The Corner

White House

Setting the Record Straight

President Trump speaks during a signing ceremony in the East Room at the White House, March 21, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Ever since the special counsel has (thankfully!) exonerated the president from colluding with a hostile foreign power to gain the presidency, I’m seeing quite a few strange shots at me online — as if I somehow “lost” or was one of the people who advanced the “Russia hoax.” This is ridiculous. From the beginning, my stance has been relatively simple. The Trump/Russia investigation (including the special-counsel appointment) was not only valid, it was vital to our body politic. It is also valid, by the way, to investigate alleged FBI FISA abuse. But throughout the process I was skeptical of the idea that Trump had actively colluded with the Russians or that he’d obstructed justice.

For example, all the way back in January 2017, I condemned BuzzFeed‘s public release of the Steele dossier and noted that people had peddled the “Trump was compromised” theory to me during the campaign. Here’s what I wrote:

So here’s what responsible people say when confronted with claims like that: What’s your evidence? If the answer is “an anonymously written and anonymously sourced series of memos that no one has yet been able to substantiate,” then you either pass on the story or — if you have the time and resources — try to substantiate the claims. If you can’t, then you pass. It’s that simple. Any other action isn’t “transparency.” It’s not “reporting.” It’s malice.

Last May, I took another look at the state of the evidence and declared that I was unimpressed with both Russia conspiracy theories — the idea that Trump actively colluded with the Russians and the idea that the entire investigation was predicated on nothing but a deep-state “insurance policy” to oust the president:

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.

Then, last November I took yet another look at the state of the allegations in the dossier (and the allegations that Trump had engaged in a clandestine operation in cooperation with the Russians) and concluded this:

I’m sorry. I don’t buy it. Not yet. Not without actual, substantial evidence. Indeed, the evidence is so thin that it’s in the Trump team’s interests to keep it in the news. The media’s eagerness to fall for anonymous sources and lurid stories hurts their credibility. It helps the Trump team to make the case that this story is the story, and if this story is false, all collusion claims are false.

My counter-theory (supported by the actual indictments in the case) was that the “Trump campaign had in its orbit and near-orbit a collection of comically inept crooks and grifters who were looking to gain any advantage they could — without regard for morality, law, or common sense.” I stand by that assessment.

But what about obstruction? Was I fired-up to convict Trump? Again, I believed the obstruction investigation was valid and important, but based on the publicly available evidence, obstruction was a no-go:

Trump’s publicly known actions provide sufficient grounds for an investigation into potential obstruction of justice, but the publicly known evidence isn’t sufficient to conclude that he actually violated the statute. Months later, in spite of numerous additional media reports that Trump either mislead the public or may have pressured his political appointees or staff to drop parts of the investigation, may have considered firing Mueller, or asked various officials for loyalty, there is still not sufficient evidence to charge the president with obstruction.

Over time, the Trump/Russia controversy began to split into three separate arguments. First, should the president and his campaign even be subject to the special-counsel investigation? I said yes. Even putting aside the rotten Steele dossier and the suspect Carter Page FISA applications (which are subject to a proper and important inspector-general investigation), there was more than enough evidence of suspicious contacts between Trump officials and Russians or Russian operatives to merit an inquiry. Second, should Americans be troubled by the wrongdoing that Robert Mueller uncovered, even if it was short of the kind of collusion outlined in the dossier or imagined by Trump’s most fierce critics? I said yes. I was deeply concerned that our president surrounded himself with the likes of Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, and Michael Flynn, and their misconduct (including criminal lies) was unconscionable. And third, did the president collude during the campaign or commit obstruction of justice during the investigation? Based on the available evidence, I said no, and I said no many times.

I stand by all of those conclusions. I especially stand behind my contentions that Americans should be troubled by the lies and other criminal misconduct that Mueller uncovered during his investigation. Americans should have a higher standard of behavior for those who work with presidents (or candidates) than lying to Congress, seeking meetings with Russians or Russian operatives (and lying about those efforts), and committing criminal acts of financial misconduct. It’s not giving one inch to the “deep state” to ask for honesty and integrity from those people closest to the seat of power.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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