Good news, America. Russia helped install your president. But although he owes his job in large part to that help, the president did not conspire or collude with his helpers. He was the beneficiary of a foreign intelligence operation, but not an active participant in that operation. He received the stolen goods, but he did not conspire with the thieves in advance.
This is what Donald Trump’s administration and its enablers in Congress and the media are already calling exoneration. But it offers no reassurance to Americans who cherish the independence and integrity of their political process.
The question unanswered by the attorney general’s summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report is: Why? Russian President Vladimir Putin took an extreme risk by interfering in the 2016 election as he did. Had Hillary Clinton won the presidency—the most likely outcome—Russia would have been exposed to fierce retaliation by a powerful adversary. The prize of a Trump presidency must have glittered alluringly, indeed, to Putin and his associates. Why?
Did they admire Trump’s anti-NATO, anti–European Union, anti-ally, pro–Bashar al-Assad, pro-Putin ideology?
Were they attracted by his contempt for the rule of law and dislike of democracy?
Did they hold compromising information about him, financial or otherwise?
Were there business dealings in the past, present, or future?
Or were they simply attracted by Trump’s general ignorance and incompetence, seeing him as a kind of wrecking ball to be smashed into the U.S. government and U.S. foreign policy?
Many public-spirited people have counted on Mueller to investigate these questions, too, along with the narrowly criminal questions in his assignment. Perhaps he did, perhaps he did not; we will know soon, either way. But those questions have always been the important topics.
The Trump presidency from the start has presented a national-security challenge first, a challenge to U.S. public integrity next. But in this hyper-legalistic society, those vital inquiries got diverted early into a law-enforcement matter. That was always a mistake, as I’ve been arguing for two years.
Now the job returns to the place it has always belonged and never should have left: Congress. This is all the more the case since the elections of 2018 restored independence to that body. The 2016 election was altered by Putin’s intervention, and a finding that the Trump campaign only went along for the ride does not rehabilitate the democratic or patriotic legitimacy of the Trump presidency. Trump remains a president rejected by more Americans than those who voted for him, who holds his job because a foreign power violated American laws and sovereignty. It’s up to Congress to deal with this threat to American self-rule.
Mueller hasn’t provided answers, so much as he has posed a question: Are Americans comfortable with this president in the White House, now that they know he broke no prosecutable criminal statutes on his way into high office?