin Kilimnik, a man closely connected to Russian intelligence, in order to provide Trump campaign private polling data to Kiliminik and walk him through exactly what that data meant. This happened, not “in the spring” as the NY Times erroneously reported, but on August 2, 2016, just as the full campaign got into swing after the two conventions. As emptywheel notes, “It seems there’s a conspiracy there one way another. Either Manafort effectively stole Trump’s campaign data and traded it to foreigners for monetary gain. And/or Manafort handed over that data expecting that the campaign would get a thing of value from the foreigners he was sharing it with. Richard Burr would seem to argue that’s not ‘collusion’ unless Trump knew about it (whether he did is one of the questions Mueller posed to Trump). But it is a conspiracy, an agreement with Konstantin Kilimnik to commit one or more crimes, right there in the middle of the election season. Whether Mueller will charge it or do something else with it remains to be seen. But it is fairly clearly a conspiracy, down to the clandestine arrivals and departures from the dark cigar lounge”.
Beyond the hundred other contacts with the Russians, the Trump Tower meeting, Trump Tower Moscow negotiation, and Ukrainian “peace deals”, this meeting alone shows what would commonly be called “collusion” between the Trump campaign and foreign interests closely linked to Russia. Whether this was Manafort simply paying off his creditor Deripaska while keeping Trump in the dark is irrelevant to the actual crime of conspiracy that he engaged in. And, despite what Burr means when he says it, this conspiracy would fit with what most Americans would understand as “collusion”, in the same way that most Americans understand that the AMI emails to Bezos were blackmail, but with far more legal standing in this case.
In addition, Manafort presumably would not have passed this data to the Russians in order to relieve his debt with Deripaska if he believed that the data would be worthless to the Russians. Manafort’s expectation, quite obviously, was that the Russians would be able to use it and, combined with discussions about sanctions relief at the very same meeting, described the situation as a “win-win” for both sides. And, in a remarkable coincidence, beyond their broader attempt to support the Trump campaign, the Russians did manage to target certain voters and certain districts with pro-Trump and/or anti-Hillary messages. Whether that effort can be proved to be part of the quid pro quo to a legal standard remains to be seen.
So it’s time for the media to put this canard that there has been no evidence of a conspiracy, or more simply, collusion, between the Trump campaign and Russia to bed once and for all. And it’s time for the media to stop accepting the nonsense from Trump and Republicans that there is no evidence of collusion or allowing them to hide behind their own twisted meaning of that word. There was collusion and the only remaining questions are how deep in the campaign did that collusion go and did it include Trump himself. The answers to those questions may not be as definitive as Manafort’s meeting with Kilimnick and may rely more on circumstantial evidence.
It is recognized less often than it should be that plenty of people in this country are convicted of crimes based entirely on circumstantial evidence. On the other hand, prosecutors decline to pursue many criminal cases simply because the only evidence is circumstantial. But impeachment or a judgement about Trump’s fitness to stay in office is a political process, not a criminal one, and a preponderance of circumstantial evidence may very well convince the American people that Trump no longer deserves to remain in office.
There is certainly plenty of circumstantial evidence that points to a deeper involvement in contacts with Russia than Trump has admitted. There was his announcement of a major press conference detailing Hillary’s crimes just hours after Don Jr. accepted the Trump Tower meeting, a press conference that never occurred after the Russians provided far less than what Don Jr., Manafort, and Kushner clearly expected. There was the continued effort by Michael Cohen to get the Trump Tower Moscow built all the way up to the election and possibly beyond. Senior executives in the Trump Organization were updated on Cohen’s progress, presumably Don Jr. and/or Ivanka, and it defies belief that Trump was not updated as well. There was Michael Flynn’s pre-inauguration contacts with the Russian ambassador over Obama’s sanctions and a UN vote on Israel that were directed by officials with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, as well as Jared Kushner’s attempt to set up a back-channel to the Russians. There was Trump’s own pleading for the Russians to find Hillary’s deleted emails and his parroting of Russian talking points. There was Roger Stone’s attempts to direct the timing and subjects of Wikileaks revelations. And so much more. In all these cases, you would have to believe that all these people took those actions without consulting the candidate or the President-elect and were basically all freelancing. Yet, remarkably, you have never seen a lot of people in the Trump administration freelancing, except for Trump himself. It is clear it is his way or the highway.
In addition, Adam Schiff made a remarkable statement last week about the constraints of the Mueller investigation which got far less coverage than it should have. According to Schiff, “If the special counsel hasn’t subpoenaed Deutsche Bank, he can’t be doing much of a money laundering investigation. So, that’s what concerns me — that that red line has been enforced, whether by the deputy attorney general or by some other party at the Justice Department. But that leaves the country exposed”. Not only is Schiff implying that there is a whole area of potential criminality and collusion related to Russia or other foreign interests that Mueller has been blocked from investigating but he is also highlighting the need to look at those other areas of potential Trump criminality that are outside of Mueller’s authority such as tax evasion and money laundering, both of which there is considerable evidence of. There is already evidence that the Southern District of New York may be looking at bringing a RICO case against the Trump Organization, which would be entirely appropriate because that’s exactly what Trump is, a racketeer.
All this points to the dire need for public hearings on not only the Russian collusion investigation but the Emoluments Clause violations, his criminal violations of campaign finance law, and the rampant influence peddling infecting almost the entirety of the Trump administration. It is ridiculous that the SSCI is wrapping up its investigation before the Mueller probe has even concluded and it shows that its investigation has been less than adequate. Worse, most of its investigation was held behind closed doors and will be summarized in a report that apparently does not currently have bipartisan consensus.
No one knows what Mueller has uncovered in his investigation beyond what’s already been charged, apparently not even the Intelligence Committees, and so much of what Mueller has produced is redacted. Waiting for Mueller was all Democrats had until they won the House. At this point is a fool’s errand to continue to do so and allows other areas that also need investigating to go uncovered. We are nearly a month an a half into Democratic control of the House. Yes, there have been delays caused by the government shutdown, the Republicans’ refusal to fill committee assignments, and the ramping up of investigative staff that is required. Michael Cohen’s testimony has already been postponed a couple of times. We are approaching just a year and a half before the 2020 election. Americans have already been kept largely in the dark about the full extent of Trump’s involvement with Russia and other potential criminality for both the 2016 and 2018 elections. They must have that information before 2020. Time is wasting and these hearings must begin.
The reason that Toobin sees the Watergate scandal as Shakespeare and the Mueller investigation as Beckett is primarily because the Watergate hearings were public, while the majority of the collusion investigation is shrouded in secrecy, with Mueller only speaking through often redacted indictments and most of the congressional investigations held in closed door sessions with limited release of transcripts. As southpaw summarizes, “You don’t get Nixon’s Watergate resignation through some secretive executive branch official. It’s televised hearings. And it’s playing the tapes. The public needs to know what happened to decide whether things need to change. And at present it’s still a contested matter how much the public will get to learn. It’s a time when the public ought to be seeing hard evidence, not reposing blind trust in prosecutors — who already have a nigh on impossible task enforcing the criminal law against someone they’re not allowed indict, and who may not be willing to help out on the political side. In important ways Mueller doesn’t have the resolution of the Russia issue (and all the intrigue and influence peddling uncovered along the way) entirely on his shoulders. He couldn’t bear the load. Congress and the people need to stay engaged somehow, lest it be forgotten”. It’s long beyond time for the American people to start hearing all the evidence, direct and circumstantial, and reach their own conclusions.
Originally published at thesoundings.com on February 13, 2019.