So much about the rise of Donald Trump defied reason. But in the spring of 2016, he displayed one habit that I found beyond perplexing: He couldn’t stop praising Vladimir Putin. What made his obsequiousness so galling was that it often came in response to questions that warranted moral disdain: What about the assassination of journalists critical of the Russian government? Are you bothered by the invasion of Crimea? Whereas most of Trump’s policy positions shifted over the course of the campaign, his apologetics for Putin were a rare source of constancy.
As Trump raced to the Republican nomination, I began to search for ulterior explanations for Trump’s adoration of Putin—and the fact that his campaign served as a magnet for so many advisers and consultants with ties to Russian interests. On July 4, 2016, I published a piece in Slate pointing to Putin’s pattern of intervening on behalf of candidates hostile to the Western alliance, and arguing that we were seeing the same sort of interference unfolding in the United States. And I spent much of the next three years trying to understand the nature of that interference.
With tonight’s summation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, there will be a temptation among those who loudly trumpeted this scandal to apologize. And without a doubt, some Twitter detectives and journalists made mistakes—and overshot the evidence. They can apologize, but I won’t. Even if the actual Mueller report is anything like the attorney general’s summation of its contents, Russiagate will go down as one of the biggest scandals in American political history.
The Mueller investigation has been an unmitigated success in exposing political corruption. In the case of Paul Manafort, the corruption was criminal. In the case of Trump, the corruption doesn’t seem to have transgressed any laws. As Michael Kinsley famously quipped, “The scandal isn’t what’s illegal; the scandal is what’s legal.” Lying to the electorate, adjusting foreign policy for the sake of personal lucre, and undermining an investigation seem to me pretty sound impeachable offenses—they might also happen to be technically legal.
Through his investigation, Mueller has also provided a plausible answer to the question that first bothered me. Trump’s motive for praising Putin appears to have been, in large part, commercial. With his relentless pursuit of Trump Tower Moscow, the Republican nominee for president had active commercial interests in Russia that he failed to disclose to the American people. In fact, he explicitly and shamelessly lied about them. As Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen implied in his congressional testimony, Trump ran his campaign as something of an infomercial, hoping to convince the Russians that he was a good partner. To enrich himself, Trump promised to realign American foreign policy.
This is the very definition of corruption, and it provides the plot line that runs through the entirety of Trump’s political life. The president never chooses to distinguish—and indeed, may be temperamentally incapable of distinguishing—his personal interests from the national interest. Why has he failed so consistently to acknowledge Russian interference in the election? Because that interference was designed to benefit him. Why did he fire James Comey and, let’s use the word, obstruct the investigation into election interference? Because he wanted to protect himself from any investigation that might turn up material that reflected badly on him and his circle. (And whatever Mueller’s ultimate conclusion about collusion, his investigation has proved to be an unending source of damning revelations about the president and the men who constituted his closest advisers. )
Along with Trump’s stalwart defenders, many left-wing critics of hawkish foreign policy have been quick to tout Attorney General William Barr’s letter as exoneration. Matt Taibbi has compared the coverage of the Russia scandal to the media’s gullible reporting about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The accusation is that the media are prone to parrot whatever self-serving conspiracy the national-security state has to offer. But Mueller has apparently endorsed the fundamental underlying case emanating from the intelligence community: The Russians were actively working to secure Trump’s victory. What makes their interference so horrifying is that it involved the theft of information and the active manipulation of public perceptions. All of that is arguably far worse than Watergate.
But Trump makes for a slippery figure to study—and here’s why Taibbi’s WMD analogy isn’t entirely wrong. Just as Saddam Hussein acted as if he possessed verboten weaponry, everything about Trump’s behavior suggested that he was guilty of instances of collusion worse than anything the public could observe. That’s undoubtedly a major reason so many intelligence-community honchos were so worried. The other reason, which Barr cited again today, is that the Russians were actively seeking a partnership with the campaign. That such a partnership never materialized is a relief. But the fact that we’re not staring at the worst-case scenario of guilt is hardly a reason for giving the president any credit.