Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Mueller Investigation Prequel: Villains Aplenty But No Heroes To Be Found

No collusion!  No collusion!   
It is perhaps the most effective political slogan since Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it was wielded like a poison-spiked cudgel by another improbable leader who brought the world to the brink of catastrophe. 
Although Donald Trump has merely brought the United States to the brink of catastrophe (he's still working on the world), the No collusion! slogan is an all too vivid illustration of how brilliance can coexist with madness, as it did with Adolph Hitler. 
It was always going to be hard for Robert Mueller to make a prosecutable case that Trump's campaign and the candidate himself worked in tandem with Vladimir Putin's cyberwarriors, but after Trump beat the No collusion! slogan into the national consciousness anything less than the special counsel proving just that -- or criminal conspiracy in legalspeak -- would be a vindication. 
Yes, Mueller's full report and the just-as-important investigative documents, witness interviews and unredacted court records and internal Justice Department discussions, should they ever see the light of day, are likely to tell a different story.  Nothing in them will be remotely exculpatory to Trump.   
Candidate Trump and his campaign didn't need to reach out to Moscow because they already were getting help.  A link already had been established.  Then there is what went on behind the scenes as William Barr and Rod Rosenstein unilaterally opted out of charging Trump with obstruction of justice even though that bad-faith decision was not theirs to make.   
But as Trump takes a victory lap and his hand-picked attorney general foot drags on releasing the entire report to Congress, it is wise to not lose sight of the prequel to the greatest scandal in American history.        
An appropriate starting point in telling that story is August 27, 2016. 
It was on that sultry late summer day in Washington that House Majority Leader Harry Reid wrote to FBI Director James Comey to complain that the FBI was foot dragging on mounting evidence "of a direct connection between the Russian government and Donald Trump's presidential campaign." 
The letter was not just the bluster of a politician grinding his partisan ax.  It was an acknowledgment, although Reid did not begin to realize the full scope at the time, of a failure of law enforcement, intelligence gathering and government policymaking so enormous that it would result 10 weeks later in the shocking victory of an utterly unqualified billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star.  That failure still boggles the mind, and when all is said and done there will forever be an indelible stain on the otherwise noteworthy if fraught Barack Obama presidency because of it. 
There is plenty of blame to go around for these events, but the honorable Obama and perfidious Mitch McConnell -- as unlikely as that pairing of two so dramatically different men may be --  are responsible for an outsized share of the responsibility for not stopping what can be called without exaggeration the crime of the century.
The FBI, CIA and NSA were asleep at the wheel, complacent Democrats assumed Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in, and Republicans, with McConnell as drum major, were less interested in protecting the homeland than continuing to torment Obama after nearly eight years of partisan overkill.  Other players included the scruples-free Trump campaign, Facebook and Twitter executives who ranged from naïve to delusional about how Putin's cyberwarriors were playing them and unwitting voters, and a blinkered news media that never grasped the big picture.   
It was a kind of perfect storm, but in the end the buck had to stop somewhere and that was the Oval Office, which seemed only vaguely cognizant that the Russians had moved on to cyber warfare from more traditional means of espionage and spycraft to help elect Trump and advance Putin's dream of returning the former Soviet Union to its Cold War glory.   
In a story that bristles with ironies, none may be larger than the fact that despite the sophisticated Russian cyberattacks, the U.S. had the greatest arsenal of cyber weapons in 2016 and still does today. 
As it was, Trump's predecessor was relying on intelligence agencies that were woefully at sea when it came to fully comprehending the slow-motion mischief Putin was working to cybersabotage the Clinton campaign, and in doing so transforming Trump from a distant long shot to a real challenger.  
Obama had received an "eyes only" report from CIA Director John Brennan in early August 2016 that was so sensitive that he kept it out of the President's Daily Brief, limiting its distribution to only a small handful of aides. 
The explosive report was drawn from a source deep inside the Russian government that detailed Putin's direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt the presidential race.  It was followed a few days later by another report distributed to Comey, among others, that there was evidence members of the Trump campaign were collaborating with the Kremlin. Brennan had briefed Reid and a few other ranking lawmakers after alerting Obama, which prompted the majority leader's angry letter to the FBI director. 
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks was publishing a trove of tens of thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee, a flood cheered on by candidate Trump that would continue through to Election Day.
Despite the explicitness of the intelligence reports, Obama and his closest aides, and to a great extent the intelligence community itself, still failed to grasp even after three months of high-level White House meetings that the very foundation of American democracy had been assaulted.    
This failure-to-grasp continued well beyond Election Day.   
Since the 2016 debacle, the drip-drip-drip of investigations, news media blockbusters and attendant minutiae have had the effect of obscuring the enormity of what Putin wrought with an informed assist from Trump and his confederates.   
Even when the success of Putin's assault had become glaringly obvious as September 2016 rolled into October, Obama and other key players, most especially Comey, still fumbled and stumbled. 
