By Frank Bowman
Yesterday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced that Robert Mueller’s team had obtained an indictment against thirteen Russian persons and three Russian firms charging them with a variety of crimes committed in the course of an integrated scheme by the Russian government to swing the 2016 presidential election to Mr. Trump. I’m not going to discuss the details of the indictment here; they are well-covered elsewhere, including in the New York Times and Slate, and anyone who reads this blog will surely have devoured the particulars. For now, I’ll make only a couple of points:
- This is an important development. It puts into the public realm the particulars of the long-reported conclusions of every U.S. intelligence agency that Russia meddled in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf, and stamps those conclusions with the imprimatur of a federal grand jury. Mr. Trump, who rarely lets facts constrain his private musings or public utterances, may keep doubting Russian interference. But except in the more fever-haunted corners of the right-wing media, the fact of Russian meddling on Trump’s behalf now becomes impossible to deny.
- Ardent Trump opponents will doubtless be disappointed that the indictment does not charge any affiliates of the Trump campaign with knowingly aiding Russians in their nefarious activities. It does say that Trump campaign affiliates cooperated with Russians in various ways, but is careful to describe such persons as “unwitting individuals affiliated with the Trump campaign.” The key point here, as numerous commentators have observed, is that the particular activities specified in the indictment are of a sort that required concealing Russian involvement.
- However, this indictment does not address the events most likely to have included knowing collusion with Russians by Trumpists, most notably the multiple efforts by high-level Trump campaign operatives, including Donald Trump, Jr., to obtain “dirt” on Hillary Clinton from Russians; Donald Trump Sr.’s public encouragement of Russian theft of Clinton e-mails; possible contacts between Trump operatives and Wikileaks (which in turn probably got dirt on Secretary Clinton from the Russians); etc. And this indictment has nothing to say about the possibility that Russia may have secured compromising information about Mr. Trump, thus giving them the sort of leverage over him that would help explain their enthusiasm for his candidacy.
- Accordingly, the claim by Trump spokesmen that this indictment clears Mr. Trump of “collusion” is nonsense. All one can say is that this indictment does not address that issue. Whether subsequent indictments will do so is an entirely different question.
The more intelligent among Mr. Trump’s defenders should be very worried by this indictment. For these reasons:
- By laying out in surgical detail a calculated foreign assault on American democracy, it shreds the notion that the Mueller investigation is a partisan “witch hunt.” In light of the facts laid out in the indictment, the Trumpist effort to blame the whole investigation on a convoluted conspiracy between Democrats and Russians to manufacture the Christopher Steele dossier becomes facially absurd. That’s not to say Trump allies won’t keep flogging Mr. Steele. They surely will. But to anyone with even a hint of objectivity, the idea that the Mueller investigation is all about a “dodgy dossier” is now untenable.
- The indictment makes plain that the Russians were not merely intervening against Hillary Clinton, but were working for Mr. Trump, uniquely among Republican candidates. Among the indictment’s nice details is the fact that the Russians campaign disparaged not only Secretary Clinton, but also Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. This fact gives rise to the obvious question — why Trump? There are two possible answers, neither of them happy for Trump fans. Either the Russians simply thought of Trump as the chaos candidate, a man whose ascendance would disrupt American democracy (a sadly prescient notion), or in a more sinister vein, they really do have something “on” Trump in the sense of possessing information about either his personal or business affairs that would render him amenable to Russian pressure.
- This indictment makes it materially harder for Mr. Trump to fire Mueller and stop his investigation. To fire Mueller now would halt an investigation into a demonstrated national security threat, something all but the most degraded congressional Republicans would find hard to swallow. Moreover, by choosing to personally announce the Mueller indictment, Deputy AG Rosenstein signaled that the Justice Department as an institution is standing behind Mueller’s work. Rosenstein is saying, as plainly as if he put up a sign, “To get to Mueller, you have to take me out first.” What’s more, I read this as not merely a personal declaration, but as Rosenstein throwing down the gauntlet on behalf of career federal prosecutors unwilling to be cowed by the bluster of a president under suspicion. This doesn’t mean Trump won’t go on a firing spree anyway. But I think this indictment makes that less probable and makes the political cost of such a spasm much higher.
- Which leads me to the last, and perhaps most critical point. Had Mr. Trump fired Mueller last week, he could (and would) have tried to excuse it as stepping in to stop a frivolous politically-motivated fraud. With this indictment, the Mueller investigation has irrefutably become a matter of protecting national security. Should Mr. Trump shut the whole thing down now, that alone would, in my judgment constitute an impeachable offense and one that would resonate across party lines. It would be bad enough for a president to fire a special counsel to protect his personal or political interests. That would be impeachable behavior, to be sure, but Trump’s apologists could try to justify the firing as mere self-protection against the corrupt activities of evil Democrats and the nefarious “Deep State.” But for Mr. Trump to shut Mueller down now would be to abrogate, openly and unapologetically, the president’s basic responsibility to protect the country and constitutional democracy itself from foreign enemies. Even if the degraded specimens who now represent the Republican Party on the House Judiciary Committee were unwilling to move against Trump in such a case, a Democrat-controlled House would view the matter differently. And I suspect, or at least hope, that a good number of honest Republicans would agree.