There is a lot of confusion about special counsel Robert Mueller’s mission. We’re cutting through the clutter.
A lot has, rightfully, been made this week of President Donald Trump’s bizarre behavior when it comes to Russia and its apparent campaign to tilt the 2016 presidential race in his favor. While it wasn’t exactly surprising that the US president once again appeared to do his Russian counterpart’s bidding, the reason why this keeps happening continues to puzzle people.
Some believe that Trump’s frail ego can’t handle any notion that he did not beat Hillary Clinton fair and square. Others are raising the possibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin “having something” on Trump. The fact that people are even entertaining this theory is breathtaking in itself.
Whatever drives Trump’s actions, it is also the reason why he and his allies seek to undermine the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. They are doing this in a variety of ways, including arguing that the basis for the entire probe is illegitimate, that it is unconstitutional, and that Mueller’s team is biased. And that’s just over the past few weeks.
Foremost, however, is a claim Trump often makes on Twitter — or anywhere there is a microphone. The president’s first line of defense is that the investigation is a “witch hunt” because there was “no collusion” and no American has yet been indicted in connection with Russia’s meddling. And in any case, Trump and his allies claim, Mueller and his team have not yet alleged that Russia’s various activities affected the outcome of the election.
While there is a grain of truth in that defense, it is mostly bogus and terribly misleading. That is why it is useful to take a step back and look at the facts.
The main point of Mueller’s investigation is not to find out whether Russia and the Trump campaign coordinated their activities to defeat Clinton. That is only part of the probe. The primary focus is on how Russia interfered in the 2016 election. While Trump supporters may take issue with that assertion, it’s tough to argue the point since the order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein signed to launch the Mueller probe is called “Appointment of Special Counsel to Investigate Russian Interference with the 2016 Presidential Election and Related Matters.”
So when Trump and his allies point out that mostly Russians have been indicted so far, they are conveniently leaving out the part where that is Mueller’s main job.
In announcing the indictments, Rosenstein has gone out of his way to note that no Americans are involved and that no determination is made with regard to the impact of Russia’s meddling.
“There is no allegation in this indictment that any American citizen committed a crime,” he said last week in announcing the indictment of 12 Russians who are accused of hacking Democratic websites. “There is no allegation that the conspiracy changed the vote count or affected any election result.”
There is a good chance that these statements are made entirely for Trump’s ears to ensure that he will leave Mueller alone. Predictably, the White House seized on Rosenstein’s remarks, with spokesperson Lindsay Walters stating that this is “consistent with what we have been saying all along.”
But just because no Americans have been indicted so far in connection with the actual meddling (a handful, including Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and two former campaign aides have been charged with crimes not related to the election interference) does not mean that they won’t be.
Based on what we know already, one can certainly make the case that both Trump and his son Donald Jr. were attempting to coordinate something with the Russians. However, neither of those attempts (trying to get “dirt” on Clinton from the Russians in Don Jr.’s case and calling on Russian hackers to go after Clinton’s missing emails in the president’s case) will get them indicted. Other things might, however, so it would be foolish for Mueller to go there before wrapping up all other loose ends.
The second part of this line of defense — that the indictments do not allege the described actions affected the outcome of the election — is even more ridiculous because such a charge is impossible to prove. How many people could definitively say that their decision on who to vote for was determined by coverage of the DNC’s stolen emails or Russian-paid Facebook ads? Even if it were possible, it’s certainly not Mueller’s job to make that determination, which is why it’s such an effective strawman for Trump.
Unfortunately, the president’s disinformation campaign is working. Public opinion is slowly turning against Mueller and the investigation. That is a shame because he is doing important work which all Americans should be happy is being done — even Trump supporters and those who, correctly, point out that the US has also meddled (and worse) in foreign elections. Two wrongs don’t make a right and, hopefully, the Mueller probe will get people to realize that US elections are vulnerable.
And that’s where the real shortcoming of the probe is: Its scope is much too narrow. When it comes to election meddling, Russian interference is just the tip of the iceberg.
What the US really needs is a team of investigators with subpoena powers who will
- put voting machine companies and their products (and their ties to the parties) under the microscope;
- make sure the nominating processes in all states are fair;
- examine the internal communications of lawmakers responsible for drawing gerrymandered maps and passing phony voter ID laws, whose real purpose is to suppress minority votes. Let’s see what really motivated them;
- put the squeeze on government officials like Kris Kobach, who are perverting democracy by trying to tailor the electorate to their liking;
- get the bank records and communications of the American billionaires who are funding all of this. Because even if the Russians did funnel a few million bucks to the NRA, that’s just chump change compared to what oligarchs like the Kochs or Mercers are shelling out every year to counter the will of the voters.
So if your outrage stops at the Russians, or if you think that the biggest threat to US democracy this fall is that Putin’s cybergoons will almost certainly try to put a thumb on the scale again, then you’re missing the big picture.
Because when it comes to rigging US democracy, it truly is “America first.”
The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: Robert Mueller caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), marshal (Ian McKellar / Flickr – (CC BY-SA 2.0), badge (USBP / Wikimedia), DOJ logo (DOJ / Wikimedia), tumbleweed (sporst / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), and background (Ken Lund / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0).
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Trump and Putin (The White House / YouTube).