Having apparently not bothered to read Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report—after all, it was 448 pages, often in repetitive legalese—large sections of the political and journalistic establishment seemed shocked to learn yesterday that Mueller had pointedly not cleared President Donald Trump of the charge of obstruction of justice, and that he felt that only Congress (and not the Justice Department) could appropriately decide whether the president was involved in wrongdoing.
Poring over Mueller’s remarks for telling disclosures is mostly a fool’s errand, since they closely tracked—nearly word for word—what was in the report, which, Mueller noted, “speaks for itself.” There was, however, one place the special counsel did tip his hand, and it had little to do with Trump.
“Let me begin where the appointment order begins, and that is interference in the 2016 presidential election,” Mueller said, and he sketched out briefly what his investigation alleged: that Russian intelligence officers “launched a concerted attack on our political system,” and released information in a scheme “designed and timed to interfere with our election and to damage a presidential candidate.” Meanwhile, “a private Russian entity engaged in a social-media operation where Russian citizens posed as Americans in order to influence an election.” He added, “The matters we investigated were of paramount importance.”
A few minutes later, as he finished up, Mueller returned to the theme. He said it even after thanking members of his team (and, in what truly did sound like a rebuke to the president, noting, “These individuals who spent nearly two years with the special counsel’s office were of the highest integrity”). For his final public words in a decades-long life in government, he chose to say this:
I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interference in our election. And that allegation deserves the attention of every American. Thank you. Thank you for being here today.
In Muellerese, this closing was something akin to screaming at the nation, Are you people paying any attention to the work that my team did? The answer, for the most apart, appears to be no.
Trump says “the case is closed,” yet on interference—unlike collusion—this is emphatically not the case. Mueller delivered massive, detailed indictments on election interference, but the defendants—located in Russia—are unlikely to ever appear in American courts. Roughly three years after the first reports of hacking into computer systems at the Democratic National Committee, a few months after additional Russian interference in the 2018 elections, and with a year and a half left until the 2020 elections, there’s still no real movement by the federal government to respond.
A few bills have been introduced. House Democrats’ major statement piece at the start of the session, H.R. 1, included some provisions for election security, though no one expected the bill to make it into law. Another House bill would criminalize cooperation with foreign powers to interfere in elections; it has a few dozen Democratic co-sponsors, but no Republicans.
Realistically, it doesn’t matter what the House passes, because any such bills will die in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has decided to bottle them up. During a Senate hearing earlier this month, the Democrat Dick Durbin asked whether the Rules Committee would move any election-security bills. Committee Chair Roy Blunt suggested that this would be pointless, given McConnell’s blockade.
“At this point I don’t see any likelihood that those bills would get to the floor if we mark them up,” Blunt said. “I think the majority leader is of the view that this debate reaches no conclusion.”
It’s a peculiar position. There’s not really any debate to speak of. Every investigation has come to the same conclusion: Yes, the Russians interfered, and yes, they and other foreign powers will try to do so again. Moreover, election security seems like it ought to be obvious ground for bipartisan cooperation. There will be no agreement between Democrats and Republicans on whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. So far, there’s no sign of agreement between Democrats and Republicans not named Justin Amash on obstruction of justice.
Election security has the potential to be different. Politicians of both parties are in danger of becoming victims of foreign interference, whether in the form of hacking or social-media campaigns. While the Russians chose Trump as their horse in 2016, that decision seems to have been more opportunistic and contingent than ideological: President Vladimir Putin hated Hillary Clinton; the Russian goal seems to have been sowing chaos, which can be done in various ways; and the Kremlin has disagreed with many of Trump’s actions.
But the nature of the 2016 interference remains the sticking point. Because Trump is so sensitive about anything that he feels would undermine the legitimacy of his victory, he refuses to grapple with it or acknowledge it, even though nearly every other official in his administration has. In April, The New York Times reported that White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney has counseled staffers not to even mention election interference around Trump, because it tends to set him off.
This sometimes leads to absurd contortions. On Thursday, during a rant about the investigations into him, Trump tweeted, “Now Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected.” Later in the morning, however, Trump told reporters, “Russia didn’t help me at all. Russia, if anything, I think, helped the other side.”
Insofar as “Russia has disappeared,” it’s because Trump refuses to have a serious conversation about election interference, and because McConnell has decided to coddle the president’s sensitivities. The country remains largely unprepared for and undefended from the attacks that are certain to come.