Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of doing an interview with Canada’s CTV network on developments in, and speculations about, the progress of the Mueller investigation. The anchor wanted to talk about the testimony of former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, Carter Page, to the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Attorney General Session’s upcoming appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, and the rumor that an indictment of former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (and possibly his son) will soon be forthcoming.
I can’t say that I had anything particularly novel to tell Canada’s TV audience about any of these subjects, but reflecting on the interview has provoked a couple of observations.
First, as I have had occasion to observe before, passionate opponents of Mr. Trump who confidently expect (or even fervently hope) that the Mueller investigation of Russia-Trump campaign collusion in the recent election will produce some smoking gun that will lead naturally to articles of impeachment should moderate their expectations. So far, at least, the picture is not one of sophisticated, nefarious, high-level Trump operatives working hand-in-glove with agents of the Russian government, but of something altogether murkier and more ambiguous.
To be sure, there exists nearly irrefutable evidence that the Kremlin was working hard through every means at its disposal to harm the Clinton campaign and help Mr. Trump. Mr. Putin’s repeated denials that Russia was meddling and Mr. Trump’s on-again–off-again acceptance of those denials may convince his endlessly credulous base, but outside those blinkered precincts it merely prolongs the bizarre spectacle of an American president siding with the dictator of a hostile foreign power against the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies.
(As an aside, when I began drafting this post, Mr. Trump had just said that he accepted as sincere Putin’s denial of meddling. Mere hours later, Trump straddled the question, saying that he accepts both the findings of U.S. intelligence and Putin’s sincerity. This waffling is either: (a) Yet another example of Mr. Trump’s persistent tendency to say whatever he thinks will please the audience immediately in front of him, with no thought for either truth or how today’s effort to ingratiate will affect his own or the country’s interests tomorrow; (b) Yet another example of Mr. Trump’s seeming inability to engage in rudimentary critical thinking — the idea that the Russian government could engage in a wide-ranging effort to influence the American presidential election without the knowledge or approval of Vladimir Putin is laughable, and thus it is impossible for U.S. intelligence to be right and for Putin to be sincere; or (c) Just another manifestation of Mr. Trump’s knee-jerk rejection of any fact, however firmly established, that might suggest his election victory was due to anything other than his own personal merits. My best guess is that all three factors were at work.)
But it is not a crime or an impeachable offense merely to be the unwitting beneficiary of foreign efforts to damage one’s political adversaries. What must be shown to prove a crime is that affiliates of the Trump campaign consciously aided or sought to aid the Russians’ subversion and violated some statute in the process. What must be shown for any of this to amount to an impeachable offense is that Mr. Trump himself approved, was aware of and failed to stop, or later tried to cover up culpable conduct by his subordinates.
It is too early to assess the ultimate question about whether culpable collusion occurred. But the emerging (though far from complete) evidence suggests at least three points about the Trump campaign’s Russian contacts:
- Repeated claims by Mr. Trump and his subordinates that there were no contacts between persons associated with the Trump campaign and Russian officials or agents were simply untrue. As the Chicago Tribune summarizes, at least nine people in the Trump orbit had Russian contacts during the campaign or transition.
- At least some of those contacts involved persons high up in the campaign hierarchy or personally close to Mr. Trump, people like Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Jeff Sessions. Others, like George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, had impressive-sounding titles like “foreign policy adviser,” but were in reality on the fringes of what was always a barely coherent campaign organization. Nonetheless, it is now clear that campaign higher-ups, like Senator Sessions, Stephen Miller, Hope Hicks, J.D. Gordon, campaign manager Cory Lewandowski, and national campaign co-chair Sam Clovis, knew about the Page and/or Papadopolous contacts.
- Whether contacts between Trump surrogates and Russian actors ever produced concrete results, such as the direct transfer to the Trump campaign of negative information about Secretary Clinton or her team, remains unclear … and frankly seems doubtful. What is clear is that multiple members of the Trump entourage were willing and eager to receive that kind of material — even when it was plain that the source would have to have been Russian intelligence services, and that the means employed to obtain the material would likely have involved violations of American law. The first proof of their eagerness was the now-famous Donald Trump Jr. – Kushner – Manafort meeting with the Russian lawyer. Now Mr. Papodopoulos admits to having received a purported Russian offer of “dirt” on Secretary Clinton in the form of emails, and to have passed the offer along to Trump campaign officials.
