Summing Up at the End of the Trump/Russia Investigations

The two questions I had at the beginning remain unanswered.

Around the time Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, and Robert Mueller was being appointed special counsel, I formulated the two simple questions I hoped Mueller would answer:

Through all the investigations that followed, including the two-volume Mueller Report, the five-volume report of the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, and the just-released 300-page report of the Durham investigation of the investigators, those two questions remain unanswered: Why all the connections? Why all the lies?

Those questions continue to be the lens through which I view this topic and assess the various reports, which otherwise might drown a reader in disorganized and distracting details.

Obstruction. Mueller and the Senate at least helped us understand why they couldn’t provide answers: Trump obstructed their investigations. Volume 2 of the Mueller report examined ten acts that might be charged as obstruction of justice, and concluded that the predicates for an indictment of Trump existed in seven of them. Mueller’s report is dense and legalistic, but a more readable narration of the obstruction is in Andrew Weissman’s book Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller investigation.

Based on those reports, here’s how I describe what happened: Russia interfered in the 2016 election in two ways, by attempting to influence voters directly via fake posts and fake news articles distributed through social media, and by hacking DNC and Clinton campaign emails, which were given to WikiLeaks to release any time the news cycle was trending in Clinton’s favor (like after Trump’s grab-them-by-the-pussy tape went viral). The social media campaign may have been targeted via internal Trump campaign polling data, which showed the best areas and demographic groups to try to influence.

Both Mueller and the Senate made clear that this Russian interference really happened, and that the Trump campaign knew about it and welcomed it. Neither presented proof that the Trump campaign conspired directly in the crimes the Russians carried out. So no one in the campaign could be charged with planning the DNC hack or directing the Russian social media campaign. But neither report “exonerated” Trump, as he has so often claimed.

The Trump campaign was linked to the two Russian efforts through two men:

Both Manafort and Stone were convicted of crimes not directly related to Russia, and were offered plea deals to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. Stone refused outright, while Manafort appeared to agree, but then lied to investigators. After losing the 2020 election but before leaving office, Trump rewarded both men’s loyalty by pardoning them.

Nothing suspicious about that. Nothing at all.

Distraction. The main thrust of the Durham investigation was that the FBI should not have tried so hard to answer my two questions. Durham pursued every manner of conspiracy theory about the FBI’s alleged bias against Trump, and came up with virtually nothing, beyond some leaked straw that Trump and Fox News could regularly spin into political and ratings gold: For years, Trump’s followers were encouraged and entertained by reports that Durham was blowing the lid off “the crime of the century“, and hints that James Comey, Hillary Clinton, and other high-ranking officials from the Obama administration would go to jail.

In fact, Durham came up with very little. An FBI lawyer pleaded guilty to altering an email to support a request to wiretap a former Trump campaign aide. (Something I wonder: If you did an in-depth investigation of any FBI investigation, would you find similar fudging?) For this crime-of-the-century he was sentenced to probation. Durham took two other cases to trial with little evidence — he charged Steele dossier source Igor Danchenko and Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussman with lying to the FBI — and was rebuffed when unanimous juries quickly found both defendants not guilty.

Despite the not-guilty verdicts, Durham’s report repeats his discredited assertions, excusing his failure to produce compelling evidence by attacking the jurors:

[J]uries can bring strongly held views to the courtroom in criminal trials involving political subject matters, and those views can, in turn, affect the likelihood of obtaining a conviction, separate and apart from the strength of the actual evidence and despite a court’s best efforts to empanel a fair and impartial jury.

This is a truly incredible statement, given the unanimous not-guilty verdicts. If a jury simply refused to convict, we might imagine one or two holdouts whose anti-Trump bias made them impossible to convince. But every juror in two trials brought “strongly held [anti-Trump] views to the courtroom”? Really?

Nonetheless, it’s important not to get lost in the weeds of the Durham investigation, because distraction was its entire reason to exist. Why did Trump’s people lie about their connections to Russia? Durham has nothing to say about that question, beyond arguing that it should never have been asked in the first place.

Speculation. In the absence of definitive evidence, we are left to speculate. The most obvious answers to my two questions are:

  • Trump officials had so many contacts with Russia because they were participating in an illegal conspiracy.
  • They lied about those contacts to cover up that conspiracy.

Due to Trump’s obstruction (and Durham’s complete lack of interest in the questions) those speculations can’t be supported or refuted by clear evidence. But it’s worth noting that these are the only credible answers ever proposed. Despite voluminous comments intended to obstruct, obfuscate, distract, and intimidate, Trump and his people have never offered an alternative explanation.

