Hardly a day goes by without President Trump attacking Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s year-old investigation into contacts between his presidential campaign and Russia. The president has presented no explanation for why his campaign had so many contacts with Russian operatives. Instead, he appears to be betting his presidency on his ability to frame the entire investigation as a hoax and confuse us about the facts. Here’s a guide for the perplexed:
Myth No. 1: There was no collusion with Russia
When the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., accepted a meeting with a “Russian government attorney” who was bringing him incriminating information on Hillary Clinton to Trump Tower on June 9, 2016 as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” like it or not, that was collusion. “If it’s what you say I love it,” was Don Jr.’s reply, and he took the meeting so seriously that he invited along Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner. That Don Jr. was too stupid to realize what he was doing is a perfectly legitimate argument for a defense lawyer to make, but it is collusion regardless.
Consider, too, that in his first media interview (with Fox’s Sean Hannity), Don Jr. said the meeting was that it was a “waste of time.” In other words, the incriminating information the “Russian government attorney” brought him wasn’t good enough. Don’t you have anything better? Russia did. There were the “thousands of emails” stolen from Hillary Clinton released through Wikileaks, the same emails that George Papadopoulos, the so-called “coffee boy,” learned about from his meetings with a shadowy professor, which may also be another attempt at collusion. Then there was Alexander Torshin, the Russian government/Mafiya figure who tried to arrange a backdoor meeting between Trump and Putin through his friends in the National Rifle Association. Jared Kushner discussed a backdoor communication channel to Russia with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. And so on. Russia kept knocking on the door of the Trump campaign because the door kept opening.
Myth No. 2: Even if there was collusion, it’s not a crime
Wrong. President Trump’s own Justice Department says it is.
Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, gave Mueller the job of determining whether Manafort “Committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for President of the United States, in violation of United States law.”
There is no crime called collusion, but Rick Gates, Manafort’s right-hand man, pleaded guilty to a crime that has brought down terrorists, corporate titans, and Mafia chiefs: Conspiracy to defraud the United States. This crime involves two or more persons who agree to thwart the lawful functions of any agency of the government by deceit, trickery, or dishonesty. The Supreme Court has held that a “partnership in crime” is a greater danger than the act itself. The crime is the agreement whether or not the object the conspiracy is even carried out. Attempted collusion with Russia would still be a crime. (For more, see this excellent summary on federal conspiracy law by the Congressional Research Service.)
Myth No. 3: Trump has nothing to do with Russia
As I reveal in my book, Trump/Russia: A Definitive History, the 45th president of the United States spent decades chasing Russian criminal money. According to numerous former federal officials I spoke with, it started in 1984 when Trump found a pair of Russian criminals who needed a place to launder money and convinced them to buy a block of five apartments in Trump Tower for nearly $6 million. The Taj Mahal casino catered to a Russian clientele and became a favorite hangout for the Russian Mafia on the East Coast. Investigators found Russian gangsters were repeatedly making the trip to Atlantic City with bags of cash that needed to be washed. And it continued in his building projects like Trump SoHo in Manhattan. Trump was still chasing Russian money while he was running for president.
So instead of collusion, here’s a better word: corruption.
Myth No. 4: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is a witch hunt.
The year-old Mueller “phony witch hunt,” as the president calls it, has now found its 20th witch. Konstantin Kilimnick, Manafort’s man in Ukraine — whom prosecutors suspect has ties to Russian intelligence — was indicted on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice by tampering with witnesses against his former boss. Five others charged in the Mueller probe have pleaded guilty, including three former Trump campaign advisors. Manafort, is under indictment along with 13 Russians and three Russian entities.
Myth No. 5: Trump had his “wires tapped” in Trump Tower/The FBI had a “spy” in the Trump campaign/ The FISA warrants were improper, etc., etc.
In his most grotesque defense, Trump has spun a raft of conspiracy theories to keep his presidency from sinking. The most recent distortion was that the FBI had a “spy” inside the Trump campaign, a claim that House Speaker Paul Ryan recently dismissed. Other contrived controversies include the fantasy that Trump had his “wires tapped” in Trump Tower. Or that the FISA warrants of Carter Page were improper. These are all red herrings, but they are effective. Polls show that Trump’s attacks have inflicted serious damage: A majority of Republicans believe that Trump is being framed by the FBI.
The truth is that the bureau was alarmed by the Russians drawn to the Trump campaign and its collection of oddballs like Page, who was a past target for recruitment by Russian intelligence. But the truth holds little appeal for President Trump who is using his bully pulpit to taint an investigation before all the facts are in. We can expect more of these sorts of attacks in the future, as well as the very real possibility that the president will move to fire Mueller or Rosenstein.
The lesson of Watergate was that the checks and balances of our constitutional system break down in the face of criminal wrongdoing by the president and members the executive branch. The lesson of the Trump administration may be that new protections may be needed from a president willing to say and do almost anything to save himself.