After First Year, Mueller Probe Has Caught Manafort and Others, but No Sign Yet of Trump ‘Collusion’

One year ago—on May 17, 2017—Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein signed Order 3915-2017. To “ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” he appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller to be special counsel for the Department of Justice to inquire into “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”

Rosenstein’s decision was the right one. The context in which he made that decision ought to be remembered.

In February 2017, former Gen. Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser—he had oly been on the job for only 24 days—after it became clear that, despite public statements by administration officials to the contrary, he had privately discussed economic sanctions on Russia with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Three months later, on May 9, the new president unexpectedly fired FBI director James Comey. A week later, on May 16, the New York Times reported the existence of a memo in which Comey described Trump asking him to drop the investigation of Flynn. “I hope you can see your way to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Comey claimed Trump said to him. “He’s a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

With news that Russia had interfered with the presidential election through social media and other means, questions naturally arose about the Trump campaign’s knowledge of the Kremlin’s efforts. Much of the hysteria was no doubt inspired by the Democrats’ inability to cope with the fact that they lost the election because they chose to run a corrupt and dislikable candidate, but Russian activities in our election were aggressively seditious and demanded a response. The whole reason it was Rosenstein and not Attorney General Jeff Sessions who appointed Mueller, remember, was that Sessions had recused himself from investigations of Russian election-meddling after it became know that he had communicated with Russian officials and hadn’t disclosed this fact in his confirmation hearings. The Russians, it seemed, were everywhere.

Comey, who has since lived up to his reputation as an insufferable media hound, would later testify that he deliberately leaked his memo in order to prompt an investigation—thus exhibiting precisely the lack of judgement for which Trump ought to have fired him in January rather than May. But if it wasn’t already clear that an investigation was called for, the need for Mueller’s probe quickly became apparent. Later last May, the Washington Post revealed that just after the 2016 election Jared Kushner, the president-elect’s son-in-law, asked the Russian ambassador if officials from the incoming administration could use Russian diplomatic facilities to communicate with the Kremlin.

Then, in July, the New York Times learned that in 2016 Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and campaign manager Paul Manafort met with a woman claiming connections with Vladimir Putin because she pretended to have damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Trump’s supporters argued that this was routine campaign hardball. But these weren’t campaign lackeys meeting with scumbags wanting to pass on opposition research; they were the campaign’s top officials meeting with someone explicitly professing, falsely or not, to speak for the Kremlin. It wasn’t evidence of the Trump campaign colluding with Russia, but Trump’s top aides sure seemed open to the idea.

In August 2017, the special counsel empaneled a grand jury in Washington. Thus far he has indicted 19 people and three companies. Many of these seem to have richly deserved their comeuppance—Manafort and business partner Rick Gates for acting as agents for Kremlin-backed Ukrainian officials and for hiding vast financial assets from the IRS; 13 Russian nationals for conspiracy and/or identity theft. Others were indicted not for an underlying crime but for lying to investigators—sometime NSA chief Flynn, the otherwise unknown Trump campaign “adviser” George Papadopoulos, Gates-connected attorney Alex van der Zwaan.

What hasn’t thus far resulted from Mueller’s investigation is any indication that either Trump or significant Trump campaign officials actively colluded with the Russian government to affect the outcome of the election. The indictments have to do with “matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation” and not from “links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.”

Any investigation of this sort is bound to have its detractors, and in the present case the detractors weren’t wrong to express dismay over the revelation that one of Mueller’s staff, Peter Strzok, had in 2016 exchanged texts with a female colleague and lover about the need to ensure Hillary Clinton’s election. Very much to his credit, Mueller demoted Strzok long before the news media knew anything about his texts. But the fact that he once served on Mueller’s team, and before that investigated the Clinton email scandal, rankles a large segment of the population.

Other controversies, not originating from the Mueller investigation but bound up with it, complicate the public’s perception. In 2016, Obama administration officials repeatedly requested that the identities of Trump campaign officials be “unmasked” in classified intelligence reports, perhaps in an effort to find evidence of collusion with Russia—thus giving rise to reasonable complaints that Obama officials spied on American citizens for political ends.

Now the New York Times has published a lengthy story, generously sourced by anonymous FBI officials, about how the bureau sent agents to London in summer 2016 to investigate connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. We are, it would seem, two years into this investigation, not just one. The agents sent to London included the aforementioned Peter Strzok. The FBI, we learn furthermore, had an “informant” in the Trump campaign—someone right-wing commentators insist, not unreasonably, would better be called a “spy.”

Then, of course, there is the unhappy fact that the president of the United States routinely calls the special counsel investigation a “witch hunt.” We hotly disagree with that assessment, but investigations don’t exist in a vacuum, and the president’s characterizations are part of the reality we all must cope with. Trump expresses the opinion of many.

On the other side, liberals and progressives in America have spent the last year fantasizing about the Mueller investigation bringing down the president. Scholars as accomplished as Laurence Tribe have worked themselves into believing, despite the lessons of U.S. v. Nixon (1974) and Clinton v. Jones (1997), that Mueller can simply subpoena the president, catch him in a lie, and indict him. This is not the case, as Adam J. White and Stuart Taylor Jr. perspicaciously showed in our May 21 issue.

Special Counsel Mueller is everything we value in a public servant—honest, competent, utterly averse to partisan hackery. He has done valuable work, and—we repeat—the deputy attorney general was right to appoint him. But it has been a year of acrimony. If Donald Trump and his aides received help from the Russian government to win the election, Americans should know it and offenders should stand trial. If they did not, or if such a thing can’t be proved, Americans should be told that, too. The hour is late.

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