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  • Mary  On May 22, 2023 at 12:59 pm

    I think Mueller did answer these questions, though not with 100% certainty.

    Trump officials had so many contacts with Russia because Putin ordered Russian officials to make those contacts and cultivate relationships.

    They lied about those contacts because it’s politically embarrassing that they were so easily befriended by Russian operatives. It calls their loyalty to the US into question and makes them look corrupt.

    Bottom line: Russians were working hard to cultivate members of the Trump campaign (including Trump himself) as unwitting agents of the Russian government and were at least partially successful. But it’s not actually a crime to be an unwitting agent – because of the “unwitting” part.

    The uncertainty comes in when you ask how “unwitting” Trump really was… Mueller could not prove he knew that the Russians were committing crimes on his behalf, but there’s no way to be sure he didn’t know, either.

    That only applies to Trump himself, though. Manafort knew what he was doing – he got prosecuted. Others lied to prosecutors – they got prosecuted for that. Trump’s defense was basically that he was too dumb to know what was going on… And maybe he was?

  • Thomas Paine  On May 22, 2023 at 9:06 pm

    What seems to be forgotten/ignored in so much of this discussion is that Trump owed/owes ~$400 million to Russian banking interests, which typically means the Putin-controlled Russian mob.

    Back before dad was a major party candidate for POTUS, and the Trump organization was having problems finding lenders because of its deadbeat leader and problems with numerous institutions, notably Deutsche Bank, jr. and Eric brushed off liquidity concerns by explaining/bragging they received most of their needed financing through Russia. And Trump was secretly negotiating with Putin for a Trump Tower in Moscow while also running for office, which he publicly denied and we now know was just another lie in his infinite catalog of them.

    There’s a variety of ways someone who becomes POTUS can make good on that kind of debt, especially when the businesses themselves are struggling. And judging by the submissiveness Trump repeatedly displayed to Putin, that’s exactly what he was doing.

    Trump owed the Russian mob a fair amount of money. Putin was willing to collect using in-kind payments. It’s really as simple as that, and everyone paying even just a smidgen of attention watched it all happen.

    • Mary  On May 22, 2023 at 10:34 pm

      Trump definitely had financial entanglements with Russian entities, but do you have evidence for your specific “$400 million to Russian banking interests” claim?

      • Thomas Paine  On May 23, 2023 at 3:51 am

        Having followed coverage of Trump’s Russian ties since the early days of Morning Joke elevating him from a bad punchline running as a POTUS candidate in order to pressure NBC to renew the contract for his fictional tv show, this assertion is the result of the amalgamation of hundreds of articles attempting to discern the extent of how much money he received from the only source that would lend him money in the late 90s and going forward: Russian interests, both directly and through the only bank that would still touch him for some reason, Deutsche Bank. It also accounts for understanding that the only sources of this kind of money are inevitably tied to Putin and and the Russian mob, which has clearly also used the Trump Organization to launder at least hundreds of millions of dollars via widely overpriced real estate purchases.

        Whether it’s exactly $400 million or something close is really immaterial, and hardly a matter of specific public record, especially how thoroughly and often Trump has lied on disclosure and tax forms. Arriving at this number has been done by a method similar to how Forbes estimates the worth of MLB franchises even though it doesn’t have access to their books. What would he reasonably need to remain afloat when no reputable banking interest except DB would touch him? What kind of involvement with Russia would justify a $630 million fine DB paid, and on whose behalf? Trump’s sons practically bragged back in the late 2000s they didn’t need western banks because they had all they needed from Russian interests. The list goes on and on.

        I’ll also mention, which you and anyone else are welcome to dismiss since you have no possible way to verify this, that I have a connection to someone at DB in a position to know its potential exposure because of the business it’s done with Trump, and have been told that the details are markedly worse than anything that’s reached the public so far. Even without that perspective, the significant financial ties of Trump to Russia/Putin and their enforcement arm are undeniable. If anything, $400 million is likely to undersell the reality.

        If you’re interested in how deeply Putin and his kleptocrats have compromised Trump because he destroys everything he touches, and they have more dirty money to launder than a South American cartel or five, there’s plenty of reputable coverage online to explore. Here’s a start for you:


  • By How I evaluate sources | The Weekly Sift on May 22, 2023 at 9:16 am

    […] report, buying into the idea that the whole Trump/Russia thing was a hoax. More about that topic in today’s other featured post.) It had a bunch of other articles about Ukraine being in trouble, which could be legit if the […]

  • […] week’s featured posts are “Summing Up at the End of the Trump/Russia Investigations” and “How I Evaluate […]

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