If, like me, you’ve been following every twist and turn of the Russia investigations, you’ve probably wrestled with the same question that has been gnawing at me for more than a year now: What if there’s nothing there?
No, I’m not denying the voluminous evidence that Russia, at Kremlin strongman Vladimir Putin’s personal direction, sought to meddle in the 2016 election, and that Donald Trump was clearly his man. The indictment on Friday of 13 Russians—and the incredible forensic detail in the 37-page complaint filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team—ought to have convinced any reasonable person that the Russia investigation is definitely a somethingburger. But what kind of somethingburger is it?
President Trump has seized on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s statement that “there is no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity” to say that the special counsel has vindication his oft-repeated refrain that there was “NO COLLUSION” between Russia and the Trump campaign. This is obviously nonsense—the key words in Rosenstein’s remarks being “in the indictment,” which in any case dealt only with a sliver of Russian efforts to tilt the election in Trump’s favor.
Of course, Mueller has put some serious points on the board. In addition to the 13 Russians and three Russian organizations from Friday’s indictments, we’ve also seen two indictments of Trump associates thus far—former Trump campaign chairman/manager Paul Manafort and his wingman Rick Gates—and two plea bargains, from sometime national security adviser Michael Flynn and volunteer campaign adviser George Papadapoulos. There is also other stuff hanging out there—most of all Donald Trump Jr.’s infamous meeting in Trump Tower, the one he enthusiastically scheduled after being told the Russians on offer had dirt on Hillary Clinton. Mueller’s team has had nothing to say—yet?—about the hacked emails of the Democratic National Committee or Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. And there is no indication, despite the professed optimism of White House lawyer Ty Cobb, that they are wrapping up anytime soon.
There are, of course, odd aspects of Trump’s behavior that arouse suspicions. His obsequious praise of Putin. The aborted effort to roll back the old Russia sanctions, and the failure to enforce the new ones. His refusal to accept that Moscow meddled in the election, despite the conclusions of his own staff, the intelligence community and pretty much everyone looking at the evidence in good faith. Firing his FBI director and reportedly ordering the firing of the special counsel. His constant fulminations against the “Russia hoax.” The fact that he hasn’t directed any effort to safeguard the 2018 midterms. If Trump is guilty, he sure is acting like it.
And there is the fact Trump aides have repeatedly lied about the fact, and extent, of contact between campaign officials and Russia. If the Trump Tower meeting was as innocuous as Donald Jr. says it was, for instance, why the misleading claim that it was about “adoptions”?
So what am I still skeptical about?
I keep coming back the slapdash nature of Trump’s 2016 operation, and the chaos and dysfunction that everyone who covered that campaign saw play out each day. Like the Trump White House, the Trump campaign was a viper’s nest of incompetence and intrigue, with aides leaking viciously against one another almost daily. So much damaging information poured out of Trump Tower that it’s hard to believe a conspiracy to collude with Moscow to win the election never went public. If there was such a conspiracy, it must have been a very closely guarded secret.
Then there’s the Trump factor to consider. Here’s a man who seems to share every thought that enters his head, almost as soon as he enters it. He loves nothing more than to brag about himself, and he’s proven remarkably indiscreet in the phone calls he makes with “friends” during his Executive Time—friends who promptly share the contents of those conversations with D.C. reporters. If Trump had cooked up a scheme to provide some favor to Putin in exchange for his election, wouldn’t he be tempted to boast about it to someone?
And there are aspects of the Russia scandal, too, that don’t quite add up for me. Take Flynn’s plea bargain. As Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, noted after the deal became public, prosecutors usually prefer to charge participants in a conspiracy with charges related to the underlying crime. But Flynn pleaded guilty only to lying to the FBI, which Bharara surmised suggests might mean Mueller didn’t have much on him. It certainly seems unlikely that any prosecutor would charge Flynn for violating the 219-year-old Logan Act, a constitutionally questionable law that has never been tested in court, for his chats with the Russian ambassador. It’s not even clear if the (stupid) idea of using secure Russian communications gear, as Flynn and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner reportedly considered doing, would have been a crime.
Then there is Papadopoulos, the hapless campaign volunteer who drunkenly blabbed to the Australian ambassador to London that the Russians were sitting on loads of hacked emails. He, likewise, confessed only to lying to the FBI. Papadopoulos desperately tried to arrange meetings between Trump or top Trump officials and Russians, which apparently never happened. Papadopoulos has been cooperating with Mueller for months, but how much does he really have to offer? He seems like an attention-seeking wannabe—the kind who puts “Model U.N. participant” on his resume.
Speaking of attention-seeking wannabes, Carter Page was another volunteer campaign adviser who was enthusiastic about collaborating with Russia. His writings and comments suggest he has been a Putin apologist for years. But anyone who has seen Page’s TV interviews or read through his congressional testimony can tell that there’s something not quite right about him. He’s apparently broke, doesn’t have a lawyer, and has issued lengthy, bizarre statements comparing himself to Martin Luther King, Jr. Back in 2013, when a Russian agent tried to recruit Page, he described him as too much of an “idiot” to bother with. This is the mastermind of the Russia scandal?
As for Manafort and Gates, the charges against them are serious and detailed. They stand accused of failing to register as foreign agents for their overseas work, as well as various offenses related to money laundering. But Mueller has yet to charge them with any crimes related to their work on the Trump campaign. Gates is reportedly working out a cooperation deal with Mueller’s team—perhaps he has stories to tell. And we can’t rule out the idea that Mueller is prepared to file superseding charges against either or both of the two men. But so far, their alleged crimes seem unrelated to 2016.
There is, of course, plenty of public evidence that Trump was all too happy to collude with Putin. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” springs to mind, not to mention Trump’s endless invocation of WikiLeaks in the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign. What’s particularly eerie, too, is how Trump’s divisive racial rhetoric and claims about how the election was going to be “rigged” in favor of Hillary Clinton echoes the messages described in Mueller’s latest indictment. Not to mention the voluminous fodder Trump has given Mueller for a (very) hypothetical obstruction of justice case.
Mueller’s team doesn’t leak, and he’s repeatedly surprised us, as he did again on Friday. But I’m still waiting for a smoking gun—and the special counsel hasn’t shown us one yet, assuming he ever will.
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