On Sunday afternoon Attorney General William Barr sent a letter to Congress noting that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” The message also noted that Mueller could not exonerate President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice, but that Barr himself had decided that the evidence Mueller developed was “insufficient to establish” that Trump had obstructed justice. Trump proclaimed it was “complete and total exoneration.” And Trump champions popped the cork and declared case closed, nothing to see, end of story, no need for further investigation, Trump did no wrong.
Well, that is fake news.
Barr’s note is clear that Mueller did not uncover evidence Trump and his gang were in direct cahoots with Russia’s covert operation to interfere with the US election and boost Trump’s odds. But the hyper-focus on this sort of collusion—as if Trump instructed Russian hackers on how to penetrate the computer network of the Democratic National Committee—has always diverted attention from a basic and important element of the scandal that was proven long before Mueller drafted his final report: Trump and his lieutenants interacted with Russia while Putin was attacking the 2016 election and provided encouraging signals to the Kremlin as it sought to subvert American democracy. They aided and abetted Moscow’s attempt to cover up its assault on the United States (which aimed to help Trump win the White House). And they lied about all this.
And, yes, there were instances of collusion—not on the specifics of the attack, but secret scheming between Trumpworld and Russia.
None of the evidence underlying this is in dispute. 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.
The Moscow Project
Let’s start with Trump. Shortly after he leaped into the 2016 contest, Trump began pursuing a grand project in Moscow: a sky-high tower bearing his name. It could reap him hundreds of millions of dollars. His fixer, Michael Cohen, was the Trump Organization’s point man in the negotiations.
Trump signed a letter of intent, and the talks went on for months through the fall of 2015 and the first half of 2016. At one point, Cohen spoke to an official in Putin’s office, seeking help for the venture. And throughout this period, Trump the candidate, when asked for his opinions on Russia and Putin, issued curiously positive remarks about the thuggish and autocratic Russian leader.
Trump also claimed throughout the campaign that he had nothing to do with Russia—no business there, nothing. And when he was asked whether he knew Felix Sater, a wheeling-dealing developer and one-time felon who was the middleman for the Moscow project negotiations, Trump claimed he was “not that familiar with him.”
That was a lie.
The Moscow deal did fizzle at some point, but Trump had engaged in the the most significant conflict of interest in modern American politics. He was making positive statements about Putin on the campaign trail, at the same time he needed support from the Russian government for his project. Yet he hid this conflict from American voters and lied to keep it secret. (After the election, Cohen lied to Congress about this project to protect Trump, and that’s one reason Cohen is soon heading to prison.)
It’s deplorable that a presidential candidate would double-deal in this manner and deceive the public—insisting he was an America First candidate, while pursuing a secret agenda overseas to enrich himself. But Trump’s duplicity also compromised him.
Putin and the Russians obviously knew about this deal Trump was hiding from American voters. So at any time they could reveal it and expose Trump’s mendacity. He willingly placed himself at the mercy of a foreign adversary—as it was preparing a covert operation to corrupt an American election. And Trump literally and secretly signaled to the Kremlin—which was still facing harsh economic sanctions for Putin’s intervention in Ukraine—that he wanted to do business with it. Trump was betraying the public trust before being elected.
The Trump Tower Meeting
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.
Thus, Trump’s top men were encouraging a repressive regime to clandestinely intervene in American politics. And when this meeting was revealed, long after the election, Trump concocted a false cover story for Trump Jr. to issue: this get-together had been nothing more than a conversation about the issue of adoption in Russia. Why did they lie? It seems obvious: to cover up significant misconduct.
The Hacked Emails
Trump’s collusion with Putin’s office regarding his secret Moscow deal and the Trump advisers attempt to collude with a secret Russian scheme to help their campaign were not directly related to the hack-and-dump operation mounted by Russia that targeted the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign. Yet when that attack happened, the Trump camp did openly assist the Kremlin by denying this assault was underway.
After more than 20,000 emails and documents stolen by Russian hackers were released by WikiLeaks at the start of the Democrats’ presidential convention in July 2016, the Clinton campaign pushed the point that its candidate—and the American election—was being assaulted by Moscow. In response, Trump Jr. and Manafort publicly proclaimed this was nonsense and a lie being promoted by the Clintonites for political gain. (A month earlier, when the Democratic Party revealed it had been hacked by Russia, the Trump campaign accused them of cooking up a hoax.)
If anyone had reason to believe the Russians were behind an operation seeking to disrupt the Democratic convention, it was Trump Jr. and Manafort. With the Trump Tower meeting the previous month, they had been informed Moscow was aiming to intervene in the election to harm Clinton and help Trump. And the Russians were presumably aware that Trump’s inner circle knew this. With their false denials, Trump Jr. and Manafort were assisting the Moscow cover-up. (The Russian government was claiming it had nothing to do with the hack-and-dump operation.) How else could the Russians interpret the actions of the Trump campaign other than as further encouragement and a sign of approval?
