Monday, April 1, 2019

It's Time To Move on from Russia

Robert Mueller (Alex Wong/Getty Images via Teen Vogue)
The Friday before last, as most of my readers surely know, Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted his much-anticipated report (on Russian interference in the 2016 election, the allegations of the Trump campaign's collusion in said interference, and possible obstruction of justice) to the Attorney General, Bill Barr. The following Sunday, Barr released a letter that summarized the report, quoting it as saying: "[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities." On obstruction of justice, the report seems to be more ambiguous; Barr quotes it as stating that "while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him." Barr further explains that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein have decided not to charge Trump with obstruction of justice.

We don't have access to the report itself, and many are understandably eager to find out what it says—for my part, I strongly support its release in as complete a form as possible, taking into account any legal restrictions or concerns about sensitive information. If we do get access to the rest of the report (a redacted version is reportedly on track for release later this month), it may well contain damaging information on Trump; perhaps about business ties to Russia that, if not illegal, are potentially shady—a prospect that seems entirely believable in light of the reports of an aborted Trump Tower Moscow project that was in the works even as Trump was running for president. If so, these revelations may deserve to be part of a larger conversation, for instance, one about why a businessman who's been involved in projects across the globe is a wildly inappropriate choice for President of the United States. And, certainly, the fact that Mueller could only offer an ambivalent answer to the question "Did the president engage in obstruction of justice?" is damning enough. But it looks like Trump's "NO COLLUSION" mantra may be one of the few true things he's ever said in his life, as bitter a pill as that may be for much of the #Resistance crowd.*

I've been a "Russiagate" skeptic from the start, so I can't pretend I don't feel a little vindicated—and that's not the only reason part of me is relieved by Mueller's finding. Even if Mueller had found collusion and the Democratic-controlled House had impeached Trump, I doubt enough Republicans in the Senate would turn on him to give the two-thirds majority necessary for conviction. And even if they had, what then? President Mike Pence? The idea they'd let him be removed from office, too, and Nancy Pelosi ascend to the presidency, is practically unthinkable. Granted, a finding of collusion would almost certainly damage Trump's odds for reelection, but those have never struck me as all that good to begin with and I'd prefer the 2020 campaign not turn into some anti-Russia hatefest on the Democratic side.

Trump's partial exoneration does leave me a little worried, in terms of what it might do for his approval rating and his chances in 2020. But Corey Robin lays out a decent case for why it might not matter all that much, and Democrats wisely chose not make Russia a focal point in the 2018 midterms, nor has it gotten too much attention in the nascent 2020 campaign season. Russiagate, as Robin notes, "has always been a media and social media obsession[.]" And what a media obsession it's been! Matt Taibbi's recently released piece reveals just how shocking and dangerous the media's failures and gullibility have been over the past few years when it comes to Trump-Russia, in far too much detail to rehash here, and stands as a must-read on this topic.

But I'm not here to re-litigate the failures and delusions of the past few years, though they do deserve to be re-litigated and no doubt will be. My purpose here is much more magnanimous, a simple request to all who have spent the years since 2016 focusing on Russia and Trump's real or imagined relationship with its government, in the hopes that it could bring down his presidency: please, for the love of all things good, move on. I've written before about how unhinged the discourse on Russia has been in the aftermath of Trump's election, and certainly I stand by that now. But, before Mueller had ended his investigation and submitted his report, there was at least some rationale, no matter how far-fetched, in hoping that revelations about Trump's relationship with Russia would spell the end of his presidency. Now, regardless of what you choose to believe about Trump's relationship with Russia and Putin, it should be obvious that this isn't going to happen. The walls are not closing in. They are not going anywhere, and neither is Trump, for the time being.

While certain aspects of Trump's relationship with Russia (like those hypothetical shady business ties) may warrant mention as part of some greater discussion, the focus on Russia patently makes absolutely no sense now that, after almost two years of investigation, Robert Mueller—a man who has literally been elevated to the level of a superhero and a secular saint by some liberals—found no evidence of collusion. That was always supposed to be the linchpin of the whole Trump-Russia conspiracy theory: Trump conspired with Russia to interfere with our elections so he could become president. Mueller's inability, after 20+ months of investigation, to substantiate that notion serves as the final nail in the coffin of the conspiracy theory. There is no longer any reason to lend any particular focus to Trump's relationship with Russia.

But how can I say that when we don't have the rest of the report? When I've already admitted it might reveal Trump does have ties of some sort to Russia? Well, because whatever those ties may be, they clearly haven't done much to shape Trump's foreign policy and behavior toward Russia. Trump is not a Russian asset, agent, puppet or anything like it, despite what Russiagaters might have said over the past couple years. He's bombed a Russian client state (Syria), given lethal arms to Ukraine, which is openly hostile to Russia, and now he's trying to overthrow another government allied with Russia, in Venezuela. Yes, he has praised Vladimir Putin, but Trump has also had kind words for Saddam Hussein, Rodrigo Duterte, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and other authoritarian leaders from countries whom he is not an agent of.

Of course, the people who are attached to the Russiagate narrative have already gone about rationalizing this new setback. Amanda Marcotte has already decided that Trump has simply been "extremely successful, far more than Nixon, at conducting a cover-up," commenting: "This is why I’ve been such a fun-killer, expressing my skepticism both of 'Trump has dementia' and 'Trump is stupid'." Yes, that's a good sign for your argument: when you start insisting that the president who tweeted about "hamberders" earlier this year is actually more shrewd and competent than a career ratfucker like Richard Nixon. In an article for Salon, Marcotte writes:
Much has been made of the fact that Barr and Mueller are longtime friends outside of work, which most people in the media have assumed means that Barr is unlikely to interfere with Mueller's work. But one could turn that around: Maybe Mueller's personal affection for Barr made him reluctant to interfere with the job the new attorney general was obviously hired to do, which is to squelch the investigation as thoroughly as possible.
So Robert Mueller, who, again, has been venerated as an American hero by large segments of Russiagate liberals over the past 22 months, is now just another stooge who would curb his own investigation just to appease an old pal. Quite a convenient narrative.

Our old friend Jonathan Chait tries to minimize the significance of the Mueller investigation, tweeting: "No criminal conspiracy I believe. No collusion? That absurd." In an article for New York magazine he elaborates:
Of course Trump colluded with Russia. He literally went on camera and asked Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, promising that Russia would be rewarded by the American media, and Russia responded to this request by attempting a hack to steal Clinton’s emails that very day. Trump’s campaign aides repeatedly welcomed and sought out Russian assistance. His campaign manager passed on 75 pages of intricate polling data to a Russian operative during the campaign. And he did all this while secretly pursuing a lucrative business deal with Russia.
To define this nexus of communication and shared mission as something other than “collusion” is to define the term in a way that nobody would have accepted before this scandal began. 
As I wrote recently, "The unanswered questions here center on how much deeper this cooperation goes, and what laws might have been tripped." Apparently, the answer is none. [emphasis in original] 
Chait writes all of this completely ignoring the fact that Mueller was aware of it and reported not only that no laws were broken but that "[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities." So whatever one may think of the ethics of the actions Chait mentions, clearly none of them amounted to conspiracy or coordination "with the Russian government in its election interference activities." This is what has always been meant by "collusion"; trying to define it any other way now is blatant goalpost-shifting.

And then we come to David Corn, who bears significant responsibility for getting the Russiagate hysteria going, and just put out a Mother Jones article stating that "No matter what Mueller report contains, a harsh verdict remains: Trump and his gang betrayed the United States in the greatest scandal in American history." Really, David? The greatest scandal in American history? Is it worse than Watergate? Worse than COINTELPRO? Worse than Nixon sabotaging peace negotiations and possibly prolonging the Vietnam War to get elected president?

To back up this bold claim, Corn cites a number of vague ways in which Trump and his team "encouraged" Russia's meddling. To wit:
The betrayal continued after Trump became the de facto presidential nominee of the Republican Party. On June 9, 2016, Trump’s three most senior advisers—Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner—met with a Russian emissary in the Trump Tower in New York City. They had been informed that she would deliver them dirt on Hillary Clinton and that this was part of a secret Kremlin initiative to assist the Trump campaign. 
The meeting, the Trump team has claimed, was a bust. There was no useful derogatory information. But by this point, the Russians had already stolen tens of thousands of emails and documents from Democratic targets and were, no doubt, pondering what to do with the swiped material. This meeting was another signal conveyed to Moscow: the Trump crew didn’t mind Russian meddling in the election and was even willing to covertly collaborate with Russia on dirty tricks.
Again, not that there's any evidence they did "covertly collaborate with Russia on dirty tricks"—were there, Mueller could hardly have reported that "[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities." Of course, one can certainly challenge the ethics of Trump and Co.'s behavior w/r/t Russia in the 2016 election (and indeed Trump has clearly proven over and over that he is one of the least ethical people to ever be president), but that is not what the Russiagate narrative alleged, nor does unethical behavior come close to being "probably the most significant political misdeed in American history" as Corn claims.

The reason I bring these examples up is to urge you, the reader, not to fall for them. There will probably be many, many attempts to reframe Russiagate and/or explain away the inconvenient fact that Mueller's report fails to substantiate its key accusation. They are bullshit, and deserve to be ignored. Whatever sketchy business ties or unethical behavior Trump et al. may have or have engaged in with regards to Russia, it pales in comparison to the things that have happened since and that are going on right now. That's why Trump/Russia no longer has any justification for being its own discussion: certainly we can discuss whatever else the Mueller report may reveal, but allowing the focus on Russia to crowd out other issues like Trump's destructive bombing of the so-called Greater Middle East, enabling of Saudi Arabia's borderline genocide in Yemen, disastrous climate policy and other deadly and horrific actions—as it all too often has in his presidency thus far—is especially obscene now that the Mueller probe is over and the central claim of the Russiagate allegations has failed to be substantiated.

And, for that matter, let's drop the focus on Russia and its interference and US politics altogether. Sorry, but a bunch of clumsily worded Facebook ads and a third-rate spear-phishing scam don't constitute an existential threat to our democracy. If you want to focus on foreign influence in American politics, maybe we can start with the country that enjoys its own highly influential lobby that you can't even criticize if you don't want to be labeled an antisemite. Or Saudi Arabia, which maintains an impressive network of influence that includes bankrolling tech companies, universities and think tanks. Or the United Arab Emirates, which was, until recently, funding a major "progressive" think tank. Again, I'm not saying we ignore what Russia did, but screaming about the evil Russkies corrupting our political process starts to feel a little absurd when you look at it all in context.

So, please: let's move on from the focus on Russia. I don't have any hope that the Russiagate obsessives will do this, but I realize that a lot of people who aren't crazy and aren't married to the idea of reigniting the Cold War have had some degree of investment in the Trump-Russia scandal. Much of the media has spent the last few years fanning the flames and already we're seeing attempts to explain away the Mueller probe's anticlimactic finale. Don't fall for them. There are many, many valid reasons to hate Donald Trump and his administration. The full Mueller report may well give a few more. But the idea that Trump has some sort of unique and particularly damning relationship with Russia should be well and truly dead now that the centerpiece of the whole narrative—the allegations of collusion—have fallen through. Refusing to reckon with that reality is not just wrongheaded, it's downright dangerous.


*The common rebuttal to this (coming not just from liberals but even some further to the left) seems to be that we only have a four-page summary of the report from a Trump lackey. That may be true, but the excerpt "[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities" is quoted directly from the report and so far no one has come forward to say that Barr fabricated this quote or took it out of context. 

No comments:

Post a Comment