Jumping the Gun on Collusion

Robert Mueller on Capitol Hill in June 2017 (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
We don’t know yet what the Mueller probe will find, but that hasn’t stopped partisans on both sides from flinging accusations.

We’re in the home stretch.

The country awaits the final investigative report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller regarding alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to impact the outcome of the 2016 election. Those who have been watching this slow-rolling dumpster fire of leaks and counterleaks, accusations and counteraccusations, can wait for that report to actually see the light of day.

Not so for the pre-motivated.

On the one side, we have Representative Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), a man who has reportedly set up a pup tent complete with electric generator and portable outhouse just outside the doors of the CNN studios. On Tuesday, he declared in a column in USA Today that Mueller would undoubtedly uncover material that would make Trump susceptible to Russian pressure. “What else does he have to hide and, more urgently, who else knows about it?” Schiff wrote. “Was the effort to consummate a deal in Moscow the only financial leverage the Russians had over the president, or is there more?” Schiff then went on to speculate that Trump’s obeisance to the Saudi regime could be based on financial interests, too.

Needless to say, there’s no evidence of any of this. Schiff can’t point to a single shred of evidence of Russian pressure on Trump utilizing material about his financial arrangements, nor can he point to illegality in Trump’s dealings with the Russian government up to and during his presidential run. Trump was undoubtedly dishonest about his business relations with the Russian government concerning the building of a Trump Tower in Moscow, but that’s not criminal, nor is it part of a quid pro quo political arrangement.

But Schiff represents much of his party on these matters. The story keeps shifting, and so the accusations keep shifting. This week, Representative Ted Lieu (D., Calif.) accused Trump of “witness tampering” for tweeting that he thought former lawyer Michael Cohen should do his full time in jail, while praising confidante Roger Stone for failing to cave to a “rogue and out of control prosecutor” and “make up lies and stories about ‘President Trump.’” That’s a weak legal case, at best — Trump isn’t obviously offering a pardon in exchange for Stone’s silence. Were he to do so, obstruction would certainly be on the table as part of an impeachment inquiry. But that hasn’t happened yet.

Meanwhile, on the other political side, Trump acolytes have concluded that the Mueller investigation is a “WITCH HUNT!” in total. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, stated, “This isn’t a search for truth. It’s a witch hunt. This is what is wrong with these special prosecutors and independent counsels. They think they are God. They seem to want to prosecute people at any cost, including the cost of ethical behavior and the rights of people.”

Giuliani can be forgiven his excesses, given that he’s representing a legal client. The same can’t be said for conservatives who are fully convinced that Mueller is playing dirty pool — that the Trump-Russia investigation has been a sham designed to “get Trump” from the beginning, and that Trump’s circle have been unfairly targeted. Suffice it to say that Michael Cohen has committed a bevy of crimes. So has Paul Manafort. They’ve pled guilty to those crimes. The fact that they have not yet openly implicated Trump in any of those crimes does not mean they will not, nor does it mean they aren’t guilty of other separate and serious crimes.

The gap in perception between the two sides in this case mean that the likeliest possibility here is a Mueller report that functions as a political Rorschach test. That outcome looks like a bunch of Trump inner-circle members pleading guilty to ancillary crimes — lying to the FBI about non-election matters, suborning the perjury of others, obstruction of justice — that do not substantiate the original claims of the probe. That will drive Democrats to claim, correctly, that presidents have been ousted on the basis of ancillary crimes before (both Nixon and Clinton were impeached for crimes stemming from the investigation of separate, underlying events); it will drive Republicans to state that this was an investigation in search of a crime. Both will be half-right.

All of this means that any hopes, on either side, for a clean outcome are slim at best. Buckle up. It’s going to get a hell of a lot uglier.

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