In the end, fears among several of Obama's top aides and the lame-duck president himself that the White House would be accused of trying to influence the election, which of course is exactly what Putin did with the eager approval of Trump and key campaign aides, as well as the overconfident view that Clinton would be the walk-off winner, enabled a profoundly unqualified nut who never seriously thought he would win to wrest the keys to the national car from an eminently qualified if problematic opponent.   
Obama and his aides considered dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia in the weeks before the election.  These included cyberattacks on Russia's infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin by revealing his secret billions in stolen rubles, and sanctions so tough that Obama was told they could "crater" the Russian economy.  
While Obama's back-channel warnings to Moscow to cease and desist as the election campaign played out may have prompted it to abandon plans to escalate its attacks even further, including sabotaging U.S. voting systems, in the end Russia got off with a laughably negligible toughening of existing Obama administration-imposed sanctions in late December that when placed in the overall context of the Russia scandal was profoundly inadequate.  
This weak-kneed response -- the expulsion of a mere 35 diplomats and closure of two Russian compounds, one of which had tapped in to vital communications channels unbeknownst to the U.S. -- was an open invitation for the Kremlin to work future mischief against the world's sole remaining superpower.  And while efforts by the U.S. Cyber Command to safeguard the reporting of results from the November 2018 midterm election by briefly paralyzing the computers at an infamous Russian troll farm were successful, the jubilation and hankie wringing over the Mueller report summary, depending on one's point of view, obscures an important truth -- Trump and congressional Republicans, again led by McConnell, are deeply indifferent to preventing Russian interference in the 2020 election and beyond. 
Obama did approve the insertion of cyberweapons inside Russia's infrastructure that could be "detonated" if tensions between Washington and Moscow escalated, but that still was in the planning stages when he left office.  It should go without saying that nothing came of it after Trump assumed the presidency.     
In another irony or two, as the Russians were doing their thing the U.S. launched super-secret cyber attacks on North Korea beginning in April 2016 and on the Islamic State only days after the election.  
Obama did not exactly go it alone in confronting Russian election meddling. 
But few of the president's Democratic allies in Congress --  comfortable in their own Cold War mindsets and deeply naïve about cyber warfare -- understood the gravity of the situation.  Exceptions included Reid, Dianne Feinstein and Representative Adam Schiff, three of the Democratic members of what is colloquially known Gang of Eight, which is a legacy of the George W. Bush NSA warrantless surveillance scandal who by law are to be briefed on important intelligence matters. 
Meanwhile, Republicans with exceptions hardly worthy noting remained smugly in denial, and no one more so than McConnell, as eminent a personification of evil to slither through the halls of the Capitol in generations. 
In a lie that is extraordinarily vicious even by McConnell's own subterranean standards, he blamed Obama after the Mueller report summary was released for being responsible for a scandal he was instrumental in making much worse because of his own calculated negligence. 
(McConnell happily took a cool $2.5 million in the 2015-16 election season from Ukrainian-born billionaire Leonard "Len" Blavatnik.  The oligarch is the business partner of Oleg Deripaska, who did about $60 million worth of business with Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and controls three companies that the Trump administration has thoughtfully relieved of Obama administration-imposed sanctions.)   
The defenses of how the White House handled the crisis since Obama slipped into a too-quiet retirement are astonishingly shallow. 
"It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend," a former Obama White House official said of the months of high-level dithering after Russian interference became known.  "I feel like we sort of choked." 
Former Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough offers an ad hominem excuse, saying that the administration regarded that interference as an attack on the "heart of our system," but the first priority was "to defend the integrity of the vote." 
"Importantly, we did that," McDonough adds disingenuously since no special measures were taken to safeguard voting machines in 2016, nor did Russia attempt any Election Day mischief.  
"The punishment did not fit the crime," says Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014. "Russia violated our sovereignty, meddling in one of our most sacred acts as a democracy — electing our president. The Kremlin should have paid a much higher price for that attack."   
Would Trump have succumbed to Clinton if Obama had gone public?  Would Putin have backed off if the price had been much higher?  
In an election with a close margin overall and razor-thin margins in three key swing states where Russian social-media trolls carpet bombed voters identified -- in all likelihood by the Trump campaign -- as being vulnerable because they were soft on Clinton, the answer is probably. 
And so there would have been no nightmarish Trump presidency with nonstop shouts of No collusion!, no Mueller report and no victory lap by Putin's "useful idiot."  How different America and the world would be today.  

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.


Dan Leo said...

Thanks for another good summary, Shaun, as we resign ourselves to a full term of Trumpocracy. Or will it be two terms?

Laura in IA said...

A good summary. What are we as citizens going to do?

Shaun Mullen said...


Not let congressional Democrats and Democratic presidential candidates off the hook regarding Barr's obvious whitewash/stonewall.

Carol said...

Thanks again Shaun!

A friend just sent me this, which is kind o off topic: