Fifty years ago, the Watergate scandal offered the country a mystery that followed the pattern of a traditional detective story. A crime had been committed. Who did it, and why? First the media, and then Congress and prosecutors, followed the clues for two years—until, at last, evidence was discovered proving that the culprit was indeed President Richard Nixon.
The Trump-Russia scandal, by contrast, offers an update on the old formula, much as the innovative Columbo series did in the 1970s. The offense and the perpetrator were revealed to the audience in full at the very beginning of the story. The question is not: Who did it? That answer has been known from the very start. The issue in suspense is whether the perpetrators will be held to account.
Aaron Zelinsky, who was a career prosecutor in the Department of Justice, testified on Wednesday in the House of Representatives. Reading his prepared statement, Zelinsky spoke about the Department of Justice’s handling of the case of Roger Stone, a close political associate of President Donald Trump. Back in February, Stone was convicted on seven counts of witness tampering, lying to Congress, and obstruction of a proceeding. Following federal sentencing guidelines, prosecutors requested a punishment of seven to nine years. President Trump immediately erupted in Twitter outrage. The next day, senior officials in the Department of Justice withdrew the original sentencing memo and substituted a replacement requesting a substantially lighter sentence. Zelinksy and the three other prosecutors resigned from the case.
It is no derogation of Zelinsky’s integrity and courage to note that the scandal he details was obvious the minute it happened. And so it has been at almost every turn of the story.
Democratic Party emails were hacked? By whom? The responsibility of Russian military intelligence for the hack was well documented by May 2016.
What was the purpose of the hack? That was revealed in real time, too. The emails were handed over to WikiLeaks and published in June and October of 2016.
Did Trump encourage the hacks? Yes, on live television, on July 27, 2016. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” he said.
Did Trump or his campaign offer Russia anything in return? Yes, at the very time the emails were being released, a member of his campaign team intervened to alter the Republican platform to excise pro-Ukrainian language, and Trump gave an interview to The New York Times in which he criticized NATO and said he doubted that he would defend Estonia against a Russian attack.
Did Trump or his campaign have advance knowledge of the second round of WikiLeaks dumps? Roger Stone tweeted on August 21, 2016: “Trust me, it will soon [be] John Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Phishing John Podesta was, of course, how Russian intelligence obtained the cache posted by WikiLeaks in early October.
Did Trump depend heavily on Russia? While the full story of the Trump Organization’s plan to build a tower in Moscow would not emerge until after the election, an abundance of evidence before November 2016 suggested that Russian investors had been crucial to the survival of Trump’s companies since the financial crisis of 2008. That evidence included Donald Trump Jr.’s video to investors in Moscow, in which he stated: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”
Was Roger Stone a conduit to WikiLeaks? On October 2, 2016, Stone joined Alex Jones’s radio program and said he’d been “assured” of more anti-Clinton WikiLeaks dumps to come. Just as Stone promised, one arrived on October 10.
Of course, many important details about Trump’s involvement with Russia emerged somewhat after the fact. It was not until the summer of 2017 that the country learned of Donald Trump Jr.’s June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting. He had received an email offering a meeting with a woman represented to him as an agent of the Russian prosecutor general, who would provide “official documents” that would “incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia.” (“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” he replied.) It was not until the release of the Mueller report in 2019 that Congress and the public learned that Trump’s then–campaign chair, Paul Manafort, had shared proprietary polling information with an associate linked to Russian intelligence.
Other elements of the story remain uncertain or doubtful to this day.
Was there collusion between Trump and Russia? We all witnessed the cooperation; that happened in public. Explicit and articulate coordination, however, has never been proved—and may not have been necessary to the success of the project. As the old axiom of political skulduggery goes, “Never say what the other fellow already knows.”
It has never been a mystery that Roger Stone knew things that Trump did not want him to share. “Nice to know that some people have guts,” Trump tweeted in December 2018 after Roger Stone declared he would never testify against Trump. In the months since, Trump has tweeted in support of Stone 15 times, seven of those 15 in the week during which the Department of Justice reversed itself on the Stone sentencing.
It all happened in full view.
At each stage of the Trump-Russia story, there have been Trump supporters who served the cause by trying to throw chaff in the air. They invented facially preposterous theories to distract from the attested facts.
No, it wasn’t the GRU that hacked the Democratic Party as every credible forensic computer expert agreed. It had to have been an inside job by a DNC staffer—who was later murdered, perhaps by the Clintons.
Meeting people you think are Russian agents in Trump Tower to learn whether they have incriminating information about your opponent is no big deal. All campaigns do it.
Roger Stone is just an eccentric, harmless old man gripped by delusions; pay no attention to his nonstop boasting of clandestine contact with Julian Assange.
Michael Flynn was the victim of an FBI frame-up.
These excuses do not fool anyone who is not already fooled, or not part of the team doing the fooling. But they serve the purpose of leading the public mind off the main highway and into an obscure tangle of footpaths and dead ends. Meanwhile, the once startling truth turns stale and dull. When William Barr, the attorney general, intervened in February to protect Stone, the world was astonished and shocked. Stone was the central figure in an all-consuming political scandal. He might know things that would convulse the Trump presidency, even more than the proven record already has. Stone's continued silence, on the other hand, could protect that presidency. And now the presidency was inserting itself into Stone’s case, over the objection of every single one of the lawyers who had prosecuted the case, to ensure that potentially presidency-saving protection.
Just as the Russia story happened in plain sight, this was obstruction of justice in plain sight—and it counted on its very plainness as its alibi. We all expect scandals to be clandestine. If actions are flagrant, how can they be scandalous? Yet, again and again, Trump has announced scandalous misconduct on TV, as when the president told NBC’s Lester Holt that of course he fired James Comey to shut down the Russia investigation, or boasted to a Tulsa rally crowd that he slowed coronavirus testing to reduce the number of confirmed coronavirus cases. The normal mind tends to think: People don’t casually confess to serious wrongdoing. Trump just casually confessed. So the thing he confessed must not be seriously wrong, or it must not have actually happened.
The normal mind thinks that way because it cannot readily absorb the combination of recklessness, arrogance, and cluelessness at the core of the Trump presidency. But here we are, June 24, 2020, confronted with it again: sworn congressional testimony that, yes, the attorney general overruled career prosecutors to protect a person whose testimony might implicate the president—delivered on the same day as one of Trump’s appointees to the federal appellate bench delivered an opinion overruling a trial judge, allowing the Department of Justice to protect another Trump associate from his own previous guilty pleas on charges of lying to the FBI.
Watergate produced a saying: The cover-up is worse than the crime. But what if there is no cover-up? The president is staring the country in the eye and acknowledging: “Sure I did it. I’ll do it again. And again. Because nobody’s going to stop me. Cover-ups are for losers.”