We’re rapidly reaching a point in the Russia investigation where partisan opinion revolves almost entirely around unproven assertions. On the anti-Trump left (and parts of the Never Trump right) there exists a burning conviction that Robert Mueller “has the goods” — that there is strong evidence of criminal collusion by Trump and/or his campaign, and critics of the investigation intend to either block Mueller before he can deliver his final report or discredit his conclusions to save the Trump presidency.
Conversely, among the president’s supporters, there is now a presumption that the entire Russia investigation was and is a bad-faith effort by the “deep state” to create an “insurance policy” against a Trump victory — that there was never reason to investigate Trump, and each new revelation about a different investigatory technique (national-security letters, informants, FISA applications, etc.) is proof of additional wrongdoing.
I’m in neither camp. I simply don’t know if Mueller has any “goods” on Trump or his campaign. He has obviously exposed a troubling degree of real and alleged criminal misconduct surrounding Trump, but he has not yet exposed evidence of actual collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. To the extent that I have a view on the ultimate outcome of his investigation, I’m skeptical that it will find that Trump or campaign officials actively conspired with Russians. The best investigative journalists in the world have been attacking this story for more than a year, with the help of a White House that leaks like a sieve. Yet no substantial evidence of campaign collusion — legal or otherwise — has emerged.
At the same time, however, I find the notion that the Russia investigation itself was corrupt from the beginning to be so bizarre as to border on fantastical. There was ample reason to investigate whether the Trump campaign had improper contacts with Russians.
Consider what we know, now widely verified through bipartisan sources.
We know that at the very least the Russian government engaged in a disruption operation to sow discord and chaos in the 2016 election. The CIA, NSA, FBI, and the Republican-run Senate Intelligence Committee agree that this disruption operation morphed into an effort to help Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.
At the same time that Russia was attempting to help Trump, the candidate had surrounded himself with a constellation of advisers who possessed problematic ties with the Putin regime. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, had long been on the payroll of Putin allies, receiving millions of dollars in compensation for his work on behalf of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine. One of Trump’s closest military advisers, Michael Flynn, had received tens of thousands of dollars in compensation from Kremlin-affiliated sources. One of the campaign’s foreign-policy advisers, Carter Page, had been actively recruited by Russian intelligence (to his credit, he apparently rebuffed those advances) and had long sought business relationships in Russia.
And that’s not all, not by a long shot. We also know that Kremlin-connected Russians reached out to the Trump campaign, and that key members of the campaign team were enthusiastic about receiving Russian help.
Donald Trump Jr. responded positively to a direct invitation to collude with Russia, taking a meeting with a Russian lawyer after being promised information that could hurt Hillary Clinton as part of an official Russian effort to help Trump. Trump brought Manafort and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to the meeting.
Campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had contact with a Russian-affiliated professor who told him that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” He received this information months before the first WikiLeaks releases rocked the Clinton campaign, and he later lied to the FBI about it.
Trump confidante Roger Stone apparently had advance knowledge that WikiLeaks had obtained damaging emails from John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee.
Notice that none of the evidence above connects to the so-called Steele Dossier — the document at the heart of what has been called “FISA-gate.” I agree wholeheartedly with Trey Gowdy. The Russia investigation would exist without the dossier:
The dossier has nothing to do with the meeting at Trump Tower. The dossier has nothing to do with an email sent by Cambridge Analytica. The dossier really has nothing to do with George Papadopoulos’s meeting in Great Britain. It also doesn’t have anything to do with obstruction of justice.
But to the extent that the dossier matters — or the extent that the Carter Page FISA warrant matters — the proponents of the FISA-gate theory have not proven their case. Republican-appointed judges approved the warrant application and subsequent renewals. A Trump appointee signed off on the application to extend surveillance of Page. As for the merits of the application and its renewals, the public has only seen the smallest, most selective quotations from those documents. No one can make a reasonable assessment of their legality on the basis of publicly available information.
Compounding all of these red flags, Trump officials have routinely hidden their Russian contacts and concealed their motivations behind a bodyguard of lies. Trump misled America about his reasons for firing James Comey, Michael Flynn lied to the FBI even about non-criminal contacts with Russia, and various administration officials have issued a truly extraordinary number of false or materially incomplete statements about their communications and actions.
Now, I ask you, fellow conservatives: If the parties were reversed, and the Clinton campaign had engaged in similar conduct — even as it was known that Russians were trying to help Hillary win the election — would you believe those contacts and relationships merited further investigation? Would you be outraged if you learned the intelligence community had used FISA warrants or informants to uncover the facts?
The Russia investigation has always been necessary, and it’s not over.
None of this means that the FBI or any other American agency hasn’t committed acts of misconduct. American agencies often make mistakes or overstep their bounds, even in the most valid of investigations. Nor does it mean that there weren’t partisans, like Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who may well have improperly put their thumbs on the scales. These concerns are worth investigating. Expanding the existing inspector-general’s investigation of potential FISA abuse into a wider probe of FBI conduct during the Trump administration is a prudent and necessary step.
At the same time, however, it’s necessary to discount and disregard much of the the hysterical language that’s dominating talk radio and entire segments on Fox News. There is nothing inherently scandalous about using informants when investigating a presidential campaign, nor about seeking FISA warrants. Republican candidates and their campaigns are just as subject to the rule of law as Democrats, and it’s no less legitimate to investigate Trump than it was to investigate Hillary Clinton. Proving that the FBI investigated various Trump-campaign officials (even using informants or surveillance orders) is a long, long way from proving the FBI did anything wrong.
In short, the Russia investigation has always been necessary, and it’s not over. The quickest way to discern whether a person is a credible analyst of this entire sorry affair is to determine whether they’ve prejudged the outcome, because no one knows what the future truly holds. Let the Mueller investigation continue. The partisan outrage can wait.