- If, in the end, Trumpists and Russian emissaries never quite did a deal that produced active cooperation or transmission of opposition research “deliverables,” efforts to cover up all the active flirtation could nonetheless amount to criminal obstruction of justice and even impeachable conduct. That’s the thing to watch for in coming months.
Second, the overriding impression, reinforced by each new revelation, is that both the inner circle of the Trump campaign and the outer rings of staff, consultants, and advisers consisted primarily of pathetically ill-informed amateurs like the Trump children and in-laws, eccentrics like Carter Page, desperate wanna-be‘s like George Papodopoulos, or outright scoundrels like Paul Manafort. Even those with long government resumes and conventional credentials, like Trump’s short-tenured National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Senator Jeff Sessions, gravitated to Trump because, in Flynn’s case, he had been expelled from the circles of power for persistent bad judgment, and in Sessions’ case, he was a fringe player in the Senate, with views on many subjects too extreme even for for a caucus edging steadily to the right, and no path to any meaningful leadership role.
Moreover, the one character trait common to virtually all of this ill-assorted crew is greedy opportunism. The Trump family, from the paterfamilias on down, has profited by skating on or over the edge of legality for decades and has been monetizing its connection to the presidency ever since the election. Manafort’s long career as apologist for thugs and dictators should have disqualified him from a role in any American presidential campaign, and predictably has both embroiled Trump in controversy and produced an indictment founded in part on money laundering and tax evasion. Page reportedly combined his Russian overtures for Trump with efforts to secure private deals for himself. Michael Flynn is under investigation for an array of dodgy, but potentially lucrative, deals, as well as illegal failures to report work on behalf of authoritarian regimes like that of ascendant Turkish dictator Recip Erdogan.
The mix of incompetence, bad judgment, blithe disregard of normal legal and ethical boundaries, and personal greed in the Trump campaign is both a gift and an impediment to any effort to impeach Mr. Trump.
On the one hand, it is increasingly obvious that people high and low in the Trump campaign were trying quite hard to collude with a hostile foreign power to win a presidential election. On the other hand, it may prove that the Russians simply didn’t trust these escapees from the Island of Misfit Toys enough to enter into any active collaboration, preferring to feed toxic misinformation to the American electorate indirectly through Wikileaks and directly through social media. Now that Mr. Trump has shed virtually all of the primary actors in the Russian contacts — with the notable exceptions of his family members — he can disavow former staffers’ conduct as the inconsequential bumbling of fringe nobodies.
BUT — having foolishly chosen to ignore settled norms against nepotism in the White House, Mr. Trump is probably stuck with whatever the kids have done or may yet do. Even an ordinary father would shrink from throwing his children overboard and into the clutches of waiting prosecutors, but in Mr. Trump’s case, ordinary considerations of paternal affection are infinitely complicated by the fact that the Trump campaign was, and the Trump Organization remains, a family business … and the kids, notably including son-in-law Jared Kushner, are privy to their secrets. Perhaps Ivanka or Don Jr. might be willing to take a fall for dear old dad. Were I Mr. Trump, I would not bet that, at the last extremity, young Mr. Kushner would do the same.
Thus, Mr. Trump will never be able to make a clean break from the Russian meddling investigation. Some of its central figures will remain close to him. He will continue defending them. And as in Watergate, it may prove that the cover-up, rather than the original wrong, will be his undoing.
Finally, it would be easy to dismiss the near-universal obsession of those around the Trumps with self-enrichment through politics as a side issue. For two reasons, it’s not.
First, as Mr. Manafort recently discovered, the United States has a web of laws that regulate, and often criminalize, aspects of the “deals” he and his ilk are so eager to make. Those laws are a tool box for Robert Mueller’s prosecutors, and the questionable financial motives and maneuvers of those involved in contacts with Russian representatives will provide legitimate grounds for inquiring deeply into financial matters the Trumps would surely prefer remain hidden.
Second, to the extent Mr. Mueller’s investigation or other sources reveal that Mr. Trump and family have used the presidency for personal profit, such disclosures implicate at least two grounds for impeachment. The most obvious of these is violation of the emoluments clauses. But I would go a bit further. I do not believe that a technical violation of, for example, the foreign emoluments clause of Article I, Section 9, is required to make out an impeachable offense if it could be shown that, as James Madison put it, the president “pervert[s] his administration into a scheme of peculation.”
I will expand on this latter point in later posts. Stay tuned.