The Russia Scandal Is Still One of the Worst in American Political History

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

Special Counsel Robert Mueller departs after a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. 

Before anyone outside of a few Justice Department officials knew what is contained in Robert Mueller's final report about his investigation into the Russia scandal, Republicans were weirdly gleeful. Apparently based on the sole fact that Mueller will not be handing down any more indictments, they were ready to declare Donald Trump completely vindicated, his rock-solid integrity only validated by Mueller's conclusions.

As of this writing, we only have Attorney General William Barr's four-page summary of Mueller's findings, the gist of which is that while Russian mounted a comprehensive effort to get Donald Trump elected president, there is not evidence of a criminal conspiracy on the part of Trump or his associates to aid in that effort. As for obstruction of justice, the report does apparently go into detail about actions Trump undertook, but remains agnostic on what they add up to. "While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime," Barr quotes Mueller as writing, "it also does not exonerate him."

Now we'll argue over how to interpret Mueller's findings, and at this point I'd make a prediction. Trump and his associates will use their tendentious reading of Mueller's report as justification to dismiss any allegation or evidence of Trump's deep and wide corruption, no matter the topic. Whether people are demanding Trump's tax returns or discussing his hush money payoffs to mistresses or looking at charges of lying on loan applications or examining the way he has monetized the presidency or asking questions about some new piece of corruption we haven't heard of yet, the reply will always be, "Mueller said he was totally innocent! No more witch hunts!"

But that's in the future. For now, it would be extremely useful to remind ourselves of what we already know about this enormous scandal, to keep the fog Republicans wish to generate from obscuring our sight. There may be more indictments to come from the prosecutors to whom Mueller has turned over information, but what's most important is the historical record and our understanding of the nature of the scandal, no matter who does or doesn't go to jail.

To that end, here are just some of the most important things that have become clear, laid out as simply as I can:

  • The Russian government very much wanted Donald Trump to win the 2016 election, and in order to make it happen they mounted a comprehensive effort that involved both social media manipulation and the hacking of Democratic email accounts.

  • As a result of this investigation, five Trump aides—his national security adviser, his campaign chairman, his deputy campaign chairman, a foreign policy adviser, and his personal lawyer—have been convicted or pled guilty to crimes. Dozens of Russian nationals have been indicted for their part in the scheme to help Trump get elected.  

  • On the campaign trail, Donald Trump publicly implored Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton's emails. That very day, they attempted to do so, without apparent success.

  • Russia did, however, successfully obtain emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta, which it released through Wikileaks to coincide with key events in the campaign to maximize the assistance it would provide the Trump campaign. In the last month of the campaign, Trump mentioned Wikileaks 164 times in public, drawing maximal attention to the Russian government's efforts.

  • While Trump was running for president, he was pursuing a spectacularly lucrative hotel deal in Moscow. He lied about it repeatedly, claiming he had no business interests in Russia; when the lie was discovered, he said, "There was a good chance that I wouldn't have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?" At the same time as he was pursuing this deal, Trump called for cuts to U.S. sanctions on Russia.

  • When Trump's son Don Jr. was approached by an acquaintance suggesting a meeting with a group of Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump," he eagerly agreed and assembled Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort to join in.

  • When the infamous Trump Tower meeting was revealed, Trump personally dictated a false statement about it to deceive the public, claiming it was for the purpose of discussing adoption of Russian children. When that lie was discovered, he claimed that "most people would have taken that meeting," which is false.

  • During the campaign and transition, "Donald J. Trump and at least 17 campaign officials and advisers had contacts with Russian nationals and WikiLeaks, or their intermediaries," adding up to over 100 contacts in all.

  • According to former FBI director James Comey, President Trump asked him to go easy on Michael Flynn, who was being investigated for lying to FBI agents about Russia. Trump later told both Lester Holt of NBC News and the Russian ambassador and foreign minister that he fired Comey in order to make the Russia investigation disappear. ("I faced great pressure because of Russia," he told the Russians. "That's taken off.")

  • Trump reportedly also asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to intervene with the FBI to quash the investigation of Flynn.

  • Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the almost universally accepted conclusion that Russia attacked our electoral process in order to help him become president, most vividly at a shocking press conference in Helsinki in which he took Vladimir Putin's denials at face value.

The fact that Mueller decided not to pursue a prosecution of the president changes none of this.

There's no question that Republicans have been extremely successful in insulating the president from political accountability, by feeding their supporters an alternate universe of "facts" about the investigation and making sure that no one in their ranks defects from the cause of protecting Trump at all costs. That effort is now reaching a kind of frenzy, as they falsely claim that Trump has been exonerated and insist not only that we never speak of this again but also that we should investigate the FBI and Justice Department for their supposed persecution of the president.

But make no mistake: No matter who else gets indicted and no matter how the president's supporters might spin things, based on what we already know (and there will surely be more details once Mueller's full report is released), this remains one of the most appalling scandals in American political history.

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