Anyone who was openly skeptical that the Mueller probe would reveal Donald Trump as some kind of Russian agent was told, time and again, that the only person who could see the whole picture was Robert Mueller. Until Mueller delivered his report, we were just engaged in arrant and irresponsible speculation. As is so often the case with emotionally fraught matters, this was psychological projection on steroids.
The ending of the probe has made clear that much of the coverage and punditry surrounding Mueller’s efforts was based in wild speculation founded not on emerging facts but on desperate desire—the desire not only to connect the dots between the president and Russia but to lay out more dots along the way when there just weren’t enough dots to be connected.
Just to take one example, let us examine the detail that, on the day of the Trump Tower meeting with Kremlin-friendly Russians, Donald Trump Jr.’s cell phone was in communication with another cellphone. An entirely representative example of the way this matter was discussed was this from Philip Bump of the Washington Post:
“Trump Jr. was in contact with a blocked number for three to four minutes . . . The first question that arises is who Trump Jr. was speaking with. The obvious suspect for that blocked call is his father, Trump the candidate, whose private residence at Trump Tower has a blocked number . . . Trump was in New York at the time. Without subpoenaing records—which Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) told The Post’s Greg Sargent that the Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee refused to do — it’s impossible to know who was on the other end. But there’s another question that remains unanswered and is potentially important: Did Trump Jr. call the blocked number, or did the blocked number call him?”
Seriously? Did he call the number or did the number call him? Was the phone at Trump’s apartment, which happened to have a blocked number? Is Donald Trump Sr. the only person in America with a blocked number? Maybe the blocked number came from Donald Trump Jr.’s personal trainer, or his analyst, or a fellow hunter. Who knows?
This call was sandwiched between calls involving the guy who helped set up the Trump Tower meeting. But so what? Let’s say Donald Jr. was talking to Donald Sr. There could have been five thousand different reasons for the two men to be talking for four minutes, including, for all one knows, an exchange of dirty jokes.
The mysterious four-minute phone call—in which, apparently, the entire Trump-as-Russia-spy scandal would somehow come clear—is the perfect example of how the hunger for the conclusion controlled the way the coverage sought to direct the attention of the news consumer.
The whole business made no sense on its face. If Trump had been Putin’s catspaw, key information would not have been delivered to a roomful of Trump campaign officials in a conference room in Trump’s own building.
Remember the ludicrous Steele Dossier claimed that, by 2016, Russia had been aiding and abetting and working with Trump “for five years” and had developed blackmail material on him three years earlier. What kind of spycraft would involve having the obese British promoter of a Russian rocker set up a meeting with a whole bunch of people not including the intelligence asset in one of the most famous locations in the world to arrange the use of the most sensitive information in the world against the Democratic nominee for president?
All along the way, it must be said, Donald Trump himself made things worse. He directed his communications staff to lie about the Trump Tower meeting when the media found out about it a year later. He has persisted in speaking favorably about Putin, even as his administration has levied far more severe sanctions against Russia than its predecessor.
And, in the two biggest managerial mistakes of his presidency, he asked FBI Director James Comey to “go easy” on Michael Flynn—who was under investigation for his ties to Russia—before turning around and firing Comey. In the “if there’s smoke there’s fire” department, it was Trump generating smoke.
This could have just been a byproduct of the fact that he was entirely unprepared for his own victory and had no idea how to maneuver in a world in which he was president, not a celebrity real-estate developer. But whatever it was, it was Trump who summoned the Mueller probe upon himself, and he has paid the price for it in the form of low approval ratings and maybe the loss of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives in 2018.
But the wound was not entirely self-inflicted. The fact is Hillary Clinton’s loss was a body blow to American conventional opinion. From the moment Trump became president-elect, the theory underlying the Mueller probe developed into a comprehensive excuse for the political catastrophe Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had walked their party into.
The result was so unexpected and so devastating a rejection not only of Clinton but of the Obama years that it could not be satisfactorily explained to the losers in conventional terms; those conventional terms being that Hillary was a terrible candidate, Obama’s economic and foreign policy records were disappointing at best and calamitous at worst, liberals had gone too far in waging culture war and had triggered a powerful backlash, and the Clinton campaign had been unimaginably derelict in its resolute mishandling of the upper Midwest.
It could not have been their fault. And so it was the fault of an exogenous force—Russia, which had set vile social-media trolls to work in 2015 (against me, among many other people who received far greater abuse), sought to game Facebook to plant fake stories damaging to Hillary Clinton, and had even somehow become the Geppetto to Trump’s Pinocchio.
It was in pursuit of this narrative that Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice sought the “unmasking” of the identities of American citizens on the other ends of monitored phone calls with Russians—a violation of civil liberties that somehow not only went uncriticized by liberals, but was praised by many of them as the act of a patriotic civil servant trying to get to the bottom of an unprecedented assault on our nation.
It has been the pursuit of this narrative that has led Obama CIA director John Brennan over the past two years to make outrageous statements about the traitorousness of the president of the United States. In pursuit of attention, Brennan made horrific use of his former position as head of the U.S. intelligence community to bolster allegations of which he had not a shred of actual evidence or inside knowledge, as he has now admitted. “I don’t know if I received bad information,” the former director of the CIA confessed, “but I think I suspected there was more than there actually was.”
The only defense for Rice and Brennan’s actions was that they honestly feared a Russian asset had moved into the Oval Office. The same is true of everyone who advanced the Russia narrative not out of naked partisan or ideological hunger but because they genuinely believed it to be true. It is not true. What will they say now?