To Trump, ‘Complete and Total Exoneration’ Is Always Right Around the Corner

The president and his supporters continue to fixate on the Russia investigation, perpetually expecting redemption.

An illustration of Michael Flynn.
Bloomberg / Getty / The Atlantic

It’s been a busy week for Michael Flynn, the disgraced former national security adviser who in February 2017 resigned from President Donald Trump’s White House after less than a month in his role. In December 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States—a narrative thread that featured prominently in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference. This week, however, Flynn’s lawyers kicked off a frenzy of speculation within the right-wing press that their client is about to be exonerated. They released FBI records documenting conversations within the bureau about how to handle Flynn’s case, which have led many Trump supporters to argue anew that Flynn’s—and Trump’s—woes have been fabricated by malicious agents of the “deep state.”

On Fox News, the pro-Trump host Maria Bartiromo argued that Flynn is set to be “completely exonerated.” The National Review’s editorial board insisted that Flynn has been “treated unjustly” by the FBI. And the president has joined in the fun, writing on Twitter, “What happened to General Michael Flynn, a war hero, should never be allowed to happen to a citizen of the United States again!” and suggesting in a press briefing that he might consider granting Flynn a pardon or even rehiring him.

That the internal FBI documents that have generated this hubbub don’t provide anything close to an exoneration of Flynn is immaterial. This is another instance of a familiar pattern for Trump and his supporters: searching for a shred of new material on the Russia investigation, then insisting that this latest crumb is part of a trail that will eventually, somehow, lead to the vindication of Trump and his associates. What Trump once called “complete and total exoneration” is not just his framing of the result of Mueller’s investigation. It is also a prediction, the anticipated conclusion of coming revelations as the investigations into the Russia investigators continue.

As such, the frenzy of excitement over some very unexciting documents isn’t all that strange in and of itself. The strange thing is that, a full year after the release of the Mueller report, Trump and the media ecosystem around him are still following that bread-crumb trail toward an ever-elusive climactic moment—even in the midst of a pandemic that is killing more than 1,000 Americans every day. Trump’s supporters like to complain that Democrats are “obsessed” with the Russia probe, but in fact it’s the Trumpist right that just can’t seem to give the investigation up.

The ongoing fascination on the right with relitigating certain details of the Russia investigation—or, to put it less gently, rewriting the investigation’s history—has four major drivers. The first of these is the president himself. He remains obsessed with the subject, which comes up in speech after speech. A Trump rally is not complete if he hasn’t done an interpretive-dance version of the text messages between the former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, denounced the former FBI director James Comey, and spit out epithets implying an attempted coup or a bit of treason.

As long as the president remains fixated on the subject, the feedback loop between Trump and the right-wing media ensures that pro-Trump outlets will as well. A release of documents involving emails between Strzok and Page is kind of like a golden-oldies night for Fox News. Commentators find the menacing-sounding tidbits and read them breathlessly over and over, and the whole conspiracy comes rushing back to the faithful. For viewers, the coverage is enough to induce a more general sense that something must have been rotten in the deep state if people are talking about it all so much.

The third driver here is Attorney General Bill Barr, who has created something of an investigative infrastructure to ungird the breathlessness. The ongoing “review” of the Russia investigation by Barr’s handpicked investigator, Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, continually promises revelations that Barr himself is only too happy to hint at. The documents that drove last week’s mania were released by the U.S. attorney in Missouri, whom Barr had asked to review the Flynn case. So the odor of chronic “investigation” hangs over the entire matter, though nobody has yet produced evidence of misconduct in the handling of any of Mueller’s cases. Against this backdrop, the periodic publication of new information—however mundane—generates flare-ups in the right-wing media.

