The Corner

Law & the Courts

Actually, Skepticism Is Good

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

More than a year ago, the Atlantic’s David Frum criticized me for suggesting that we should wait and see whether there was any evidence that Donald Trump, or his campaign, had colluded with the Russian government. He wrote:

Where news is too ominous to be ignored — the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, the accumulating evidence of collusion with Russia — Cooke has urged conservatives to withhold judgment. They should be “skeptical but not hysterical” about the firing of Comey. In the Russia matter, conservatives should bide their time and keep their mouths shut. “If you aren’t sure that there is a big scandal looming, you’re likely to be circumspect and happy to watch it play out as a process.”

Other than the “keep their mouths shut,” which was Frum’s invention, that was my view, yes. And I was right. And Frum, who has spent almost every moment since Election Day relentlessly hyping a conspiracy theory, was wrong.

Frum charged that on “the accumulating evidence of collusion with Russia . . . Cooke has urged conservatives to withhold judgment.” I did. Indeed, I suggested that everybody withhold judgment. (As opposed to what?) By contrast, Frum decided early on that the investigation was inevitably going to find wrongdoing, and proceeded accordingly. But it didn’t. Per Mueller himself, “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” This, the report notes, was despite Russian attempts to set something up.

On “obstruction,” Frum summarized my position as such:

They should be “skeptical but not hysterical” about the firing of Comey.

Again: That is indeed what I argued. Frum, by contrast, called the firing “a coup.” Per the attorney general of the United States, the “report identifies no actions that in our judgement constitutes obstructive conduct.” It is difficult for a firing to represent a “coup” when there exists no underlying crime. What’s the argument? Trump didn’t do anything wrong, but fired the guy who was going to find out that he didn’t do anything wrong, which, if uncovered, would have led to him being exonerated, therefore . . .? Give me a break.

As you might expect, Frum is now busy shifting the goalposts. Yesterday, he wrote this:

Good news, America. Russia helped install your president. But although he owes his job in large part to that help, the president did not conspire or collude with his helpers. He was the beneficiary of a foreign intelligence operation, but not an active participant in that operation. He received the stolen goods, but he did not conspire with the thieves in advance.

(Check out the InfoWars-worthy “in large part” bit!)

Frum followed up this concession by insisting that the important question was actually not whether Trump colluded, but a more general “Why?”

Was it? Because I am absolutely sure that, in December of 2017, Frum was slamming me for responding with a “wait and see” to what he believed was “the accumulating evidence of collusion with Russia” — evidence which, he said, was “too ominous to be ignored” — and lamenting that, unlike sober-minded analysts such as Jennifer Rubin, I was unwilling to decide whether the president was guilty based on my general impression of the man. I’m sure, too, that he suggested that, in order to cover up this “accumulating evidence,” Trump had begun a “coup.”

I’m also sure that, just two months ago, Frum wrote that:

We are facing very possibly the worst scandal in the history of the U.S. government. Previous high-profile cases of disloyalty to the United States — Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s betrayal of atomic secrets to the U.S.S.R.; Secretary of War John B. Floyd’s allowing federal arsenals to fall into secessionist hands in 1861 — did not involve presidents. Previous presidential scandals did not involve allegations of disloyalty.

Clearly, if the Actually Important question was always why Russia chose unilaterally to help Trump, one wouldn’t use the word “disloyalty” twice, or cast the supposed behavior as “the worst scandal in the history of the U.S. government,” or compare Trump’s alleged behavior to “Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s betrayal of atomic secrets to the U.S.S.R.”

Other things I’m sure about are that Frum wrote a whole piece assuming collusion happened, and calling it “a national security threat” that was “worse than a crime”; that he asked, “Who can sincerely believe that President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for any reason other than to thwart an investigation of serious crimes?”; and that he ensured that the first two questions on his list of “Fifteen Unanswered Criminal-Law Questions About Trump” were:

Trump campaign aides and associates met with Russian agents in advance of the Russian hacks and releases of Democratic internal communications. Did these meetings lead to any form of coordination between the Trump campaign, the Trump family, or Trump supporters on the one hand and Russian intelligence and its proxy, WikiLeaks, on the other?

And:

Russia engaged in large-scale and illegal expenditures on social media to help elect Trump. Did the Trump campaign, the Trump family, or Trump supporters coordinate or assist in any way with these violations of U.S. law?

In fairness, Frum has never quite been able to decide whether criminality matters here or not. Sometimes, it does. Sometimes, he plays the “we’re too legalistic as a society, so even if . . . card. Either way, though, the topic throughout has been “collusion with Russia.” Now that the Mueller report is out, that topic has been substituted for the broader, vaguer: “Why did Russia try to mess with us?” It will morph again, if it needs to.

As a mea culpa explanation of the last time Frum started with a conclusion, got himself into a flat panic, and damned everyone who declined to join him, he has written the following:

It’s human nature to assess difficult questions, not on the merits, but on our feelings about the different ‘teams’ that form around different answers. To cite a painful personal experience: During the decision-making about the Iraq war, I was powerfully swayed by the fact that the proposed invasion of Iraq was supported by those who had been most right about the Cold War — and was most bitterly opposed by those who had been wrongest about the Cold War. Yet in the end, it is not teams that matter. It is results.

It’s Frum’s nature, certainly. It can be avoided, though. One just needs to be skeptical, but not hysterical.

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