I keep hearing Trump surrogates make the factually correct point that there’s no evidence Donald Trump colluded with Russia to influence the presidential election. To which I say: So…? We’re past the point where that matters. After all, a probe into an Arkansas land deal ultimately led to a president being impeached for lying about sex.
Would it be a moral victory if something else took down this administration?
My point is simply to say that this is serious. Those who warned that a special counsel’s raison d’être is to find illegality were correct. As Garrett Graff recently wrote, “The [FBI] starts at the bottom or periphery of an organization and works inward, layer by layer, until it’s in a position to build a rock-solid case against the person at the top.”
This constrictor-like process is relentless. The latest example comes via reports that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is concerned about his son, Michael Jr. Flynn has multiple potential reasons to be worried, ranging from his failure to report lobbying for Turkey to allegations (which his attorney denies) that he was part of a scheme to forcefully remove an exiled cleric to Turkey to questions about a speech delivered in Russia to questions about a violation of the Logan Act.
Flynn’s son was his top aide, which means that he was involved in at least some of these incidents. Any parent can understand how putting the squeeze on junior might motivate dad to talk about his old boss.
But let’s return to the entirely plausible possibility (maybe even likelihood) that Donald Trump is completely innocent of the fundamental charge of collusion. There’s a theory that every white-collar American inadvertently commits three felonies a day. If that’s true for an accountant or lawyer, I would suspect it is certainly true of a billionaire casino magnate. And when that billionaire casino magnate is surrounded by people who are later indicted, have their homes raided, are likely wearing wires, and believe their children’s freedom is in jeopardy—and when that billionaire casino magnate is up against an investigator who also has subpoena power—the odds are that something is going to come out. And that something may very well have little to do with Russian collusion.
If that happens, at least part of the blame should go to Trump, who has committed the unpardonable sin of looking guilty.
Trump’s behavior—from firing then-FBI Director James Comey to threatening to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions—not only opened the door to the appointment of a special counsel, it created the impression that he was trying to hide something. This impression is irresistible to one’s adversaries. And this impression seemed to be confirmed every time some new evidence trickled out about previously undisclosed administration contact with Russia.
Trump made it easy for people who were already skeptical of him to do the math and say (a) he looks like he’s trying to hide something, and (b) we now know that his administration was lying about meetings and other things related to collusion, ergo (c) Trump must be guilty of collusion.
This is often an incorrect leap, but it still rarely ends well for the target.
The most famous example I can think of probably has to do with Saddam Hussein and the missing weapons of mass destruction. (To be sure, this is an imperfect analogy and I’m not attempting to equate Trump and Hussein—except to say that the appearance of guilt can have serious consequences.) As you’ll recall, Hussein acted dodgy and never fully cooperated with U.N. weapons inspectors. There was a perfectly rational reason for this. As the AP later reported, “Saddam Hussein allowed the world to believe he had weapons of mass destruction to deter rival Iran and did not think the United States would stage a major invasion.” It’s fair to note that George W. Bush ended up with egg on his face, but Saddam Hussein ended up dead.
The point here is that even serious professionals are susceptible to confirmation bias, especially when other clues prove them right.
Donald Trump has invited scrutiny. The special counsel is playing hardball. And this investigation appears to be at the beginning—not the end. And consider this: If Democrats can win one chamber of Congress next year, they too will have subpoena power.
One year after his election, I’m not sure Trump fully appreciates the tenuous nature of his grip.