Not to mention that at this time, Trump himself publicly called on Russia to keep hacking: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Clinton] emails that are missing.” That night, according to a Mueller indictment, Russian hackers for the first time tried to penetrate Clinton’s personal email. They knew to take a hint.
By echoing Russian disinformation—after being informed the Kremlin intended to mess with the presidential campaign to assist Trump—the Trump campaign was making it easier for a foreign power to undermine a US election.
And there’s more: as this attack proceeded, the Trump campaign kept trying to secretly engage with Russia and Russian interests. The Mueller indictment of George Papadopoulos—the Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who met with various Russian cut-outs and who was told that Moscow had dirt on Clinton in the form of thousands of purloined emails—noted that during the summer 2016 he was trying to establish a back-channel connection between the campaign and Putin’s office. And Papadopoulos was doing this with the approval of senior campaign aides. Here was another clear signal to the Kremlin: Trump and his team had no problem with the Russian attack on the election and still desired a secret hook-up with Moscow. There was no need for Trump to conspire directly with Putin. He and his campaign were repeatedly flashing a green light at Moscow and aiding the Russian cover-up.
Manafort, though, was directly conspiring. With Russians, including a Russian oligarch. On August 2, Manafort took time away from his duties as Trump’s campaign manager to meet at a ritzy cigar bar in Manhattan with Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime Ukrainian-Russian business colleague who, according to several Mueller court filings, has been assessed by the FBI to be an associate of Russian intelligence.
Though much of the details about this meeting have been redacted in the relevant court filings, it seems that the rendezvous was arranged at the behest of Oleg Deripaska, a Putin-friendly Russian oligarch. At this get-together, Manafort supplied Kilimnik polling data from the campaign. (Kilimnik, according to the New York Times, subsequently passed this information to two Ukrainian oligarchs, and it’s unclear if he shared it with others.)
At this meeting, the two discussed a supposed peace plan for Ukraine that would benefit Russia. And what’s known about the meeting suggests that Manafort was signaling to the Russians that the Trump campaign was amenable to a policy that would lift the harsh economic sanctions imposed on Russia.
This meeting was occurring at a time when cybersecurity experts and American intelligence officials were being cited in news reports saying Russia was behind the cyberwarfare being waged against Democratic targets. Any private sign from Manafort that Trump was indeed keen to remove the sanctions—a position that Trump had publicly demonstrated sympathy for—would provide more encouragement for the Russians. (A week or so before this meeting, Manafort had declared he had no connections with Russians, which was a lie: throughout the campaign he used Kilimnik to communicate with Deripaska, with whom he had done business for a decade.)
Hobnobbing with the enemy, lying about it, and bolstering Moscow’s cover-up. Then Trump took it up a notch.
In mid-August, as the official GOP nominee, Trump received a classified intelligence briefing that included the intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow was the perp in the hack-and-dump operation. Yet for the rest of the campaign, Trump repeatedly downplayed or denied Russian involvement. He did this in public statements and at the debates.
This stance turned Putin’s attack into a political dispute. Top Republicans (and Trump-cheering pundits in the media) generally followed his lead and declined to rally against the Russian assault. This prevented the coalescing of a focused national response to Putin’s war on the election.
That helped the Russians. Perhaps it emboldened them. On October 7, 2016, the Obama administration released a statement declaring Moscow culpable for the cyber-attacks on the Democrats. An hour or so later, the Access Hollywood video of Trump boasting of sexually assaulting women appeared. And shortly after that, WikiLeaks began releasing the personal emails of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta that were stolen by Russian operatives. For weeks, WikiLeaks dumped a new tranche of Podesta emails on practically a daily basis and hobbled the Clinton campaign in the final stretch of the race.
Despite this attack and the official Obama announcement, Trump stuck to his false line: the Russians should not be held accountable. An overseas foe was striving mightily to undermine a US election. Trump had been told this privately by US intelligence, and the US government had issued a public declaration. Yet Trump echoed and amplified Moscow’s denials. He was siding with the enemy.
A candidate seeking the job of defending the United States was facilitating an attack on the nation. And after winning the White House, Trump would keep on protecting Putin by dismissing Russian involvement and the significance of the attack.
If neither Trump nor a Trump emissary communicated explicitly with the Russians about the specifics of the operation, that is not the end of this scandal. Trump knew the attack was happening, and he helped. So, too, did Donald Trump Jr. and Manafort—and probably others within the campaign. This is the core of the Trump-Russia scandal.
By asserting that the issue is only whether or not he directly colluded with the Kremlin plot, Trump has diverted attention from the fact that he facilitated an assault on his own country. That may or may not have been illegal. But it was betrayal. It was treachery.
Mueller’s job was to seek out possible crimes to prosecute. It was not to evaluate actions that did not rise to the level of criminality. Nor was it his charge to tell the public the whole truth.
Yet so much of the truth is already out there. And the bottom line was established before Mueller submitted his report: Trump committed what is probably the most significant political misdeed in American history. The public did not need the Mueller report to confirm this. The foundation of this scandal—Trump’s villainy—has for long resided within plain sight.