These three factors lead to a fourth: A constituency for this now exists—a permanently mobilized audience on the Trumpist right primed to believe that the big takedown of the deep state is just around the corner. Whereas people on the left and center-left used to eagerly await Mueller Time, a large constituency on the right is now awaiting some kind of moment of truth in which Barr and Durham hold to account the cabal that tried to take down a president. In its most extreme forms—evidence of which is daily in our Twitter feeds and emails—the reckoning will include arrests and jailing (typically at Guantánamo) of all of the conspirators, while the Roger Stones and Michael Flynns of the world walk free, having been vindicated.

The interesting question is why the Trumpist right remains fixated on its Russia-investigation revisionism. Why not simply let it go—let the FBI live with the unflattering inspector-general reports about its handling of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act matters, the criticisms of Comey and former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, and the decapitation of its leadership during that period? Why the need to pretend Flynn is innocent—which he manifestly is not? Why the need to pretend some great reckoning is on the horizon—a reckoning that isn’t coming, because the investigation was lawful? Why the need, long past the time when anyone is talking about Donald Trump Jr.’s ill-fated meeting with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower, to continually insist that there was no Russia matter to investigate and that it was all some kind of conspiracy—when the Russia questions were very real and the conspiracy nonexistent?

The answers to these questions lie in several interconnected factors. The first is that the president needs enemies—and these enemies have to be connected in some overarching conspiracy narrative. The notion of a deep-state plot that cooked up the “Russia hoax” has become the ur-text for all the wrongs perpetrated against Trump. The “witch hunters” responsible for the Russia probe are the people who tried to overturn his great victory in the 2016 election, and they are thus the template for all the other conspiracies he has faced to the present day.

The ongoing pandemic, as we have previously argued, makes this model of engaging with the world difficult. The coronavirus, after all, is not a conspiracy, much less something he can blame on Comey. But Trump and his defenders still try constantly to portray Trump as a victim of the powerful forces arrayed against him in this context too. So Anthony Fauci, the infectious-disease specialist now helping lead the administration’s response to the coronavirus, becomes the latest career official to be demonized as the cause of all the president’s ill fortune, the latest Comey or Strzok. It all comes back to the original deep staters. Because their malice is Trump’s defense against all things.

In the Trumpian narrative, the Russia scandal was, after all, where the witch hunt began—a witch hunt that has never ended. It thus remains a kind of lodestar. Discredit it, and you can discredit all the subsequent scandals and investigations with reference to it. You see this strategy in the efforts of many Republicans during the impeachment to attack the Steele dossier—which had nothing whatsoever to do with the Ukraine scandal—as though somehow unraveling that would unravel every credible accusation against the president. More recently, we see the same strategy in Trump’s infamous comment that the coronavirus is a “hoax”—a comment he has been keen to deny making. In context, whatever precisely he was calling a hoax, he clearly meant to discredit current criticism of himself by linking it to the Russia investigation. Here’s what he said:

One of my people came up to me and said, “Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.” That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything; they tried it over and over; they’ve been doing it since she got in. It’s all turning; they lost. It’s all turning, think of it, think of it. And this is their new hoax.

In a world with only one hoax—the hoax intended to slime Trump—it all goes back to the Russia investigation.

But Trump and his supporters need to keep up their attack on the Russia probe for one final reason: Bob Mueller’s findings were actually devastating for the president, and only by continually promoting belief in the evils of the investigation can Trump’s defenders evade the importance and magnitude of those findings. No, Mueller didn’t prosecute anyone for collusion. But the portrait painted in Volume I of his report was of a campaign eager to benefit from Russian electoral interference, in touch with a wide range of Russian operatives and cutouts, and frankly uninterested in the basics of loyalty and patriotism. And the portrait in Volume II was of repeated efforts—arguably criminal—to stymie the investigation of that earlier conduct.

Slacken just a little your attack on the investigators, and the reality of what Mueller described becomes discomforting. Go easy even for a moment on the latest Flynn revelation, and you might have to ask about the more than 60,000 Americans who have died over the past few months of a virus for which the country was wholly unprepared.

Stop waving your hands about Strzok and Page and the “entrapment” of Flynn, even briefly, and you might have to start asking what other nonsense you’ve been propagating in defense of the indefensible.