For many Robert Mueller watchers, the air these days is electric. People sense the big shoes are about to drop. Donald Trump has submitted his written answers to Mueller’s questions. Paul Manafort has entered a plea agreement, but then continued to lie—at least according to Mueller. Jerome Corsi, fringe-right author and personality, is vowing to go to jail for life rather than sign on to Mueller’s version of events. Roger Stone is expecting to be indicted for something. So is Donald Trump Jr. And, most significant of all to those looking for a big payoff, Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the timeline of a deal he was trying to make to construct a 100-story Trump-branded tower in Moscow. It turns out that the deal exploration continued past the time Trump had secured the Republican nomination, and Cohen and his associate Felix Sater, a real-estate promoter and one-time racketeer, had even discussed giving Vladimir Putin a $50 million penthouse in the building. “This is it,” people are saying. “This is the big one!”
But, with all due reverence to the deity Ganesha, why? We see the familiar cycle of hype, and there’s no use fighting it, but, once heart rates have slowed, the same old question remains: so what? Some of the news, such as a Guardian
story that Manafort met three times with Julian Assange,
seems to be based on nothing at all. But even the solid news turns out to be generally non-earth-shattering. As the journalist Aaron Maté
has been pointing out
, we already knew the timeline of Cohen’s Moscow efforts, because BuzzFeed had already detailed
them in May, painting a picture of a bumbling duo getting high on their own supply. (As for the latest revelations, did Sater and Cohen really think a president of Russia would move into a free $50 million penthouse provided by a U.S. presidential candidate? You have to wonder if they were hitting each other on the head with bricks.) Those who hope that Mueller reveals a shambolic operation with a lot of rascals engaged in sleazy and embarrassing behavior will be happy with the fruits of his labors. But those who hope for an unveiling of indictments linking Putin and Trump in a grand conspiracy have no more reason to celebrate than they did a week or a month ago.
Certainly, Trump’s ethical standards are low, but if sleaziness were a crime then many more people from our ruling class would be in jail. It is sleazy, but not criminal, to try to find out in advance what WikiLeaks has on Hillary Clinton.
It is sleazy, but not criminal, to take a meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer promising a dossier of dirt on Clinton. (Just as, it should be mentioned, it is sleazy, but not criminal, to pay a guy to go to Russia to put together a dossier of dirt on Trump. This is one reason why the Clinton campaign lied
about its connection to the Steele dossier, albeit without the disadvantage of being under oath.) It is sleazy, but not criminal, to pursue a business deal while you’re running for president. Mueller has nailed people for trying to prevaricate about their sleaze, so we already have a couple of guilty pleas over perjury, with more believed to be on the way. But the purpose of the investigation was to address suspicions of underlying conspiracy—that is, a plan by Trump staffers to get Russian help on a criminal effort. Despite countless man-hours of digging, this conspiracy theory, the one that’s been paying the bills at Maddow
for a couple of years now, has come no closer to being borne out. (Or, as the true believers would say, at least not yet.)
Partisanship is hostile to introspection, but at some point maybe we’ll look back and think again about what was unleashed in the panic over Russian influence. Trump’s White House has pursued what is arguably the harshest set of policies toward Russia since the fall of Communism—hardly something to celebrate—yet nearly all the pressure, from the center-left as much as the right, is toward making it even tougher. As for those tapping along to S.N.L. songs in praise of Mueller and his indictments, they might want to remember that Trump won’t always be in office. The weapons you create for your side today will be used by the other side against you tomorrow. Do we really want the special-counsel investigation to become a staple of presidential life? It’s a creation with few boundaries on scope and a setup that encourages the selection of a suspect followed by a search for the crime, rather than the other way around. This caused calamities in the era of Bill Clinton, and it doesn’t get any better just because the partisan dynamics are reversed.
Let’s take a moment to consider Mueller himself. The cut of his jib is likable, and the trad Brooks Brothers vibe of his wardrobe is a perfect complement to his job title. But it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that he’s playing a political game at this point. To be fair, I’m vulnerable to confirmation bias of my own in this assessment, since about a year ago I suggested that Mueller was going to drag out his investigation until 2019, when Democrats were likely to be back in charge of the House, and seeing a prediction play out can lead to unwarranted certitude. But the reports we’re starting to see suggest a man who’s fallen prey to the same state of mind that warped Ken Starr—namely disgust over the people you’re investigating and a desire to justify the sunk capital.
Our justice system gives prosecutors a frightening amount of power as it is, and nothing tempts misuse of it quite like the belief in a narrative in the face of a disappointing witness. George Papadopoulos has told people he pleaded guilty to perjury because Mueller was threatening to prosecute him as an unregistered agent of Israel. Jerome Corsi insists that Mueller was (and is) threatening him with a raft of indictments unless he signed on to an untrue story of how he came to believe (or know) that WikiLeaks had hacked the e-mails of John Podesta.
We don’t know why Mueller feels Manafort is lying to prosecutors, but we do know that Mueller is either asking him about things that have little to do with Manfort’s guilty plea, i.e. acting as an unregistered agent of Ukraine, or else asking him things that have little to do with the original purpose of Mueller’s investigation, i.e. Russian conspiracy. The former would mean Mueller was tempting Manafort, deliberately or not, to make up a story to please federal prosecutors (“not just sing,” but “also compose,” as a judge on the case warned last May). The latter would mean Mueller was getting out on tangents and allowing his investigation, Starr-style, to lapse into a shape-shifting creature with few self-imposed limits. Furthermore, solitary confinement is severe punishment, and Manafort has been in it for months. No one doubts that Manafort is a liar, and everyone knows he’s maneuvering for a presidential pardon. He should go to jail for his financial fraud. But that doesn’t mean Mueller is proceeding with a proper sense of proportion or self-restraint.
If it’s any consolation to Trump haters, we san say this much: the special counsel’s office is going to put together a hell of a report. It will have less sex than Starr’s did, but that’s for the best, and the testimony of Michael Cohen will still guarantee a lot of great scenes, many of them certain to become immortal and embarrassing. Trumpworld won’t fare well under a bright light. Like Starr, Mueller is also likely to include footnotes and selections that will hint at criminality, the things he suspects but couldn’t prove, and the most ardent believers in collusion will claim vindication. But the international conspiracies will be few, and the collateral damage of the Russia scare will be extensive, stretching far beyond Trump or his circle to the country as a whole. It might hurt a president who many Americans hate, but even the president’s most ardent foes should reflect on a question that will linger: Was it worth it?
By T.A. Frank and published in Vanity Fair
on December 2, 2018 and can be found here